Judeo-Zensufi-Hindianity, yes indeed

By Razib Khan | January 16, 2009 8:47 pm

I have a big round up of various responses to my posts on Judeo-Christianity at Secular Right. Ross Douthat responds:

Indeed, the only real problem with the term for his purposes may be that it isn’t intellectually lazy enough – that it doesn’t create an umbrella big enough for liberal-Protestantized Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists to huddle under as well. And reading his post again, maybe that’s what he’s getting at: That we need Christians and Jews to “retain their distinctiveness in at least a notional sense,” as he puts it, in order to make other faiths feel comfortable joining the liberal tent – rather than remaining outside out of fear that they’ll be swallowed in a Judeo-Christian sea. But ultimately, he does want religious distinctions to be swallowed in a Judeo-Christian (or liberal Protestant) sea: He wants us to emphasize the distinctions between Christians and Jews in the short run, because that’s the only way to de-emphasize the distinctions between Muslims and Christians or Jews and Hindus over the long run. No to Judeo-Christianity, in other words, but yes, eventually, to Judeo-Zensufi-Hindianity.

I think Ross hit the nail on the head. Unlike some New Atheists I don’t see supernatural belief declining toward triviality, therefore, I want it to be “manageable.” Additionally, unlike someone like Sam Harris I don’t view religious moderates as milquetoast gateway drugs to “authentic” fundamentalist religion. Some atheists are prone to accepting the position that fundamentalists are the most honest religionists, that they take the beliefs of their faith seriously and consistently. For various reasons I do not believe this (though I once did when I was younger). Fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist religion may both be grounded in supernatural claims, but the former is dangerous to a pluralistic society, so I naturally favor the latter. I have no theoretical problems with exclusive religious claims, and take no offense if someone believes that I am going to hell, but the social consequences of several fundamentalisms coexisting within one society is not one of amity in the long term. So yes, I want to diminish the differences to the point where there is an operational syncretism, and affiliation to specific religious traditions is one of personal preference or family tradition. I think we’re going in that direction already. The vacuous assertion common in the mainstream that one is “spiritual” and not “religious” is another sign….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion
  • http://thesciencepundit.blogspot.com The Science Pundit

    From my framework, I actually agree with both you and the New Atheists.
    I agree that faith and religion aren’t going anywhere.
    I agree that fundamentalism is the big problem.
    I’m a little torn on whether fundamentalism is “more true” to their scriptures than mainstream religion. I would tend to agree with the New Atheists in that the fundamentalists tend to actually know their scriptures better than “moderates” do. However, those scriptures–for the most part–are all vague and contradictory, so both the fundamentalists and the moderates end up cherry-picking the parts that fit their pre-existing ethos.
    I agree with the NA that faith and religion are given undue respect in our society. People can get away with things for religious reservations that they never would for philosophical reservations.
    I see the homogenization of religions and the secularization of society as two edges of the same sword (apologies for the “war” metaphor) in the fight for a more pluralistic society.
    ps–I didn’t comment on the last post because I didn’t feel that I was qualified enough. But if I had, I would have put myself in the camp that sees Christianity as a child of Hellenistic Judaism. I think that (A) the similarities between the early Christian apologists and Hellenistic Jews (such as Philo of Alexandria) and (B) the utter hatred of the pharisees by the Gospel writers supports this claim.
    But again, that’s just one perspective. Other perspectives would group things differently. This supports the idea that these classifications are largely arbitrary and political.
    Sorry for the long, boring comment.

  • http://manwhoisthursday.blogspot.com Thursday

    One thing I do think that you are missing is that because of their shared background, Jews have been easier to assimilate into Western civilization than some other religious groups, such as Muslims. Though I would agree that it matters less than genetics and material incentives in influencing behaviour, I do think the actual content of a religion can have non-trivial social effects.
    A couple posts worth pondering, when thinking about the social effects of religion:
    http://turnabout.ath.cx:8000/node/1324
    http://inductivist.blogspot.com/2008/11/belief-in-god-and-nihilism.html

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    One thing I do think that you are missing is that because of their shared background, Jews have been easier to assimilate into Western civilization than some other religious groups, such as Muslims
    this seems true on the face of it. unfortunately, we don’t have a controlled cultural experiment on this. e.g., were jews in the russian empire more assimilable than the larger numbers of turkic muslim elites who converted to christianity and become boyars? or what about the kipchak tartars who settled in hungary during the 1300s, were they less assimilable than the jews who came to hungary in subsequent centuries? or what about the case of spain? jews were expelled about a century earlier than the muslims, but in both cases it looks like the majority of jews and muslims before the expulsion had converted to christianity and assimilated. also, this brings to mind a comparison between sephardic and ashkenazi jews…were the two differently assimilable in the netherlands and england, where both were present? in hindsight, i think we can say not.

  • Urmensch

    Additionally, unlike someone like Sam Harris I don’t view religious moderates as milquetoast gateway drugs to “authentic” fundamentalist religion.

