Address to the workshop on “Interfaith Dialogue in a Plural Society,” Simon Fraser University Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures, Vancouver, November 27, 2013.

1 Intro: some personal history

Fifty years ago this fall, my Newfoundlander parents managed to get me into the École St- Joachim, in Pointe-Claire Quebec. Once I had picked up enough French to understand what was going on, I learned many interesting things:

  • That I was a member of the one true church
  • And that many of the kids on my street weren’t
  • That the Plains of Abraham was the tragedy of our history
  • That the gentle Hurons were our friends, while the warlike Iroquois were our enemies

Apart from reading, writing, and arithmetic, I was schooled in division, the deep divisions of our past and present.

1.1 My Canada

And this is the Canada I grew up in: a Canada divided

  • Between Catholic and Protestant
  • Between French and English
  • Between first nations and the so-called founding nations

And that’s just some of the divisions

2 Multiculturalism

2.1 Puzzlement

And it was with this background that in the early 1990s I read various books attacking multiculturalism. They were a puzzle. The most influential of these, Neil Bissoondath’sSelling illusions, declared that: “multiculturalism has failed us. In eradicating the centre, in evoking uncertainty as to what and who is a Canadian, it has diminished all sense of Canadian values, of what is a Canadian” (Bissoondath 1994, 71).

So, apparently, once-upon-a-time Canadians were easily able to identify our “centre,” and agree upon what it means to be Canadian.

Given the divisions that ran through my Canada, I was baffled

  • Both by claims such as these
  • And by the fact that so many Canadians embraced the book and its narrative

2.2 Persistence

I filed my bafflement away in a drawer.

Then, early in the last decade, I decided to offer a course on multiculturalism. As I caught up on my reading, I was surprised to see that other books, and the media, were echoing Bissoondath’s types of claims.

Responses had been written to the earlier wave of critiques. Those responses, such as Will Kymlicka’s Finding our way, had had no impact on the complaints about multiculturalism.

2.3 How do they do it?

Naive fellow that I am, I wondered: How do they do it? How do the same assertions get recycled, impervious to refutation?

How can they pull off this Groundhog Day style of social criticism, in which the same complaints get recycled endlessly?

The answer, of course, is quite simple: Before a claim can be refuted, those who make it have to listen to their critics.

Or, as Polemarchus says to Socrates at the opening of the Republic:

“Could you really persuade, if we don’t listen?”

2.4 Not PC, but a simple refusal to listen

Critics of multiculturalism regularly say political correctness has “stifled debate.” What I learned in studying multiculturalism debates, on the contrary, is that what really marks our diversity debates is not constraints on speech, but constraints on ‘hearing’: a refusal to engage responsibly with opposing viewpoints.

The great economist John Maynard Keynes once complained about public policy being shaped by beliefs that “could not survive ten minutes’ rational discussion” (Essays in Persuasion, 283).

In Canada, many of the dominant beliefs concerning multiculturalism and diversity are of similar quality. Luckily for them, they don’t need to survive serious discussion, because that discussion doesn’t take place.

2.5 Universal refusal

The refusal to listen, of course, is “all-too-human,” and not limited to Canada, nor to diversity issues: “Listeners love to hear a speaker succeed in expressing as a universal truth the opinions which they hold themselves” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, par. 1395b).

As psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, we are always seeking to escape the “handcuffs” of inconvenient evidence: “when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe it?’ … In contrast, when we don’twant to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Must I believe it?’ Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must” (Haidt 2012, 84).

Since writing Multicultiphobia, I’ve been examining the problem of dialogue, and barriers to it, in other contexts.

3 The “New Atheist” debate

Around the time I began writing on multiculturalism, I was also reading various works by the so-called “new atheists”:

  • Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006);
  • Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006);
  • Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006);
  • Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007); and
  • Michel Onfray, In Defense of Atheism: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (2007).

As a Christian, my first reaction was that their depiction of religion in general and Christianity in particular was horribly one-sided.

