Interview with William Egginton, author of In Defense of Religious Moderation

Interview with William EggintonThe following is an interview with William Egginton, author of t In Defense of Religious Moderation, and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at The Johns Hopkins University.

Question: What are everyday fundamentalisms?

William Egginton: Physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow have recently used the term "model-dependent realism" to talk about the extent to which humans can approximate knowledge of the world as it really is, independent of our senses and the media we use to grasp it. The idea is basically that different conditions require different models of reality, and there is no sense at all in talking about a model-free reality. What I call everyday fundamentalisms are those ways we have of talking or thinking about the world that presuppose access to just such a model-free reality. Since I refer to such models as "codes"—the way that linguists speak use the term code-switching to refer to our ability to adopt speech and behavior to different social circumstances—I argue that such a belief is akin to positing an all-encompassing master-code, or "code of codes." Belief in the code of codes, then, is a belief that the world as it really is in itself already exists as a kind of knowledge, independent of the ways we may come to know it. This is the basic ingredient of all fundamentalisms, religious or otherwise.

Q: What is religious moderation, and how will it defend against fundamentalism?

WE: Religious moderation is a kind of religious belief that refuses the logic of the code of codes. Moderate believers find comfort, solace, community, and pleasure in their belief systems and the practices that accompany them, without ever assuming that these beliefs represent a direct, unfettered, or in some way absolutely knowledge of the world. Moderate believers are thus perfectly capable of reciting the tenets of their own faiths without ever feeling that they are in irresolvable contradiction with other, perhaps more practical ways of understanding the world. For this very reason, not only are such forms of belief entirely compatible with scientific knowledge, they are also inherently tolerant, since moderate believers make a constant practice of reconciling apparently incompatible versions of reality. This implicit commitment to tolerance along with its suspicion of claims to ultimate knowledge make religious moderation one of the best possible defenses against fundamentalisms of all kinds, in particular the religious fundamentalisms that are so openly threatening the modern, democratic world view.

Q: How has fundamentalism infiltrated contemporary secular society?

WE: We are fundamentalists whenever we treat our knowledge not as a model or version of reality, but as reality itself. While today we tend to associate this sort of impulse with religion, one of the primary tendencies the theological traditions that accompanied the development of western culture was to undermine human claims to immediate knowledge of the world. As many scholars have noted, religious fundamentalism is really a modern phenomenon, the term itself dating to the early 20th century. But in some ways a more general fundamentalism defined as adherence to the code of codes is itself coterminous with the modern age, that is, with western culture since the dawn of the scientific revolution. The idea here is that the relative success of one particular model of reality—in which reality is pictured as an independent objective realm gradually revealed by human observation and experimentation—created the expectation that this model should apply equally in all domains of knowledge. It is for this reason that the sort of biblical literalism consistent with what we now call Christian fundamentalism could only take hold in a thoroughly modern society like our own.

Q: What is the role of faith in religious moderation?

WE: Today’s atheist critics ridicule faith as "belief without evidence." For a religious moderate, on the contrary, faith is more like "belief where there can be no evidence." Religious moderates recognize that we often stake claims to knowledge where what we in fact have are more or less justified beliefs. Faith for religious moderates is a constant reminder that human knowledge is always capable of improvement, of progress, that there is always something more, something other to know.

Q: How do you practice religious moderation in your daily life?

WE: For the most part I do not. Unlike many interventions on the side of religion in the current debate, mine quite intentionally does not presume any religious commitments. As a scholar I am mostly interested in how both religious and antireligious positions emerged from specific histories and bring with them unexamined prejudices, and my defense of moderate beliefs and practices stems from a philosophical inquiry, as opposed to the other way around. That said, as I relate in the last chapter, I am a Catholic, just not a particularly observant one.

Q: How has literature informed your work?

WE: The author who is most influential for this work is the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. As I discuss in several passages in the book, I have found in his writings a consistent cautionary tale about the excesses of certainty, and an uncanny ability to undermine the pretensions or even hopes of perfect knowledge. What I’ve learned from Borges, to put it in the simplest way possible, is that human knowledge is essentially, rather than accidentally, imperfect. What this means is that while our desire to know orients itself toward ever-greater accuracy, the goal of perfect or ultimate knowledge is self-contradictory. The fact that our brains and sensory apparatuses must synthesize impressions across space and over time, for instance, implies the necessity of a minimal difference from our objects of cognition as a condition of possibility for knowing them. But what Borges also stresses in his stories is how the very imperfectability of our knowledge endows us with a kind of will to believe. Like it or not, Borges seems to tell us, this will finds expression, and if we seek to deny it outlets in the imagination, it will find its way into our social and political life, and often at great cost.

Q: In your book you discuss different facets of fundamentalism from, "a religious zealot ready to kill those who do not adhere to his doctrine, [to] a scientist who believes that the totality of being can theoretically be known, although it is not in fact known today?" What other ways does fundamentalism interact with society and knowledge, and are there ever any benefits?

WE: I am of the opinion that fundamentalism is seldom beneficial, no matter what form it takes. While a religious fanatic can channel his fervor into good works (and many certainly have) I do not believe that fundamentalist thinking is necessary or even directly linked with such passion and commitment. As I discuss in relation to the neuroscience of belief, the way of believing that makes one a fundamentalist has more to do with those brain functions that seek closure and resist uncertainty than with the kind of passion and creativity that leads to positive change or great discoveries. Likewise, scientific progress is far more profoundly linked to creativity than to belief in the ultimate nature of the reality one is busy discovering.

Q: What is your position on the current debates about the neuroscientific view of faith?

WE: Many secular polemicists have cited recent work in the neuroscience of religion as the final evidence undermining the tenability of any religious belief whatsoever. If the phenomena of different beliefs can be shown to have distinct correlates in the electrochemistry of the brain, the argument goes, then so much for God. In fact what recent research has demonstrated is how untenable anything but a model-dependent realism is for understanding how humans interact with the world. The dependence of the brain on narrative reconstructions, values, and emotional responses for even the most neutral description and perception of reality utterly undermines the pretensions of either secularist absolutists or religious fundamentalists to having the ultimate take on what reality is. Even neuroscientific claims to undermine the human experience of freedom can be shown to be based on faulty and unexamined prejudices about the nature of free will.

Q: How do you envision a future in which religious moderation is practiced?

WE: Will religious moderation be practiced more or less in the future? In many ways the survival of societies committed to the values of tolerance, progress, and the peaceful exchange of ideas depends on the answer to that question. What I am convinced of—and this is the primary reason why I wrote this book—is that the outrage that drives my secularist colleagues to decry all religious expression as equally noxious to politics and scientific progress will ultimately do nothing to reduce the sway of fundamentalist thinking and, at worst, will do much to bolster it. Nothing has provided religious fundamentalism more fuel, more of a raison d’être, than the impression of a world war between faith and reason—a war that the current crop of atheists is intent on inciting and profiting from.

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