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The Grace of Reason

David Eller

I attended the gathering at the Colorado Muslim Society Islamic Center on September 21, 2001. There were hundreds of people of every race and religion (and at least one person of no religion) present to show their support. But support of what exactly? Surely not Islam as such; people of other faiths may tolerate alternate religions, but they definitely do not advocate them. Surely not the oneness that some guests spoke of; we are not one but many. And surely not the love that some guests spoke of; it is impossible and dishonest to claim love for people you don't even know.

Most of the crowd seemed mild and liberal. But the values of liberalism--individualism, tolerance, and true justice--are not the values of faith. Religions, all religions, are extremely ambivalent about love and justice, and they are perfectly clear about individualism and tolerance in that they reject both. No religion preaches pure love, and none preaches pure hate. Islam does in fact contain admonitions to fight the wicked or the infidel, as does Christianity and every other belief system. All religions restrict their offers of love and peace to members of the believing community, not to outsiders. And all religions are quite explicit that toleration of other beliefs (and non-beliefs) is not to be suffered; no religion teaches that it is okay to believe in some other god or to believe in no god at all. They also do not leave morality up to individual conscience; there is always absolute right and wrong.

Yet my fellow Americans seemed committed to tolerance, individuality, and the extension of compassion beyond their own sect. How is this? The answer is that the religions of the world are not so different, but the people of the world are. Christianity is just as fertile a field for fanatics as any; cultish groups like the Branch Davidians as well as mainstream authorities like Falwell and Robertson are proof of this fact. What is different about American civilization, and Western civilization in general, is that they tend not to take their religion as seriously, passionately, and literally as others. They even willfully overlook the less palatable parts.

So it cannot be religion that makes America unique and great. It must be some other current in our culture. That current is reason. It is Western civilization that attempted most energetically and effectively to chart a course of reason, which serves to restrain and dilute the inherently authoritarian, intolerant, and judgmental elements in its religion. It is reason that reveals that love and hate are equally human traits and appropriate in their time; it does not try to idolize or reify one or the other. It is reason that recognizes, in a pluralistic world, that tolerance is a necessary corollary to social existence. It is reason that says it is wrong to inflict more damage than is necessary but that it is sometimes necessary to inflict some damage.

When I watched white, brown, black, and yellow people applaud Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists, I knew that reason is stronger than religion. And when I heard Jerry Falwell blame the tragedy on America's humanism, secularism, freedom and diversity -- sounding every bit like an Ayatollah, a Hussein, a bin Laden--I knew that there but for the grace of reason go we.


  Atheism, Islam

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