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«Beyond Tolerance: Globalization, Freedom, and Religious Pluralism Douglas W. Shrader1 Distinguished Teaching Professor & Chair of Philosophy SUNY ...»

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Humanity at the Turning Point: Rethinking Nature, Culture and Freedom (Sonja Servomaa, editor).

Helsinki, Finland: Renvall Institute for Area and Cultural Studies, 2006.

Beyond Tolerance:

Globalization, Freedom, and Religious Pluralism

Douglas W. Shrader1

Distinguished Teaching Professor

& Chair of Philosophy

SUNY Oneonta

Oneonta, NY

Abstract: If “Globalization” is to mean something other than imposing a single set of uniform,

unexamined, and unchallengeable ideas on the entire human race, we must find ways to incorporate concepts of difference, freedom, and religious pluralism. If we are to build a truly human and humane global community, we must rethink (i) human nature (especially as regards the age-old search for spiritual values and religious truths), (ii) the complex and often murky relationship between religion and culture, and (iii) competing, confusing, or ill-defined concepts of tolerance, diversity, and freedom.

Because Globalization is often driven by economic engines that are blind to these considerations and values, we stand at a unique turning point in human history. Unchecked and unguided, this powerful but sightless form of Globalization threatens to eliminate religious and cultural practices of “less developed” countries. A rich history that stretches hundreds or thousands of years into the past may be wiped out in a single generation. For some, it is already too late. To

avoid further cultural erosion of this sort, we must guard against two natural human inclinations:

(i) religious conversion (converting the residents of “less developed” countries to the religions of the rich and powerful), and (ii) reinterpreting traditional practices of one culture in terms of concepts and categories characteristic of a different (more familiar) religion/culture.

Acknowledging the need for principles of difference, freedom, and religious pluralism is the easy part. The hard part consists of two tasks: (i) deciding the specifics of those principles and (ii) formulating an effective plan that will lead to widespread adoption and practice without stifling difference and disagreement in the process. As a step in what I believe to be the right direction, this presentation proceeds from a series of reflections drawn from Classical Greece and Rome to an analysis and comparison of three very different models of religious tolerance and pluralism: those exemplified in India, Classical China, and the United States. Special consideration is given not only to the strengths and merits of the various models, but to their assumptions, liabilities, and drawbacks as well.

1 The issues that form the core of this paper are complex and controversial; to some, they may even seem intractable. Because a truly lasting solution requires consideration and discussion in a wide variety of international venues, this paper – even in its published form – represents a work-in-progress. Earlier versions have been presented at the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations in St.

Petersburg, Russia: “St. Petersburg in the Dialogue of Civilizations and Cultures of East and West” (September 2003), the East-West Center International Conference in Tokyo, Japan: “New Challenges For Building An Asia Pacific Community” (August 2004), and the Sixth World Congress of the International Society for Universal Dialogue in Helsinki, Finland: “Humanity At The Turning Point: Rethinking Nature, Culture, And Freedom” (July 2005). The author is grateful for the insights and perspectives offered by participants in each of those venues. Presentations in Russia and Japan were supported in part by a Faculty Development Award. Sincere appreciation is extended to SUNY Oneonta, especially Provost F. Daniel Larkin and Dean Michael Merilan.

–  –  –

One of Plato’s early dialogues recounts a conversation between Socrates and a religious authority of the time, a priest named “Euthyphro”. Set in the days immediately preceding Socrates’ trial, the encounter is presented as fortuitous, but ultimately frustrating and fruitless. Socrates has been charged with impiety and corrupting the youth. Claiming that he knows only that he knows nothing – that he himself is aware only of his own ignorance – Socrates seeks Euthyphro’s advice concerning the nature of piety. Despite a pressing schedule and Socrates’ reputation for being difficult, Euthyphro agrees to the exchange. After all: who better than a priest of the temple to provide instruction in such matters? If Socrates sincerely desires to learn about proper religious behavior, observance, and belief, he will be better prepared to defend himself against the charge of impiety or, as the case may be, to recognize the error of his ways and throw himself on the mercy of the court as a reformed sinner.

Euthyphro’s first suggestion is a simple one: use me as a role model; do as I do. The recommendation is not without merit, for there is much to be learned by following the example of others (especially those whom we believe to be more knowledgeable than ourselves). At an immediate, practical level, the advice may even have sufficed to help Socrates beat the charges that had been leveled against him. Even so, he complains that Euthyphro will have at best provided some instances or examples of pious behavior, but no definition or universal description of piety itself.





Providing a satisfactory universal characterization of the proper religious attitude proves far more vexing than Euthyphro might initially have imagined. He sets forth and attempts to defend the fairly obvious idea that piety is a matter of pleasing the gods: of doing the things that they love and avoiding the things that they abhor. However, as Socrates is quick to observe, Greece was polytheistic. The society demanded allegiance to a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses with different personalities, different likes and dislikes, and different demands on the human race. What pleased one god was sure to displease another. The problem, for a philosopher such as Socrates, was not simply a pragmatic or practical matter of deciding which god was more powerful or which was more likely to grant him favor or cause him distress. Granting both of Euthyphro’s premises (first, that piety is a matter of pleasing the gods and, second, that there are multiple gods who are not all of one mind) produces the unacceptable conclusion that some things may be both pious (because they please some gods) and impious (because they displease others).

