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Saskia Wendel {*}

Resolution on Extremists for Believers

Small Polemic Against Fundamentalist Unbelievers


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 7/2008, p. 359-364
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The so-called "new atheists' criticize that religious beliefs are not only unreasonable and unscientific but have in the end also a potential for violence and are therefore immoral resp. politically dangerous. But you cannot counter that position with indignation alone. There is rather needed the reflection about what religious beliefs are.


"Who believes is a potential perpetrator of violence!" Who rightly regards that sentence as sweeping judgement, even as fallacy, must nevertheless take note of the fact that sweeping statements of that kind have now apparently become socially acceptable. For the opinion that believers are potentially prone to violence is in an attenuated, dressed up form a central thesis of authors whose books in the meantime decorate the bestseller lists and are reviewed and discussed in literary articles.

So for instance the "new atheists" Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens criticize that religious beliefs are not only unreasonable and unscientific, but are ultimately also prone to violence and therefore immoral and politically dangerous. According to Dawkins and Co. every religious man sits already on the slide into fundamentalism, precisely because he is religious and declares his belief in religious convictions.

According to that position every believer then is, strictly speaking, already by virtue of his religious conviction a potential terrorist and thus a threat to plural societies - a position which is not explicitly formulated in this way by the "new atheists" but which is the logical consequence of the thesis that religions are per se prone to violence and therefore politically dangerous. For religious beliefs are thus ultimately understood as a form of totalitarian ideologies which then must be fought in order to be able to guarantee the inner and outer peace.

Admittedly, then the fundamental right of religious freedom would be questioned, but with reference to the danger connected with religious beliefs you could quite reasonably take the view that there can be "no freedom for the enemies of freedom": Then in the name of freedom freedom of religion had to be limited or even completely abolished; in the fight against terrorism religion itself had ultimately to be fought and to be prohibited. And then you could certainly get the idea you had to introduce a new resolution on extremists in order to protect freedom.



That consequence may seem ridiculous or exaggerated, but nonetheless it would be a legitimate position if religious beliefs were per se already beliefs which, by virtue of their claim to absolute authority, are prone to violence and therefore to be classified as politically dangerous. And even those who shrink from this consequence could still have the opinion that religions have at least a latent tendency to violence and must therefore be subjected to constant criticism, even better to control. According to that position the sentence "Who believes is a potential perpetrator of violence!" then appears no longer that absurd, even if it is not explicitly formulated in this way by the current religious critics - perhaps from inhibitions to draw the last consequence out of one's criticism. That is surprising, because otherwise they are not just over-scrupulous with regard to religion and faith.


Religious Beliefs Need Rational Justification

The radical critique of the "new atheists" is only the tip of the iceberg. The conviction is widespread that religion and violence may are siblings and religious beliefs as such already contain the seeds of violence, although not everyone who shares that conviction would already approve the sentence that every believer is a potential perpetrator of violence.

For liberal believers, but also for liberal unbelievers to whom the generalizing suspicion of believers is as much a thorn in the flesh as the ideologically motivated condemnation of non-believers, it is a big challenge that religions are in that way put under general suspicion - from the relatively harmless variant asking about the tendency to violence of religious beliefs up to the radical position of abolishing religious freedom in the name of freedom.

You can meet those positions with indignation and try to return the accusation of totalitarianism by a "You too" argument to the spirited fighters against religion. Or you can point to the paradox that one wants to limit freedom in the name of freedom. But with indignation or hints that you by raising reproaches of totalitarianism simply behave in a totalitarian way, the accusation that religions have always been containing the seed of violence cannot be met. It rather requires the reflection about what religious beliefs are, why those who have religious beliefs rightly claim the universal validity of those beliefs, and what is the significance of such claims to universal validity in pluralistic societies.

Religious convictions refer to the contents of religious traditions and are thus part of religions resp. religious systems. Thus, for example, in the Christian creed the central religious beliefs are summarized, which determine the Christian faith and at the same time distinguish it from other religious traditions with their respective beliefs. With regard to those convictions those who are followers of a certain religion raise the claim to universal validity, because they refer to "final thoughts", i.e. to thoughts which concern the way and interpretation of man's life as a whole, and that means the way and interpretation of all people's lives, irrespective of where, when, how they live.

