Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Why Religious Debate Is Important, Now More Than Ever

Two years ago, in response to movie actress Nicole Kidman's decision to leave the Church of Scientology (a popular Los Angeles-based sci-fi-oriented "self-help" cult she and now-ex Tom Cruise belonged to) and return to the Catholic Church of her youth, taking her children with her, National Review writer Arthur Stuttaford made the following astute observations in his article Scientology Chic:

....Ask most Americans, and they will tell you about their respect for the spiritual, but it is a sloppy and uninformed devotion, a pastiche piety with no intellectual force behind it, more Hallmark than holy, the perfect background for a new cult recruit. Ironically, Nicole Kidman herself provided an example of this mindset in a 1998 interview with Newsweek. Asked about her religious beliefs, the actress replied, "there is a little Buddhism, a little Scientology. I was raised Catholic, and a big part of me is still a Catholic girl."

Hand in hand with such an attitude is an unwillingness to debate the religious beliefs of others. Such debate is now believed to be insensitive at best, bigoted and hateful at worst. These days everyone is meant to be a little bit Buddhist, Catholic, Scientologist , whatever. A sappy ecumenicism is now America's civic religion, and it appears to include just about everyone (other, interestingly, than atheists and agnostics). We are taught that such supposedly inclusive tolerance is the hallmark of a tolerant society, when, in fact, it is precisely the opposite. True religious tolerance is the acceptance of the right of others to follow a different creed. In our ersatz, contemporary version, however, it is denied that there are any different creeds. Instead, we are encouraged to think that all religions are basically the same, just different routes to the same transcendental Truth.

In the name of "diversity," we try to erase difference. When it comes to religious belief, this is a country chary of controversy and anxious about argument. In the interest of fraudulent civility and soi-disant "respect" we have removed the right of the religious to disagree with each other. On the face of it, traditional religious distinctions remain, but all too often they have been trivialized and shrunk down to the superficial, reduced to a matter of folklore or ethnic heritage, nothing more consequential, say, than a choice of headgear: Yarmulke, or turban?

This is a mistake. Old-style rigorous religious debate was bruising, tough, and frequently impolite, but it served a function. Homo Sapiens is a credulous creature, ready to believe just about anything, but, fortunately, he has an innate love of argument. Controversy sharpened our great faiths and pushed them, however painfully, towards some form of intellectual coherence. More than that, it acted as a filter for the worst of the nonsense that people would otherwise be tempted to accept. Now that filter has disappeared. The more established religions are gutted, sunk into PC blandness, or, ironically, introspective fundamentalism. In their intellectual retreat they have left behind a spiritual landscape in which anything goes....

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