The Grace of Reason

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.