Then I read a number of responses from those I call the “defenders,” those who have tried to answer the New Atheists, for example:

David Aikman
Theodore Beale
David Berlinski
Paul Copan
William Lane Craig
Thomas Crean
Dinesh D’Souza
Edward Feser
David Bentley Hart
John Haught
Chris Hedges
Alister McGrath
Albert Mohler
David Myers
Michael Novak
Alvin Plantinga
Keith Ward

I was just as dismayed by many of these as I was with the New Atheist writings that provoked them.

[My critical overview of the debate, After the New Atheist debate , is forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press.]

3.1 Insulting mood

Most of the debate is shaped by an insulting mood. We learn from the New Atheists that believers are infantile, stupid, dogmatic, and violent:

“dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination” (Dawkins 2006, 5-6).

Believers are “often undereducated, informed only by the crumbs of information they are fed by the clergy” (Onfray 2007, 52).

Many of the defenders respond in kind:

“Logically, the atheist must be shameless, that is, inhuman” (Crean 2007, 157).

Some even indulge in very personal attacks

Dawkins is a “supercilious old fart”; Harris is “shamelessly intellectually dishonest”; displaying “all the elegance of a drunken orangutan”; Onfray has a “superlative atheist talent for assholery”; and Hitchens is “snide, petty, self-righteous, and superficial” (Beale 2008, 68, 115, 98, 198, 178).

3.2 Aside: Agnostics

Now, we all like to be inclusive. In preparing this talk, I was worried that at this point the agnostics in the audience would be feeling excluded. I searched and searched, and all I could come up with was:

“The robust Muscular Christian haranguing us from the pulpit of my old school chapel admitted a sneaking regard for atheists. They at least had the courage of their misguided convictions. What this preacher couldn’t stand was agnostics: namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters” (Dawkins 2006, 46).

3.2.1 Comparison with multiculturalism debate

The statements you’ve just read generally come from relatively mainstream authors

Clearly, debates around belief reach a pitch rarely seen in debates concerning diversity and multiculturalism, except perhaps in far-right circles.

3.3 Hence no debate

We see an atmosphere of mutual demonization

With a few honourable exceptions, there is almost no real debate going on.

In general, we find authors writing for those who already share their beliefs

3.4 Undertone of violence

There is even a worrisome undertone of violence to the debate:

“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (Harris 2004, 52).

We are in the midst of “a war over religion, and it has been declared by leading Western atheists who have commenced hostilities” (D’Souza 2007, xv).

The “secularist” creed is “a clear and present danger to the stability of any society” (Feser 2008, xi).

3.5 Unifying assumption

During my research, however, I began to notice that the New Atheists and the defenders are divided, paradoxically, by a very problematic assumption that both camps share:

We do what we do because we believe what we believe.

3.5.1 New Atheists

Various New Atheists, for example, argue that if you want to explain the Twin Towers, all you have to do is read the Quran.

There is, in this view, a simple transmission belt running from text to beliefs, then from beliefs to action.

3.5.2 Defenders

For their part, there is a curious unanimity among the defenders concerning one key point: we have a foundation for our morality, they don’t

“the atheist denies objective morality. He may say that he prefers to educate his children rather than to torture them, but he cannot say that he has a duty to do the one and to avoid the other” (Crean 2007, 156).

“An atheist or naturalist can believe in morality — that is a psychological fact — but he cannot have a rational justification for his belief — that is a philosophical fact” (Feser 2008, 221).

Strikingly, this position is held even by liberal theologians such as John Haught:

“how can the atheist find a solid justification of ethical values?…
“If there is any truth to a theological understanding of reality, on the other hand, it can elegantly justify both the trust we have in our minds and the sense of rightness that stands behind our moral protest…
“Faith is what gives reason a future, and morality a meaning” (Haught 2008, 73-75).

3.5.3 Effect of the shared assumption

Both the New Atheist assumption of a transmission belt from text to action, and the claim that faith gives believers a solid ethical foundation not available to others, obscure just how complex are the steps by which all of us must move from personal faith and religious doctrine to actual ethical judgments

And how complex, in general, are the relations between beliefs and actions

This obscures just how much of our culture and context we bring to the task of applying beliefs, whether we want to or not.

