Friday, January 8, 2010

A strange view of pluralism

In his column at the Washington Post, Michael Gerson enters into the discussion about Brit Hume's offense against liberal sensibility. The only reasonable argument I have heard or read thus far against what Hume said is that it would have been more effective and politer if privately expressed. Gerson responds to the criticisms that have been most vehemently advanced, and, in the process reminds us of certain basic truths about freedom:
.... The assumption of these criticisms is that proselytization is the antonym of tolerance. Asserting the superiority of one's religious beliefs, in this view, is not merely bad manners; it involves a kind of divisive, offensive judgmentalism.

But the American idea of religious liberty does not forbid proselytization; it presupposes it. Free, autonomous individuals not only have the right to hold whatever beliefs they wish, they also have the right to change those beliefs and to persuade others to change as well. Just as there is no political liberty without the right to change one's convictions and publicly argue for them, there is no religious liberty without the possibility of conversion and persuasion.

Proselytization, admittedly, is fraught with complications. We object to the practice when an unequal power relationship is involved — a boss pressuring an employee. We are offended by brainwashing. Coercion and trickery violate the whole idea of free religious choice based on open discussion.

But none of this was present in Hume's appeal to Woods. A semi-retired broadcaster holds no unfair advantage over a multimillionaire athlete. Hume was engaged in persuasion. ....

The root of the anger against Hume is his religious exclusivity — the belief, in Shuster's words, that "my faith is the right one." For this reason, according to Shales, Hume has "dissed about half a billion Buddhists on the planet."

But this supposed defense of other religious traditions betrays an unfamiliarity with religion itself. Religious faiths — Christian, Buddhist, Zoroastrian — generally make claims about the nature of reality that conflict with the claims of other faiths. Attacking Christian religious exclusivity is to attack nearly every vital religious tradition. It is not a scandal to believers that others hold differing beliefs. It is only a scandal to those offended by all belief. Though I am not a Buddhist or a Muslim, I am not "dissed" when a Muslim or a Buddhist advocates his views in public.

Hume's critics hold a strange view of pluralism. For religion to be tolerated, it must be privatized — not, apparently, just in governmental settings but also on television networks. We must have not only a secular state but also a secular public discourse. And so tolerance, conveniently, is defined as shutting up people with whom secularists disagree. Many commentators have been offering Woods advice in his travails. But religious advice, apparently and uniquely, should be forbidden. In a discussion of sex, morality and betrayed vows, wouldn't religious issues naturally arise? How is our public discourse improved by narrowing it — removing references to the most essential element in countless lives?

True tolerance consists in engaging deep disagreements respectfully — through persuasion — not in banning certain categories of argument and belief from public debate. .... [more]
Michael Gerson - Brit Hume's Tiger Woods remarks shine light on true intolerance - washingtonpost.com
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