Religious beliefs require, just for the reason that they raise the claim to universal validity, a rational justification, otherwise there is a danger that they are used only by referring to the authority of a religious tradition to which the respective beliefs belong, or by referring to the authority of those who hand down, guard and preserve the tradition. But the arguments from tradition and authority are always the weakest arguments when it is about the justification of claims to validity. Those who represent the religious beliefs, and thus also raise the claim to universal validity of the content by which the conviction is determined, are therefore forced to provide good reasons which can justify the approval of that conviction and of the claim to validity connected with it.

Who represents religious beliefs does not only formulate an emotional state but a confession from the reality of which and its relation to reality he or she is convinced. Followers of monotheistic religions, for instance, are convinced of God's existence, and Christians of the real event of God's self-revelation in a concrete historical person with the name Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, in their approval to specific religious beliefs believers bind themselves to the existence of what they believe.



Religion, however, never occurs in the singular; a "religion per se" or a universal religion does not exist, on the contrary, religion exists only in the diversity of different religions with their respective contents resp. traditions and corresponding religious beliefs. If, however, religious beliefs refer to the contents of that religion the part of which they are, and if religion de facto always occurs in the plural, that is in the diversity and difference of concrete religions practised by people, then there are as many different religious beliefs as religions.


Religious Beliefs as a Form of Faith

When the claim to universal validity is connected with the commitment to religious beliefs, then in the plurality of religious beliefs there exist as many claims to universal validity of those beliefs which in their plural occurrence compete with each other. The reason is, just because religious beliefs are connected with universal claims to validity they cannot be indifferent to those who represent them. Who raises a religious conviction and at the same time maintains that it is equally valid as another religious conviction - a conviction which possibly contradicts his own one - gets caught up in a self-contradiction regarding his own conviction.

That's why the respective claims to validity as well as the contents which are connected with them get in conflict with each other resp. in competition with each other. The followers of concrete religions argue about the validity of the convictions of the respective religions, which they define and thus also distinguish from each other, and they cannot but argue about it, when they really take their respective beliefs, their respective confession seriously.

Does that struggle for the validity of each individual position already imply the tendency to discredit the respective other position as "untrue" and then also as "illegal"? Does the dispute on "true faith" necessarily lead to the distinction between friend and enemy, followers of the orthodox faith and persons of a different faith, yes of believers and unbelievers and then ultimately to the use of force in order to "save the souls"? That fallacy can be avoided when you on the one hand analyse the form of recognition underlying religious beliefs, regardless of the individual faiths content. On the other hand it has to be considered that and how in pluralistic societies universal claims to validity can be raised without violence.

It is often assumed that religious beliefs refer to facts which can be "known", and accordingly these beliefs are assessed as true or false. But that understanding of religious beliefs as a form of "knowledge" is problematic, for it means a relapse behind Immanuel Kant's critique of metaphysics in "The Critique of Pure Reason": The contents to which religious beliefs refer cannot be known; they are no part of the theoretical reason, for they are no objects of a possible experience to which knowledge refers. Thus, they are in theoretical terms neither true nor false. They are nevertheless not irrational or the result of mere thinking or even mere wanting, nor are they solely the expression of subjective feeling, for they can be assigned to the form of knowledge "believe".

In everyday language "believe" means less certainty than "know" and is in close proximity to "think". But from that weak understanding of "believe" a strong concept of belief can be distinguished, in the sense of "firmly convinced that", "be sure that". But when "believe" means to be convinced, then it must be stressed that 'convinced' is not a momentary act but a fundamental disposition, i.e. a lasting one.

That 'being convinced', which differs from knowledge, is determined by the attitude of confidence. Faith has to be called an act of confidence and recognition, an original understanding in the sense of a basic-trust which even precedes one's being convinced by concrete facts. For this "being convinced of something" is based on the basic-trust that convictions are not per se illusory; it is therefore based on the confidence that it is not senseless and unreasonable to be convinced by something.