4 Facts and values

4.1 An Affinity

Now, in writing my critique of the New Atheist debate, I was struck by a curious affinity.

Recall some previous quotes:

“the atheist denies objective morality. He may say that he prefers to educate his children rather than to torture them, but he cannot say that he has a duty to do the one and to avoid the other” (Crean 2007, 156).

“An atheist or naturalist can believe in morality — that is a psychological fact — but he cannot have a rational justification for his belief — that is a philosophical fact” (Feser 2008, 221).

These claims have a close relation to the “positivist” or “emotivist” belief that all norms and values are merely subjective preferences:

“in every case in which one would commonly be said to be making an ethical judgement, the function of the relevant ethical word is purely ’emotive.’ It is used to express feeling about certain objects, but not to make any assertion about them” (A.J. Ayer 1946, 108).

“if two men differ about values, there is not a disagreement as to any kind of truth, but a difference of taste. If one man says ‘oysters are good’ and another says ‘I think they are bad,’ we recognize that there is nothing to argue about. The theory in question holds that all differences as to values are of this sort” (Bertrand Russell rpt. 1997, 237-38).

That is, those who claim that only believers have an ethical foundation in effect embrace the emotivist claim, but grant themselves a special exemption from it.

They claim that the values of believers are grounded, while everyone else’s are just personal preferences.

4.2 Influence

Now we may be inclined to view the emotivist belief as silliness, and thus ignore it.

This is a mistake.

We must recognize that, even if it is intellectually indefensible, it is culturally influential: it is part, for example, of the standard training of many social science students today.

It’s also woven deep into our modern culture, though I don’t have the time today to demonstrate this.

4.3 Foundational pessimism

Now the emotivist view, and the modified emotivist view held by the defenders, support what I call “foundational pessimism”:

We are ultimately divided by “fundamental differences in basic values, differences about which men can ultimately only fight” (Milton Friedman 1953, 5).

“argument fails us when we come to deal with pure questions of value”; hence “we finally resort to mere abuse” (Ayer 1946, 111).

The belief, clearly, is hostile to serious ethical dialogue, which can in this view serve only to sharpen conflict.

Why embark on an attempt at mutual understanding that can never result in understanding?

The best we can do is clarify certain matters of fact that divide us, and tactfully bypass everything else.

5 Roots of the mistake?

Now, to weave together these current areas of research:

There is a certain spontaneous mistake that I believe presents one of the obstacles to dialogue and understanding in the New Atheist debate, and prevents our culture as a whole from treating ethical dialogue with the seriousness is deserves.

This spontaneous error concerns the nature of both factual and normative knowledge.

  • It is easy for us to believe that these things bottom out somewhere: That our factual knowledge is grounded in something like sense observation,
  • Or that our normative knowledge, if it has any validity at all, must be grounded in some axioms that we must dogmatically accept, such as scriptural commands or something like the utilitarians’ greatest happiness principle.

When I say this is a spontaneous belief, I mean that while it can easily be demonstrated that matters are not so simple, we will often revert back to these notions,

Using them as implicit premises for many of our actions and judgments

6 Implications for dialogue

To bring this back to the theme of this workshop:

There is a form of interreligious dialogue that follows the sort of tactic recommended by what I have termed foundational pessimism: Avoid areas of contention, and focus on the practical question: “How do we coexist without getting in each other’s way?”

When interreligious dialogue gets beyond this, when it moves into a more demanding territory,

  • talking about the shared norms by which a modern society should be guided, and, even more demanding,
  • talking about the ways in which those shared norms need to nudge our own religious beliefs,

When interreligious dialogue attempts this, it is doing something that the world desperately needs, but the world doesn’t know it needs.

Something that the world, one might even say, hates.

And to do something that the world needs yet fears, that takes courage.

Thank you.