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Berger on the symbiosis of relativism and fundamentalism

with 4 comments

Peter Berger has a long paper in The American Interest on the need to locate and defend a middle ground between relativism and fundamentalism, to resist the pressure of these two forces to sabotage the efforts of people of goodwill to seek moral and philosophical agreement. Berger is the director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University. He is also the author of many books on sociology and religious studies, including the popular introductory texts Invitation to Sociology and The Social Construction of Reality, although he is one of the minority of scholars in those fields being of a non-left orientation.

I will indicate how some of the points in his paper can be illuminated by Bill Bartley’s work on rationality and the limits of criticism and the authoritarian structure of western thought. Berger suggested that it may be possible to gain a better understanding of the situation without necesarily knowing what to do about it. That is a pessimistic view because usually if we get a better understanding of a process we can indeed do something about it, even if it takes a long time to convince people to do so. He wrote “reason has a mottled track record” but the message from Bartley is that our theories of reason have themselves been radically defective and so they are a part of the problem. If this argument holds up then we may indeed be onto something very important. These ideas from Bartley have been available for about forty years but they have not made much progress. Still, what is forty years on a geological timescale!

Berger wrote  

For reasons that may not be immediately obvious, relativism and fundamentalism as cultural forces are closely interlinked. This is not only because one can morph and, more often than may be appreciated does morph, into the other: In every relativist there is a fundamentalist about to be born, and in every fundamentalist there is a relativist waiting to be liberated. More basically, it is because both relativism and fundamentalism are products of the same process of modernization; indeed, both are intrinsically modern phenomena, and both pose a serious challenge to any modern society that intends to be civil. Relativism is bad for civility because it precludes the moral condemnation of virtually anything at all. Fundamentalism is bad for civility because it produces irresolvable conflict with those who do not share its beliefs. And both are bad for any hope of arriving at valid normative conclusions by means of rational discourse, the relativism because there is no will to such a discourse, and fundamentalism because there is no way to it. Consequently, it is important for both political and intellectual reasons to stake out a middle ground between the two extremes. What follows is an attempt, by means of a sociological analysis, to show how the two phenomena are related.

One of the puzzling phenomena that Berger noted is the way that the process of post-Enlightenment modernisation did not lead to the decline of religion that was expected by secular humanists and rationalists. To the contrary, he reported that since the 1970s the contemporary world has been the scene of “enormous explosions of religous passion”.

Globalization, pluralism and relativism

He described the way that relatively isolated, tribal societies had to cope with the impact of other cultures as the barriers of geography and mobility were overcome, resulting in the highly mixed societies of today, especially in the west. Globalization has put practically everyone in touch with practically everyone else, or at least every other race, religion and culture. One hopes that the result of this process is pluralism.

Pluralism is a situation in which different ethnic or religious groups co-exist under conditions of civic peace and interact with each other socially. The latter phrase is important: There are situations in which groups live side by side peacefully, but have nothing to do with one another—the traditional Indian caste system being a good example. Such barriers to interaction prevent “cognitive contamination” (a phrase I invented in an earlier fit of terminological enthusiasm), which happens when the beliefs and values of others undermine the taken-for-granted status of one’s own.

Out of pluralism comes relativism, both in the institutions that evolve to cater for diverse values and tastes, and in the consciousness of people. All kinds of efforts can be made resist the process, some of them in the private domain of the family or clan, some in larger groups of particular faiths and sects, some driven by the state when it tries to impose uniformity of beliefs and values by means of coercion. The process has profound consequences for individual life.

As ever-wider areas of life lose their taken-for-granted norms, the individual must reflect upon and make choices among the alternatives that have become available. Indeed, modernization can be described as a gigantic shift in the human condition from one of fate to one of choice. In recent social philosophy this shift has been elegantly described by Arnold Gehlen in his two key categories of “de-institutionalization” and “subjectivization.” De-institutionalization refers to the process wherein traditional institutional programs for individual behavior are fragmented—where previously there was one taken-for-granted program for, say, raising children, there now are competing schools of childhood education. Subjectivization refers to the process wherein institutions lose their alleged objective status so that the individual is thrown back upon himself in constructing his own “patchwork” of meanings and norms.

This is the process that Popper addressed under the heading of “the strain of civilisation” as settled tribal patterns of life were replaced to some extent by open societies where people are confronted with options. It would have added a degree of depth to Berger’s account to have made a reference to Popper’s work because there is much to be found in The Open Society and its Enemies to support the argument and the actions that Berger is promoting. To some extent Berger is reinventing a wheel and it seems that it is not just in the philosophy of science where Popper’s ideas have been slighted by people who should have been explaining them and passing them on to the community at large.

The salient question that arises for the pluralist society is this: what is the minimum set of common standards that are required for peaceful coexistence in a society of multiple faiths of many different kinds – religous, political, cultural? My own answer to that question is along the lines of classical or non-socialist liberalism with the various pillars of free trade (and diverse other freedoms), under the rule of law and due process, with property rights and a sound moral framework that  can be found to a large extent in several of the major religions. That cluster of principles offers the prospect of a world of peace, freedom and plenty for people of good will who value those things.

But what of people who value other things more than peace and freedom – such as the purity of the faith? This brings us to what Berger described as the most extreme form of resistance to relativism, that is is the “Fundamentalist Response”.

Like “pluralism”, the term “fundamentalism” is not a very fortunate one, though for different reasons. First, it has acquired a pejorative quality, and that is never a good thing if one wants to understand an empirical phenomenon. (After one has understood it, of course, one can be as pejorative as one wishes). Second, it comes from an episode in the history of early 20th-century American Protestantism where it has very specific meanings, and meanings that are misleading when applied to movements unrelated to that history. Again, though, one may as well go with common usage, but again with a more precise definition: Fundamentalism is the attempt to restore or create anew a taken-for-granted body of beliefs and values. In other words, fundamentalism is always reactive, and what it reacts against is precisely the aforementioned relativization process.

