Charlie Hebdo & Religious Diversity

Charlie Hebdo & Religious Diversity

Why religious insiders should adopt The “magnanimous outlook” towards religious outsiders. 

By Professor Robert McKim (University of Illinois)

January 7, 2016          Picture: Philippe Leroye/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s Great War Series Part II: Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Religious Violence Exclusive.

I. Some Religious Problems

 1a. Religion that fails to treat the interests of outsiders with adequate seriousness.

On March 19th 2003, the day on which the second Iraq War had started and “Shock and Awe” had just been unleashed, I was returning from work. Seeking on my car radio an update on the latest developments, I happened to fall on an evangelical Christian radio station. Hearing a mention of Iraq, I listened in, hoping to get an update.

The radio audience was being counseled to be strong and courageous in such difficult times. Then we were asked to pray for President George W. Bush. The host of the program continued in somber tones: “And in these times, we must pray for others too as well as the President.”

This encouraged me. I actually expected her to include Iraqi civilians among those for whom prayers should be offered – civilians who had no idea what was going to happen next, and most of whom had had no say at all in the selection of their leader or in the direction of Iraq’s national policy. But no. To my considerable surprise, she added: “we must also pray for the President’s wife and for his daughters.”

After some additional comments, the nature of which I don’t recall now other than that there was no mention of widening the scope of the objects of prayer, she provided a toll-free number that people could call for prayer or for help.

I needed help. As soon as I found a phone I called the number provided, and a polite and friendly chap answered. I asked him why there were no prayers for the likely innocent victims of American bombing. I observed that the President and his wife and daughters, for whom we had just been urged to pray, were extremely well protected. But American bombs were falling on Baghdad, putting innocent civilians at risk.

Surely Iraqis who might be injured or killed or bereaved or just frightened, and especially those who had no responsibility at all for the selection of their leader, are worthy of our concern. And since it is our country that is doing the bombing, and since this is a Christian radio station, is there not an obligation to pray for those people?

There was a pause. I had taken him by surprise. He said: “you think that we should add them to the list of people for whom we pray.” He was receptive to what I was saying, but a bit unsure. I continued: “some of these people are Christian, some are Muslim.” My mention of Christians in Iraq worked magic. His reply: “we pray for believers everywhere. We pray for them in Iraq, in Korea, in African countries … they are always on our mind.”

I replied: “But I am not talking just about Christians. I am talking about human beings cowering in their homes and fearing for their lives and the lives of those they love, and who have done nothing at all to deserve what is happening to them. Should they not be of concern to us, whatever their religion?”

Jason Fudge/Flickr
Jason Fudge/Flickr

After some additional conversation the man with whom I was speaking thanked me for my call and for my suggestion, which he said he would pass on. I felt then, and feel now, that I was encountering a certain type of religious problem: the failure of people with a particular religious perspective to treat with adequate seriousness the concerns and interests and woes, and so on, of religious outsiders.


1b. Religion that says that religious outsiders have something seriously wrong with them and that this accounts for their holding their views.

Here is a more serious problem. This is the idea that those who do not endorse our religious perspective and who do not practice as we practice have something seriously wrong with them. In its extreme forms others are seen as foolish or childish or laughable or even perverse or wicked.

To be sure, there is no avoiding the thought that religious others have something wrong with them. Anyone who does not endorse the home beliefs and who does not engage in the practices of the home religious community will inevitably be thought to be mistaken and to be missing something important. If we are to be consistent, there is no escaping the belief that, whatever may be our point of view, those who disagree with us are mistaken.

But what is problematic and unfortunate is the idea that what insiders consider to be the mistaken religious views of outsiders, and the failure of those outsiders to endorse the views of insiders, arise from, say, human foolishness. Especially problematic is the idea that failure to endorse one’s favored beliefs and endorsement of competing beliefs has its origin in sinfulness or perversity or wickedness or rebelliousness or laziness or stubbornness or some other such serious defect or set of defects.

The idea here has two parts: first, that religious others suffer from such serious defects as these and, second, that this is what accounts for their holding their views. When the second element is in place, it will seem to people that they may reasonably infer from the fact that someone holds the beliefs in question that that person suffers from the relevant serious defects.

