How to Modernize Religious Traditions

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Excerpt (without footnotes) from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 4: Moral and Political Secularism

Is Hermeneutics the Only Way to Modernize Traditions?

As I said, although in former times and in some parts of the world the only way to modernize religious traditions was by means of “interpretation,” this is no longer the case in the liberal democracies and open societies of the twenty-first century where freedom of speech is protected by law. In those countries it is possible to advocate moral autonomy as the most honest and appropriate way to evaluate religious traditions. But can such an approach ever be acceptable for religious believers? Do we not in fact require them to become atheists?

This is always the bugbear for the “moderate” or “liberal” believers: what you require of people is to relinquish their faith. We all have to become “atheists”; and is it not a bit unrealistic to expect that?

My answer is that the adoption of moral autonomy and the rejection of the authority of Scripture does not make us all atheists. Moral autonomy and the rejection of divine command ethics are possible within the framework of a religious worldview. Or rather: we can reject some elements of the theistic worldview (whether in its Jewish, Christian, or Islamic variant) and retain others.

Let us first look at Islam. What makes a Muslim? One possible answer would be: a Muslim is someone who subscribes to the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars of Islam is the term given to the five duties incumbent on every Muslim. These duties are Shahadah (profession of faith), Salah (ritual prayer), Zakat (almsgiving), Sawm (fasting during Ramadan) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). Analytical philosopher René Marres correctly states that whoever is critical of some elements of the Islamic tradition does not necessarily have to oppose all the five pillars of Islam. Most people who are e.g. critical of sharia law or some elements of Islamic tradition do not oppose almsgiving or fasting during Ramadan. Politically correct commentators usually react with disproportional vehemence when even the slightest criticism of some element of Islamic doctrine is voiced. They want to make us believe that “Islam is under Siege” when the slightest criticism is voiced or Muslims are “discriminated against” if they are contradicted. In fact, it is possible to criticize elements of a religious tradition without rejecting everything. The main criticism of theism that is voiced in The Secular Outlook concerns the metaethical foundation of the theistic religions. I have worked this out with particular reference to Christianity. But that does not mean, as I hope to make clear in the following pages, that all the teachings of Christ or all the social work of the church must be rejected. One can even be critical about divine command ethics (the metaethical doctrine of theism) and still consider oneself a Christian. We find this, for instance, in the work of the Most Reverend Richard F. Holloway (1933 – ), a Scottish writer, broadcaster and retired Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church.

In 1999 Holloway published a book under the title Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics, in which he advocated what is, in The Secular Outlook, presented as the secularist position. Holloway writes: “One of the intentions behind this book is to … explore the possibility of a new moral ecumenism that would unite people on the basis of an agreed human ethic.” As I have shown in this chapter, such an agreed-upon human ethic is unlikely to flourish on a specific religious basis, at least not in a pluralistic or religiously divided society. So Holloway advises us not to treat the Bible as a book of law for all generations and he sides with moral philosopher John Harris (1945 – ) who said that for a moral judgment to be respectable it must have something to say about exactly why a supposed wrong action is wrongful. “If it fails to meet this test it is a preference and not a moral judgment at all.”

Holloway also rejects the divine command morality. “We no longer live in command societies in which we instinctively obey orders from above, wherever above is thought to be. For better or for worse, we live in an age in which justifications have to be offered for moral restraints upon individuals.” Command moralities may exercise a nostalgic appeal in a time of confusion, but should not guide us any longer, says Holloway, in a way that harmonizes well with the results of the Milgram research and Kohlberg’s ideas on moral education, both dealt with earlier in this Chapter.

As can be expected, Holloway’s approach has important implications for the justification of morality. “Saying that an act is wrong, because it is forbidden by God, is not sufficient unless we can also justify it on moral grounds.” And, like all the other philosophers I have presented in The Secular Outlook, Holloway also refers to the example of Abraham. Holloway writes: “there are passages in the Bible where God orders the performance of acts of great wickedness in order to test the obedience of his children. The most extreme test is found in Genesis chapter 22, where Abraham’s obedience is tested by God in a particularly cruel way.”

It may be true that this narrative is a remnant from a time when human sacrifice was practiced, but, so Holloway contends, “this kind of historical approach dilutes its religious value by trying to account for the offence that is the very point of the story.” The story seems to celebrate the type of conscience that wants to be commanded to perform extreme acts of obedience by an absolute authority. This is also what is meant by sinful behavior. Sin is not only committing what is forbidden, but also refusing what is commanded by God. “The power of the concept lies in the unthinking nature of the obedience that is demanded.”

What makes Holloway’s contribution to the debate important is that here we see an unmistakably religious thinker who nonetheless demonstrates an unequivocal commitment to moral autonomy. What this makes clear is that people who consider themselves serious believers can be moral secularists as well.

Holloway stands in the Christian tradition, of course. But in the other theistic traditions there are also currents and thinkers who have favored moral autonomy within a theistic world picture. An example from the Jewish tradition is Saadia ben Joseph (882 – 942).

Saadia was born in the village Dilaz in Upper Egypt. After a life of study and travel he was appointed Gaon (an illustrious rabbi) at the academy of Sura (an important institute of learning at that time). He achieved renown as an accomplished Talmudist, commentator, grammarian and educator in all fields of knowledge. He also translated most of the Bible into Arabic. Saadia’s classical work was The Book of Doctrine and Beliefs. Here he proves himself to be an expert in the Islamic kalam (theology) and falasifa (Aristotelian philosophy).