Accordingly, "believe" means not only faith in the sense of a faith in certain facts but a faith in the meaning of an act of confidence and of relying on something resp. in general an act of trust which can connect itself with the faith in facts. That understanding of faith is in turn connected to an attitude of binding oneself, of getting hold on something or someone - an attitude which is traditionally called "religio".


Faith as Confidence is Neither Irrational Decision nor Blind Conviction

"Faith" as the attitude of confidence is therefore the foundation of "believe" in the sense of 'being convinced of something', hence also of concrete religious beliefs. Who has a religious conviction and represents it puts thus his trust in something, binds himself to something that cannot be known but precisely believed. Faith as confidence, however, has neither to be understood as irrational or arbitrary decision, as a mere jump across the abyss of reason or as sacrifice of one's mind, nor as a blind, uncritical conviction.



For on the one hand "believe" is a form of recognition, and thus it is part, not the opposite of reason. On the other hand, religious beliefs are beliefs which like all convictions are intended for justification, even if they - in contrast to convictions out of knowledge - can never be proved. Every procedure of demonstrating, every form of "knowledge by proofs" is ruled out. But also religious beliefs must be reasonable and rationally justified; otherwise they would be arbitrary and random.

But that rational justification follows the form of recognition "believe", according to Kant's request, "I must, therefore, abolish knowledge, to make room for belief." If you continue to follow the Kantian perspective, then you will have to class the religious beliefs as belonging to what is called by Kant "belief of practical reason" resp. "moral belief" and thus to the field of practical reason. But then the way of life is in the centre, the action and thus the aspect of the normative correctness and truthfulness, of things that are in a practical sense right and wrong, just and unjust, good and bad.

The question of truth regarding religious beliefs stands therefore under the sign of practice. According to the Kantian guideline religious beliefs also try to give answers to the question "What can I hope?", but not answers to the question "What can I know?", not even primarily to the question "What am I to do?", in case the question of 'what can we hope' follows the question 'what are we to do or to refrain from'. In that context the interpretation of "believe" as confidence is widened by the aspect of hope, but that hope differs from merely irrational wishes, because it is based on rationally justified reasons of 'practical reason'.


No Compelling Certainty of the Contents of Faith of the Validity of which one is Convinced

That definition of religious beliefs and their justification as a form of "believe", their classification as belonging to the field of practical reason and - associated with it - the connection of religious beliefs with an attitude of hope can now explain why the representing of religious beliefs is not necessarily violent. For when it is with religious beliefs not about "knowing", then they have not the security and certainty which is connected with knowledge, and therefore they can materially be determined also in multiple, even conflicting ways.

Anyone who does not "know" but "believe" has therefore not a compelling certainty regarding the religious contents of the validity of which he is nevertheless convinced. Therefore only those sit on the slide into fundamentalism who mistake "believe" for "know" and then connect their own religious beliefs with excessive claims as regards recognition. That "metaphysical obtaining by false pretences" (Kant) of alleged certainties tempts to take up absolute positions and, consequently, to distinguish between "true" and "false" religions. From there it is then no long way to distinguish between friend (belonging to one's own religion) and enemy (the supporters of the "false" religion), and then also to the respective violent practices.


Claims to Universal Validity of Religious Convictions in the Plurality of Religions

Not only the raising of excessive claims to knowledge in matters of faith is fundamentalist, but also the refusal rationally to justify at all one's own beliefs. The claim to absolute certainty is then, paradoxically, coupled with the refusal to give reasons for the raising of that claim, resp. to justify one's own religious beliefs by arguments. The faithful therefore slip into fundamentalism on two ways: on the one hand on the path of making excessive demands on knowledge, on the other hand on the path of making to little demands to reason's ability to justify one's beliefs.

When religious beliefs follow the form of recognition "believe" then that means not at all that they are not connected with claims to universal validity. Religious convictions too can be entitled to universal validity, because it is not about convictions which are based on a mere subjective thinking, pure persuasion or convention. But, as it has already been stated, religious beliefs occur in the plural - according to the plurality of religions. Thus different claims to validity compete with each other.