In an interesting paper Imran Aijaz mentions some examples in which a failure to endorse the beliefs of insiders is traced to various serious human flaws, citing both Muslim and Christian examples. He quotes from Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who wrote in the course of explaining what Islam has to say about these matters that:

“Kufr (so-called ‘infidelity’), the heinous sin, the incomprehensibly stupid and perverse obduracy, is not unbelief but ‘refusal’. It is almost a spitting in God’s face when He speaks out of His infinite authority and vast compassion. It is man’s dramatic negative response to this spectacular divine initiative.” (Aijaz, 2013: 406) [1].

And he quotes from Toshihiko Izutsu, who writes that:

“the Koranic system reveals a very simple structure based on a clearcut distinction between Muslims and Kâfirs. All Muslims are members of the community . . . And they stand in sharp opposition to those who . . . refuse to listen seriously to Muhammad’s teaching and to believe in God.” (Aijaz, 2013: 406)

Imran also discusses the claim of the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig that:

“when a person refuses to come to Christ, it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.” (Aijaz, 2012: 406-407)

There are many variations on this theme. For example, Harold Netland, another Christian philosopher, says that at the heart of unbelief is sin. (Netland, 2001: 17-18) [2] And he says, with various qualifications, that religions other than his own are “forms of unbelief.” This is a little different in that the nonbelief of individual nonbelievers is perhaps not being traced to the sinfulness of those individuals.

Unfortunately many people who are loyal to a religious tradition that endorses a perspective that reflects extremely badly on religious outsiders seem to find it easy to go along with the “put-down” of others that is involved.

And yet how we think of others can matter profoundly. Ideas such as these can be harmful: that those who disagree with us, who say “no” to what we regard as precious and important, are sinners or second-class or have something seriously wrong with them. Especially problematic is the idea that others are wicked or perverse.

“Ideas such as these can be harmful: that those who disagree with us, who say “no” to what we regard as precious and important, are sinners or second-class or have something seriously wrong with them”.

Tensions may arise and such attitudes may exacerbate them. It happens frequently. Concern on our part about the relevant others – about, say, their welfare or their troubles or the traumas they are experiencing – may be somewhat diminished and this can have harmful consequences. Or thinking of others in such ways may make it easier to acquiesce in their not having the same opportunities and life chances as members of our group. There is no denying the distancing effect of seeing others as seriously flawed in ways that we believe ourselves not to be flawed.

Philippe Leroye/Flickr.
Philippe Leroye/Flickr.

Attitudes to religious others that put them at a distance and that involve thinking of them as not just mistaken but wicked or the like, can also make for hostility and even killing.  An extreme version would have it that since outsiders are going to hell anyway, it is no great harm to give them a nudge along the way; or since God is going to punish them, there is no great harm in our getting the process of punishment going here and now.

Yasir Qadhi asks “[how] can one treat another person with dignity knowing full well that God has damned him or her?” and he quotes these remarks from Rousseau’s Social Contract:

“It is impossible to live in peace with those one believes to be damned. To love them would be to hate God who punishes them. It is absolutely necessary either to reclaim them or to torment them.” (Qadhi, 2013: 109, 118) [3]

(However, Yasir does not himself agree with Rousseau. His view is as follows. While rejection of Islam makes one ineligible for salvation, this is so only if one has been exposed to Islam properly, and only God can judge whether or not this has occurred in the case of any particular person. Hence it is impossible to know which individuals are ineligible for salvation. Yasir does not quite put it this way but what follows is that since Muslims are not in a position to assess whether a particular person is damned, the issue of how to treat people who have been damned should not arise in practice).

In his book States of Ireland Conor Cruise O’Brien comments as follows on much of the same phenomenon, this time in the case of a conflict that mercifully is receding into the past:

“In theory Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants shared a religion of love. … You were supposed to love your neighbour, even of the ‘opposite’ religion, but as his beliefs and behaviour were obviously so offensive as to mark him out for hell-fire it didn’t seem to matter if you knocked him about a bit in this life, if only to prepare him for what was coming to him in the next.” (O’Brien, 1972: 308) [4]

It goes without saying that there is no reason at all to impute the harmful attitudes under discussion to the majority of Christians or Muslims. And even when such attitudes are present they may coexist with countervailing tendencies such as a “live and let live” attitude or a generosity that has a softening influence. Also, there is no way to measure the extent to which such attitudes, when they do occur, exacerbate tensions, diminish concern that insiders would otherwise have for outsiders, promote hostility, and so on. Yet in spite of such caveats these damaging attitudes cause harm and people suffer on account of them.