Saadia was a firm believer in the supremacy of reason, which also included the moral sense. God’s ways and his revelation, so Saadia teaches his pupils, are in accordance with reason. This is not the case because God defines reason and justice, but rather because God, completely free, acts and reveals himself in accordance with absolute standards of reason and justice. As Norman Solomon (1933 – ), fellow in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, remarks in his introduction to Judaism, paraphrasing the ideas of Saadia, “God does what is rational or just because it is a priori rational or just; it is not rational or just because God does it.”

The most important thinker from the Muslim tradition favoring moral autonomy is Averroes (1126 – 1198) or in Arabic Ibn Rushd. Although contested during his lifetime, he was important for the formation of Muslim identity. One of the most important questions that Averroes addresses is: in what sense can Muslim philosophy respect the autonomy of ethics? That is: a morality that is not founded in the will of God as manifested in revelation? Are there moorings for the position taken by Socrates in the Euthyphro that morally good is not identical with “willed by God”? Contrary to common opinion, the position that the ethical has some independent status apart from the religious has a base in Muslim thought.

As Ernest Renan describes in his well-known treatise Averroès et l’averroïsme [Averroes and Averroism] (1852) this topic arose in connection to “les motecallemîn” [the Motecallemin]. This sect was convinced that the good and the right are nothing other than what God wants (the position taken by Euthyphro in Euthyphro). And – in harmony with the position of heteronomy – God’s will is directed at certain things not because these things are inherently valuable (that would undermine the divine will as the last point of reference for goodness), but solely because he “wills them.” In the words of Renan: the Motecallemin contended that the good is what God wants, and God does not want something because of an intrinsic reason that is anterior to his will. The Motecallemin even deemed God as not subject to logical laws. This system, Renan comments, was very consistent in itself, but for obvious reasons something that Averroes wanted to undermine. For Averroes it was clear that once this perspective was adopted, it would undermine the whole system of ethics and all notions of rightness and fairness.

The fact that these traditions, i.e. those presented in the work of Holloway, Saadi, and Averroes are also present in the history of theism seems to me a promising fact. There is a lot of talk about the revision of religious traditions. Usually the suggestion is made that what distinguishes “fundamentalists” from “moderate” or “liberal” believers is that the first category are “literalists” while those in the latter category know that we cannot take scripture literally. Proponents of that point of view are Tariq Ramadan in Islam and Karen Armstrong in Christianity. But, as we have seen as a result of our discussion of the ideas of Ramadan in Chapter 2 and those of Karen Armstrong in the present chapter, the problem is not “literalism.” Scripture contains several passages that clearly incite violence. The idea that only “interpretation” can help us out is a myth. This myth is nonetheless clearly shared and cherished by many people, and both Ramadan and Armstrong are very popular and influential in upholding that myth. Everywhere governments and important politicians try to assure us that there is nothing wrong with believing in the authority of revealed scripture. The only thing that counts is how we interpret revelation, so they say. And because revelation can be interpreted in accordance with ordinary law (for instance the penal law), the constitution of the land, and human rights declarations, so many people presuppose unquestioningly, there is nothing wrong with the notion of scriptural authority. The only thing we have to do is: educate semantic relativists, viz. people who will proclaim that Scripture can mean what we want it to mean. We all have to become religious Humpty Dumptians. We all have to adhere to the position that there is – in the words of Ramadan – no “religion per se.” Or rather: that “religion per se” is anything we want it to be.

But, as my analysis of the work of Ramadan and Armstrong has made clear (at least, this is my sincere hope), this view could well be too optimistic. The arguments of “extremists” or “fundamentalists” – that we cannot manipulate the text in every direction we think desirable – are strong. What the “moderates” fail to see is that what makes “extremists” extreme is not their theory of interpretation but something else. It is the so-called “moderate” who is theoretically extreme. The claim that scripture can constantly send completely different messages to different times and cultures (the theory of interpretation championed by Armstrong and countless others) is theoretically extreme and misconceived.

What makes “extremists” “extreme” is not their theory of interpretation, but their adherence to the notion of scriptural authority. It is the idea that we can base our conscience and moral evaluation on Scripture that is the source of the problem. What we have to stimulate is moral autonomy, or rather the human capacity to take autonomous moral decisions. That does not make those decisions arbitrary. On the contrary. Those decisions have to be made on the basis of moral principles and rules. But the rules that are being applied are moral rules, not religious rules derived from Scripture.

That should not necessarily make Scripture meaningless as a “source of inspiration.” And, contrary to what is often proclaimed, no moral secularist will contend that religious believers should abandon their religious books as “sources of inspiration.” What the moral secularist claims is that ultimately what we derive from Scripture must be based on moral grounds that are in themselves not dependent on Scripture. Morality is the basis for religion, not vice versa.

That does not make moral secularists necessarily “atheists” in the derogatory sense of the word described in Chapter 1. Richard Holloway is not an atheist. Immanuel Kant was no atheist either. Even Voltaire was not an atheist. One can be a committed believer and subscribe to moral secularism. Can one also be a “theist” and subscribe to moral secularism?

I think there is some tension there. The idea of an all-powerful, perfectly good moral legislator for this world seems difficult to reconcile with the notion of moral autonomy, as Eduard von Hartmann and Jean-Paul Sartre have made clear (see Atheist Values in Chapter 1).

In particular with regard to Islam a whole debate has developed around the question of what variety of this important religion should be cherished in order to prevent radicalization and extremism. So there is a debate about what kind of Islam should be developed or stimulated. Bassam Tibi (1944 – ) spoke of a “European Islam.” That debate has gained momentum as a result of some notorious cases such as the murder of Theo van Gogh, the cartoons affair, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and the reactions to the Pope’s speech in Regensburg. This has even raised doubts about the question of whether Islam can be reconciled with democratic values. Should not Islam be revised? And how is that to be done? And no less important: who will do this?

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

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