Olivier Roy Talks to the New Humanist about Holy Ignorance

Olivier Roy

“The more you believe the less you know – or the less you want to know [and that] is the exact definition of holy ignorance.”—Olivier Roy

The above quote comes from a recent interview with the New Humanist and Olivier Roy about his new book Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways. In the interview Roy discusses some of the book’s crucial arguments based on his exploration of a range of contemporary religious phenomena: suicidal Jihadism, the rise of charismatic preachers, the endless disputes over headscarves, cartoons and religious symbols, and the rise of the New Atheism.

Roy argues the new fundamentalisms, that are increasingly prominent in the religious landscape, practice a willed ignorance in which they “discard theology, culture and knowledge. They are based on immediate contact with the truth, be it God, Jesus, Allah or the guru. It is religion reduced to faith. So once you are full of your faith then you don’t need to know anything else.” Whereas in the past, religion was integrated with culture and became entwined with local customs and practices, now culture is considered a threat and something to be confronted. In comparing the current situation to forty years ago in places such as Catholic Ireland or Spain, Roy claims then “you did not have a cultural gap between believers and non-believers. It was a continuum. There was secular knowledge of religion, and profound knowledge amongst religious people. There was debate, of course, but there was no mutual ignorance.”

Roy suggests that globalization upended local cultures and began a process in which contemporary forms of belief no longer see religion in their culture and have removed themselves from the mainstream. This retreat has led to isolation and increasingly heated debates about the place of religion in the public sphere.

At the end of the interview, Roy is asked if he “regards religion as inevitable, an essential human trait, or a time-bound delusion?” Here’s his response:

I think that religion as reduced to faith escapes the social scientist, we cannot understand it, that is a fact. For me it is a mystery. All we can say is that some people do have a faith and others don’t. It is almost as if there are two kinds of humans. But the point is these people are human beings, and we live in the same society. When you share the same culture, faith is not so much of an issue, but common culture is disappearing or recasting itself into something different. The confrontation now is between faith and the absence of faith. We have to endeavour, as non-believers, precisely to try and understand faith.

Leave a Reply