II. Some Solutions To These Religious Problems

2a. Religious Ambiguity

The proposal that what explains the fact that others disagree with us about religious matters, or that they don’t believe what we believe, is that there is something seriously wrong with them, should set off an alarm bell or two. Fortunately we have available a much better explanation of why others disagree with us about such matters.

This much better explanation is that the human situation is religiously ambiguous. What I mean by this, in brief, is that the following five conditions hold. (I pursue this topic in more detail in McKim 2012: Chapter 7.) [5] There is a significant amount of evidence for more than one religious perspective; none of the competing perspectives can be proven to be correct and the evidence does not clearly favor one perspective over the others; each group has its own evidence to which it can appeal; the evidence as a whole is diverse in its character, multifaceted, and complicated; and the evidence is so abundant that a comprehensive perspective that is developed by taking account of all of it is out of the question. Only a partial perspective is feasible, and the task of disambiguating the situation currently far exceeds our abilities.

Because of this religious ambiguity, outsiders who do not believe what we believe are not such a puzzle and it is unnecessary and unreasonable to infer that there is anything seriously wrong with them in virtue of their not believing as we believe. Ambiguity provides a way to liberate people from all such thoughts. It provides a way to disagree with others without impugning, say, their character or their motives or their attitudes. It provides a way to combine the idea that we are right with the idea that others are about as reasonable as we are even if, in our view, they are wrong. It enables us to see it as understandable that outsiders do not agree with us. And that includes outsiders who have heard what we have to say but who are not convinced, and who have therefore said “no” to what we consider most valuable. For what a recognition of ambiguity commits us to is that many positions other than our own can be rationally endorsed.

If we recognize that our situation is religiously ambiguous then even if we know little about what sustains the views of others, such as the character of their distinctive religious experiences, we should at least be aware that there must be much that sustains those views. And if we don’t know what it is, we might set out to learn something about it. Moreover, once we acknowledge the fact of religious ambiguity we can see through attempts to discredit those who disagree with us religiously by attributing serious flaws to them.


2b. Recognizing our own Deficiencies

There is a certain sort of awareness of being deficient – that is, of one’s own deficiencies – that all people with a perspective on religious matters should share. This arises in part from the vast array of relevant considerations that bear on the plausibility of the claims of the religious traditions. This includes the vast amount of relevant religious experience.

So someone who is Muslim, for example, might acknowledge that she lacks an understanding of, say, the Wesleyan idea of sanctification or of the experiences reported upon by those who believe themselves to be in this state of sanctification, assuming that she indeed lacks this understanding. Or a devout Catholic might acknowledge that she has no understanding of the Buddhist idea of a Boddhisattva, and of what it is like to live in the grip of this idea and to see oneself as playing this self-sacrificial role in the lives of others, assuming that she lacks this understanding. Or a devout Lutheran might admit that he has no understanding of Navajo religion, of its implications for how we should treat non-human animals, and of what it is like to experience the world around one, including non-human animals, while looking at things in this way. And so on. And this is just to mention some religious experiences. The vast array of relevant considerations that bear on the plausibility of the claims of the religious traditions also includes, for example, developments in cosmology and in the neurosciences that bear on the truth or the meaning of various religious claims.

There is abundant scope here for everyone to acknowledge their deficiencies. To recognize our own (in this case, entirely unavoidable and hence inculpable) limitations is far better than to find fault with outsiders. We should also recognize that laziness, stubbornness, failure to think things through, being busy with other things so that one settles for answers that seem good enough to get on with in life, and a host of other such features – some of which may be defects but some of which are understandable parts of the human situation – probably are about as widely distributed within one’s own group as they are within other groups. We are about as likely as others to exhibit such deficiencies.


