The sort of ‘postmodern’ acknowledgement of religious diversity and its attempt to nullify the potentially deadly consequences of the inherent disagreements seems to me to be completely backwards. The idea is that all the different faiths, especially the monotheisms, are really talking about the same things in different ways – that the content of their belief is fundamentally the same and it is the form this belief which differs. It is certainly a useful fiction for curbing the worst excesses of religious violence, but one is inclined to wonder whether it is applying a plaster where an amputation might be more prudent.
It should already give us pause for thought that what I am about to say next would outrage, or at least cause discomfort to, a great many tolerant, liberal people: the major monotheisms are not talking about the same thing and are, at their core, fundamentally irreconcilable. A world in which there was no friction between religions would be a world in which the constituent beliefs were empty or nearly so. They differ at the level of content.
On the other hand one can argue that the form of religious belief is indeed common. As I have indicated in an earlier post on David Hume, the usual form of religious belief is one whose primary feature is a willingness to take seriously ancient written testimony of miraculous events. The content of the belief will be dependent on which of the holy texts one chooses to take seriously. Although such experiments are obviously impossible, it would be very enlightening if one could go back in time and transfer one of the faithful at birth to a different family of a different religious confession and see if the form of belief would latch onto different contents in a different environment.
My mental response to the fact that the majority of people adopt the religion of their parents is one of bemusement.
Simon Blackburn has given a brief treatment of the status of religious belief. It may be the case that religious moderates do not treat their beliefs in the same way they treat other beliefs. At the most mild end they might be merely a set of useful stories which help ground a series of community traditions and practices and help keep families and societies cohesive. The fact remains though that there are a great many people who take every letter of a particular religious text as the literal word of God. I have a great deal of sympathy for these people since it cannot be denied that they have been brought up in an environment with these traditions and practices which tell them that ‘these stories are really, really true’ but then paradoxically expects them to return to their secular lives, rather than taking the logical step of treating their religion as the most important – perhaps the only important – thing in their life. If they are not ‘really, really true’ then the wrong thing is being preached.
The liberal postmodern wants to allow the flourishing of the moderates on the basis that they are looking at the same thing from different angles. A more appropriate analogy would be that they are looking in opposite directions from the same point. It is because of the wildly different contents of religious beliefs that a pluralistic harmony is impossible in a society which includes literalists of differing faiths. And it is because of the ambiguous approach of moderates to their ‘beliefs’ that such literalists are bound to emerge within multicultural nations. The liberal, postmodern vision turns out to be strikingly utopian.