    I feel the same way, mainly because in my case I moved away from religious belief to atheism as a natural result of exploration and questioning.
    Also, taking the analogy to drugs, with religion being just one of many ways to alter consciousness, it does strike me as puritanical in a way.
    You can use drugs like alcohol, tea, coffee and I daresay the occasional joint and still maintain a certain rigour in your reasoning.
    As long as you use things in moderation what’s the harm?
    Rather than make these bold assertions regarding religion, give some evidence. Otherwise it’s just the Slippery Slope fallacy.
    Pot doesn’t necessarily lead to crack so why should a little religion lead to extremism?
    At the same time just as you shouldn’t be in charge of a vehicle while drunk or stoned you shouldn’t be in charge of a country if you’re hopped up on god.

  • Danny

    I don’t view religious moderates as milquetoast gateway drugs to “authentic” fundamentalist religion
    No, more like the other way round…
    that’s the only way to de-emphasize the distinctions between Muslims and Christians or Jews and Hindus over the long run
    About Hinduism – I’ve read Nirad Chaudhury evaluation of the Brahmo Samaj, and was impressed by the extreme precocity and radicalism of that group. It eventually declined, perhaps inevitably since its adherents still lived in a very traditional Indian society – unlike Reform Judaism, which it greatly resembles. But now that there is a largish Hindu Diaspora in the West, we can expect a strengthening of the Hindu ‘liberal’ wing?

  • toto

    One thing I do think that you are missing is that because of their shared background, Jews have been easier to assimilate into Western civilization than some other religious groups
    Say what? Pre-1800, Jews in Europe were seen as a foreign body, at least as separate from the mainstream population as European Muslims today.
    Napoleon set out to integrate the Jews into the general French population. Yet, almost one century and half later, antisemitism was still raging in France. It took the trauma of the Holocaust to complete the process by which Jews were finally assimilated into the mainstream – i.e., they were seen by the majority as a part of “us”, rather than a foreign and separate “them”.
    Muslims today play the role of the foreign “them”, embedded in, but separate from, the mainstream. The Jewish precedent indicates that this can be reversed. However, it also suggest that it may not be easy.

  • scott

    This comment likely belongs to your previous post on the subject, but it seemed that comments were turned off.
    While I agree with the problematic nature of the term “Judeo-Christianity,” particularly in the sense that it ostracizes Islam, I find your characterization of Jewish-Christian history in Europe to be overly dismissive of the part Jews played in medieval-early modern society.
    I had written a longer response to you in that vein, but I see that others have raised much of it already and that you have expressed some openness to modifying your understanding of the way Jews and Christians interacted. So only a few quick things:
    1. Beyond Maimonides, you ought to look more deeply at the transmission of Greek and Arabic science and philosophy through Jews in the Tibbonite translation centers in 12th century Provence. The process of translating from Arabic to Hebrew and Latin involved close interaction between Jews and Christians and had a significant impact on European Christian thought. I think that can be recognized without excluding the similar importance of Byzantine influence in Italy.
    2. The ghetto (a period and geographically specific development) and what it says about Jewish-Christian interaction can be overstated. Its doors were open in the day and it was far from impermeable. An instructive example of this is the life and works of Leon Modena, a Venetian-Jew. Mark R. Cohen has an English translation of his autobiography with useful introductory essays and historical notes.
    3. Similarly I think you are too quick to exclude converted Jews from the fold, a trend also found in certain nationalist modes of Jewish history. I’d argue that their stories are by their nature both Christian and Jewish and that dismissing them from Jewish history post-conversion misses a big part of the picture. But beyond that, there are arguments to be made that the history of New Christians, conversos, and re-constituted Jews in the early-modern period had an important impact on understandings of religion and identity. These groups at the very least had an economic and cultural impact on western society.

  • Ross

    “The vacuous assertion common in the mainstream that one is “spiritual” and not “religious” is another sign….”
    I can’t recall who said that “spiritual but not religious” translates as “I’m scared of dying but can’t be bothered to go to church” but it’s about right.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    scott, i would rank order the strength of your claims:
    3 > 1 > 2
    in fact, #3 is not a trivial one at all. though again, it is arguable the extent that conversos or those in close interaction with the converso milieu (spinoza counts) effected european civilization in a necessary manner (that is if they weren’t around, would it be different?). additionally, the how jewish were conversos in terms of their sensibilities? did they bring aspects of the jewish cultural outlook into their new christian culture? again, arguable. #1 can be subject to some of the same critique, i.e., were the jews of spain necessary for the transmission, or just sufficient, or perhaps amplifiers of an unerlying dynamic? the answer changes your perception of influence.
    as for #2, again, my biological analogy. i think jews were very influenced by christians. i don’t think that christians were that influenced by jews. it is a function of numbers.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    But now that there is a largish Hindu Diaspora in the West, we can expect a strengthening of the Hindu ‘liberal’ wing?
    in guayana, trinidad and mauritius the neo-traditionalist arya samaj is much more influential. google it, because i think arya samaj is hard to peg into a progressive vs. traditionalist spectrum (this is to some extent true of hindutva reform movements in general).

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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