Given such a scenario, a charge of impiety becomes virtually unavoidable: no matter what one does, one is sure to lose.

Fast forward to the present day. The demands of the global community on its citizens are more complex, less clear, and arguably less reasonable than the ones with which Socrates struggled 2400 years ago. The gods and goddess of Mount Olympus were, in a very real sense, related to one another. They acknowledged one another’s existence and accepted (even if somewhat begrudgingly) a recognizable distribution of power and authority.

Compared to the often bloody and inflexible relationships between competing religions in our global community, they were an exceptionally cordial bunch.

-2Douglas W. Shrader If Socrates were to meet Euthyphro on the streets of a modern metropolis, what would the ensuing conversation look like? Would an ecclesiastic of the 21st century better understand the philosopher's search for universal answers? Would he (or she) be able to provide a more satisfactory definition or characterization of the holy? Finally, would the advice of a modern-day Euthyphro facilitate an effective response to charges of impiety and corrupting the youth: charges such as those brought against Socrates by Meletus, charges that are still leveled against those who dare to explore ideas contrary to established social and religious expectation?

If “Globalization” is to mean something other than imposing a single set of uniform, unexamined, and unchallengeable ideas on the entire human race, we must find ways to incorporate concepts of difference, freedom, and religious pluralism. If we are to build a truly human and humane global community, we must rethink (i) human nature (especially as regards the age-old search for spiritual values and religious truths), (ii) the complex and often murky relationship between religion and culture, and (iii) competing, confusing, or ill-defined concepts of tolerance, diversity, and freedom.

Because Globalization is often driven by economic engines that are blind to these considerations and values, we stand at a unique turning point in human history.

Unchecked and unguided, this powerful but sightless form of Globalization threatens to eliminate religious and cultural practices of “less developed” countries. A rich history that stretches hundreds or thousands of years into the past may be wiped out in a single generation. For some, it is already too late. To avoid further cultural erosion of this sort, we must guard against two natural human inclinations: (i) religious conversion (converting the residents of “less developed” countries to the religions of the rich and powerful), and (ii) reinterpreting traditional practices of one culture in terms of concepts and categories characteristic of a different (more familiar) religion/culture.

Acknowledging the need for principles of tolerance and religious pluralism is the easy part. The hard part consists of two interconnected tasks. The first, which is the primary focus of this presentation, is to identify and clarify principles to help create a global community that is both inclusive and pluralistic. The second task, without which the first becomes a mere intellectual exercise, is to formulate an effective plan that will lead to widespread adoption and practice without stifling difference and disagreement in the process.

Although the history of organized religion is replete with examples of conflict, oppression, and forced conversion, it is also a history in which people have struggled honestly and openly with religious and cultural differences. In the process, they have created at least three different models of tolerance and pluralism. Despite obvious and sometimes profound differences between the three approaches, our best hope for a healthy and harmonious global community will be a set of policies and attitudes that draws liberally from each of the three models. Each has strengths as well as weaknesses, costs as well as benefits. If we can resist the temptation, characteristic of the Western Philosophical Tradition, to believe that we must choose one candidate over the others – if

-3Beyond Tolerance we can cultivate a global dialogue in which proponents of all three models have a voice – then we will also stand a good chance of creating a global community in which adherents of different religious and spiritual traditions can live peacefully with one another, listening to and learning from people whose heritage, beliefs, and practices differ radically from their own.

Separation of Church and State

We begin with a candidate that is most clearly exemplified by the United States: namely,

separation of church and state. The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Partially because the language is so terse, the amendment has been interpreted in various and sundry ways. Although the vast majority of citizens are Christians, there is no official state religion. When the system works in the way in which it is envisioned by many of its proponents, people are free to worship as they please (or not): without having to meet in secrecy, without intrusive regulation or control, and without fear of repercussions or reprisals from the powers that be. By the same token, the first amendment is generally read in such a way as to prohibit governmental action or policy that would provide preferential treatment for individuals or groups of individuals on the basis of religious conviction or affiliation. In short, the amendment drives a legislative wedge between secular and sacred, between holy and profane, and between piety and politics.

Even in the United States, the principle is not without critics. Many belong to religious groups who regard the separation as not only impractical, but contrary to their fundamental religious precepts. In an intriguing application of first amendment principles, they argue that a forced separation between church and state violates their religious freedom. While most objections of this sort have come from right wing Christian groups, many religions would agree with the general structure of the argument, provided of course that one substitutes their teachings for those of Christianity.

Confronted by the obvious impasse, looking down the barrel of an argument that threatened to undo the religious freedom principle on which it is based, most Americans have agreed to an uneasy truce. It is, to be sure, a form of religious tolerance, but tolerance of only the most base and basic kind: we agree to live and let live, not because we find value in alternative religious traditions or spiritual practices, but because we fear the imposition of other “foreign” traditions and practices more than we object to the fact that our own beliefs and values have not been adopted by the entire society.

A second group of critics charge that the American system is a sham and that the Christians who object to a supposed separation of church and state simply have not taken a cold, hard, honest look at the political and social realities. Our currency, while bearing the portraits of Washington, Lincoln, and other political leaders, is emblazoned with the phrase “In God we trust”. The words “one nation, under God” were added to the pledge of allegiance during the Cold War to distinguish the righteous citizens of America from



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