He argues, surprisingly, that fundamentalism is intrinsically a modern phenomenon, in contrast with Popper’s view that the attempt to recreate the lost unity of the tribe can be traced back through history to the very dawn of  civilisation as we know it in ancient Greece. This shorter perspective has the benefit of hooking up to Bartley’s work on rationality and belief which began with his study of the crisis of Christian faith that was precipitated by modern biblical scholarship. However it has the limitation that it distracts attention from the way that Plato’s support of tribalism (in his later works) has planted the seeds of fundamentalism at the very heart of western thought (recall Whitehead’s the description of western philosohy as a series of footnotes to Plato).

To restate the argument: The fundamentalist project is the restoration, or the creation de novo, of a taken-for-granted definition of reality in the wake of relativization. This project can be realized in two ways, one more ambitious than the other. The more ambitious version is to make an entire society the basis of a newly taken-for-granted cognitive and normative order. This is what modern totalitarianism sought to achieve….There is a less ambitious, and somewhat more realizable, version of the fundamentalist project. That is to realize it not in an entire society, but in an enclave within that society. This could be called the sectarian or subcultural version of fundamentalism. Within the enclaved community, a taken-for-granted worldview is established—the rest of society is, as it were, abandoned to its path to perdition.

He noted that none of the totalitarian efforts of the twentieth century achieved lasting success although North Korea has managed to stay on track, at great cost the the population. Similarly, efforts to set up enclaves have proved unstable as well, but, like the totalitarians, they can do a great deal of damage both to insiders and to outsiders who are perceived as  mortal enemies.

Berger concludes with a  normative agenda to articulate a middle ground between relativism and fundamentalism. This will disappoint secular humanists, whether atheistic or agnostic, because he wants to have a religiously founded  middle ground.

My own interest has been mainly in the religious aspect of the relativist-fundamentalist dichotomy. My presupposition, again, is that both extremes are unacceptable: the relativist view that finally all religions are equally true (quite apart from theology, a philosophically untenable view); and the aggressive and intolerant fundamentalist claim to absolute truth (which even a modest acquaintance with historical scholarship about religion makes very hard to maintain). It is possible and desirable to stake out middle positions that use the resources available from within the major religious traditions. The traditions coming out of southern and eastern Asia—notably Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism—have never had much difficulty doing this theoretically (but which, by the way, did not stop them from being savagely intolerant in practice from time to time). The Abrahamic traditions emerging out of western Asia—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—have had greater difficulties. Monotheism does not easily develop an ethos of tolerance, especially when it is institutionalized and literally armed within the context of a state. Yet resources for such an ethos can be found in each tradition. What is more, modern ideas of human rights, including religious liberty, are historically rooted in the anthropological ideas of these traditions and, in recent times, have been explicitly legitimated by these ideas (as, for example, in the unfolding of Catholic social doctrine since the Second Vatican Council). 

Why is such a religiously founded middle ground important? First, of course, for the obvious reason that so much contemporary fundamentalism has religious content (and not only among Muslims): One cannot oppose it without confronting its religious claims. The middle ground is thus politically important as a defense against the highly destructive potential of religious fanaticism. But this middle ground is also important for intellectual and spiritual reasons. It can be the location of those who want to be religious believers without emigrating from modernity.

This stance may be required as an expedient to cater for societies such as the US where there a a large majority of people who claim adherence to some religious faith – serious adherence that is, not just the notional C of E that many of us have on official documents long after we have ever attended a service apart from marriages and funerals. It may also be waste of time to undertake the task that Dawkins and others have set themeslves, to rubbish religious belief to such an extent that is goes away and hides. There may be another line of march and this has emerged from Bartley’s work on the crisis of Protestant belief.

Protestantism and the crisis of modenity

Berger wrote:

Protestantism, as Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch showed in the early 20th century, has had a special relationship with modernity. Its long struggle with the spirit of modernity cannot be replicated in other traditions, but it nevertheless holds lessons for the latter. One is the readiness to have faith without laying claim to certainty—from the sola fide of the Lutheran Reformation to Paul Tillich’s “Protestant principle.” Another lesson is the importance of coming to terms with modern historical scholarship. Protestantism was the first religious tradition that turned the critical instrument of this scholarship on its own scriptures—an historically unprecedented event, most of it carried on in 19th-century theological institutions by individuals who did not want to undermine faith but, on the contrary, wanted to strengthen it by showing its historical development.

This is the cue for Bartley to come on stage and describe what happened when Christian scholars began to cast doubt on the historical Jesus. This post is too long so I will do another one to tell Bartley’s tale and describe the revised version of rationality that emerged from it. Impatient people can read this piece for a preview. It may help to skip from the beginning to the part about midway through where the story of Bartley’s work on Protestantism begins.



Written by Admin

November 16, 2006 at 2:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the link and the summary, Rafe. Berger is an excellent social theorist and well worth listening to.

    Mark Bahnisch

    November 16, 2006 at 3:03 pm

  2. Nice post.


    November 16, 2006 at 11:45 pm

  3. I’m glad I managed to eke out enough time to read this — it was well worth it.

    As an atheistic Zen Buddhist, I think if we have to pick a religion on which to found a middle ground, it should be Zen Buddhism.

    On the other hand, it won’t really solve the problem as suggested above, since one of its key ideas is that nothing is as it seems or absolute…


    November 17, 2006 at 3:58 am

  4. I read the article a few days ago, and found it illuminating. Thanks rafe for making it more illuminating by your commentary.

    Rococo Liberal

    November 17, 2006 at 7:11 am

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