That competition will not lead to violence when those who raise the claims are aware that their beliefs are not based on "know" but on "believe". For then it is possible to recognize that the respective other position also holds its convictions on the basis of "believe". At the same time those who know about the difference between knowledge and belief regarding religious convictions recognize that everybody who holds religious beliefs does it inevitably with the claim to universal validity, precisely because it is about religious beliefs. To recognise their claim to validity does not necessarily mean to acknowledge the beliefs themselves. Just here the productive competition of different religious beliefs has its origin.



Although all religions are equal in terms of their claim to knowledge based on the form of knowledge "believe" and regarding the legitimacy of their claim to universal validity, seen from the perspective of a certain religion they are nevertheless not equally valid as far as their material contents are concerned. That presupposes, however, the acknowledgement of one's vis-à-vis as equal partner with whom can be argued at eye level about the "true faith". That dispute, by the way, includes the possibility that those who are arguing can learn from each other, possibly even revise their own positions and convictions or take over other positions, in case they are compatible with one's own conviction.

That has implications for the much-discussed dialogue of religions. For a real, well-founded dialogue between religions happens when you on the one hand recognize the dignity of every religion as expression of "believe" - what excludes a fundamentalist exclusivism, and when you on the other hand at the same time acknowledge the difference and competition among religions, which is given due to their claim to universal validity. But that excludes also a religious pluralism which is in danger to slip down into arbitrariness, because in its plead for equal validity of all religious beliefs it does not really take the difference of the contents of religions seriously but recognizes the fundamental plurality of religions.

That dialogue has to be held as a discourse, that is as a rational justification of competing religious convictions. In the debate, however, the power of the better or stronger argument decides, not the law of the jungle. That requires, however, the recognition of a principle which exactly there becomes noticeable where it is about the dispute on beliefs with claims to universal validity referring to the field of "believe": the principle of tolerance. Those who are tolerant towards other beliefs do not share these beliefs but acknowledge the legitimacy to represent those beliefs and to give them claims to validity.

The principle of tolerance obeys therefore the relationship of mutual recognition of the respective claims to the validity of convictions and of those who raise them, and with it also the principle of formal equality becomes noticeable - not only of different religious convictions but also of those who represent those convictions. Both, the principle of tolerance and the principle of equality belong to the foundations of the democratic state founded on the rule of law.



Tolerance is necessary towards all those who recognize the dignity of dissenters too and thus represent and confess their convictions without violence - by the way, the right to religious freedom means nothing else.

But those who intend to put through their religious beliefs by force disregard the dignity of people of a different faith resp. of non-believers, disregard their right publicly to represent their own beliefs. Then not the content of religious convictions proves to be the problem but the attitude of those who represent them or more precisely, who on the one hand confuse faith and knowledge and on the other hand are unable to recognize the on principle formal equality of the claims to validity connected with those beliefs as well as the inviolable dignity of those who have convictions.

Not religion in itself is then the problem but the inability to connect a religious position with the recognition of the fundamental principles of modernism and thus with the modern democratic state founded on the rule of law - that position is commonly called fundamentalist. All followers of totalitarian ideologies have that problem, not just religious fundamentalists.

At that point, however, the "You too" argument takes effect again against the self-appointed 'new atheists', because in their general suspicion against the religions they get on exactly that fundamentalist slide on which they place all believers; and that just simply because they contravene in the name of modernity against its basic principles: against the recognition of subjectivity and freedom of each person, against the recognition of the tolerance principle, against the recognition of the principle of formal equality also of beliefs which to a few people may appear to be not sound. They therefore prove to be, as it were, fundamentalist unbelievers who indict, however, the faithful alone - and them without exception - of fundamentalism. But there the old saying is relevant, "Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."


    {*} The theologian and philosopher Saskia Wendel (born in 1964) gained her doctorate and habilitation in Münster. Since October 2007 she is Fellow at the Max Weber College of the University of Erfurt, from 2003 to 2006 Professor of Systematic Philosophy with a focus on metaphysics and philosophy of religion at the Theological Faculty and the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Tilburg, Netherlands, from 2005 to 2006 additional appointment as professor of fundamental theology.


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