2c. Others may not be suffering from any more defects than one’s co-religionists

Many perspectives on religious matters are endorsed by many people of integrity. By “people of integrity” I mean people who, at least in the ideal case, know a great deal, avoid exaggeration, admit ignorance when appropriate, have an interest in the truth, and are intelligent, serious, sincere, decent, sensible, reflective, and so on. People of this caliber can be found in many religious traditions, and indeed among those who endorse secular perspectives. Such people hold the relevant beliefs in all sincerity and endeavor to live in accordance with them. Roughly speaking, such people are no more common in any one tradition than they are in the others, and people who approximate to this ideal are similarly distributed. Or, at any rate, that outsiders are, broadly speaking, about as honest, serious, interested in the truth and so forth, as insiders is a reasonable operating assumption, a default position to be endorsed till given reason to believe otherwise. To come to these conclusions about the human religious situation (2a), about ourselves (2b), and about others (2c), will be sobering for many people. It will be to undergo something of a seismic shift in their thinking.

Marinda Landa/Flickr.
Marinda Landa/Flickr.

2d. Another reason why it is unlikely that the deficiencies of others account for their beliefs

Even if you find unconvincing everything I have said so far about where to find solutions to the religious problems with which I began with, and especially to the more serious second problem, you might be convinced by the following simple observation. In general, people acquire their religious beliefs from their family and community and the culture in which they were raised. As John Hick puts it:

“[In] some ninety-nine per cent of cases the religion which an individual professes and to which he or she adheres depends upon the accidents of birth. Someone born to Buddhist parents in Thailand is very likely to be a Buddhist, someone born to Muslim parents in Saudi Arabia to be a Muslim, someone born to Christian parents in Mexico to be a Christian, and so on”. (Hick 1989: 2) [6].

Most people believe what they have been told to believe by their family or community. Consequently it is unlikely that their being flawed or deficient in any particular respect is what accounts for a person’s believing as they do.


III. Magnanimity

So how should we look on religious others? What I characterize as the “magnanimous outlook” has a number of interconnected components. I will briefly sketch four of these.

These are, first, an exploratory and courteous approach to others and to their views. Second, there is a certain sort of curiosity about others. Curiosity involves wanting to know about, and being interested in, such others – in, say, their history, ideas, customs, relevant experiences, sacred texts, music, architecture, and languages. It also involves wanting to know what it is like to be them and to have faced the challenges they have faced. The curiosity that is part of the magnanimous outlook also involves a willingness to learn from others. It involves openness to the possibility that they may know or reasonably believe something we are unaware of so that we might be able to enrich our perspective by learning from them.

Third, this outlook involves appreciating and being happy with religious others as they are and, broadly speaking, being pleased by the idea that they will survive and flourish as they are, if they so wish, and by the thought that their distinct cultural forms will flourish and that they will retain their group identity – assuming, again, that this is their wish. It also involves an absence of any feeling that individuals who disagree with us must become like us, or must come to agree with us, or must join our ranks, in order to be acceptable or to be living well or to flourish in life or the like. Fourth this outlook involves wishing to maintain, or if necessary restore or even create, space that religious others can occupy; cultural space, certainly, but even physical space can be in short supply.

The magnanimous outlook is best understood as, in part, an ideal for which we should strive and whose appeal we should always feel. We should strive to cultivate this attitude to religious others and to promote its adoption among others. But I also think of adoption of this outlook to a considerable extent as part of a minimally decent attitude to others.

Because of its importance, we should expect the religions to endorse the magnanimous outlook – both the ideal for which we should strive and the threshold below which we should not fall. My own view is that religion that fails to live up to this expectation is second-rate, deeply flawed, and irresponsible; and it is questionable whether it deserves our loyalty.

Footnotes & References

[1] Aijaz, Imran. 2013. “Some ruminations about inculpable non-belief” Religious Studies, 49, 3, 399 – 419.

[2] Netland, Harold A. 2001. Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

[3] Qadhi, Yasir. 2013. “The Path of Allah or the Paths of Allah? Revisiting Classical and Medieval Sunni Approaches to the Salvation of Others” in Between Heaven and Hell: Islam, Salvation, and the Fate of Others edited by Mohammad Hassan Khalil. New York: Oxford University Press, 109-121.

[4] O’Brien, Conor Cruise. 1972. States of Ireland. New York: Pantheon Books.

[5] McKim, Robert. 2012. On Religious Diversity. New York: Oxford University Press.

[6] Hick, John. 1989. An Interpretation of Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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A man takes part in a demonstration against satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo, which featured a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad as the cover of its first edition since an attack by Islamist gunmen, in front of the French embassy in Sanaa January 17, 2015. The headband reads "anything but Muhammad". REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi (YEMEN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST) - RTR4LS51