In the autumn of 2005 a new bi-monthly journal was born. It is called The American Interest and it aims to provide “A Review of Policy, Politics, and Culture”. It seeks to be “an independent voice”, with “a pragmatic attitude toward policy problems”, and – despite its title – has opened its pages to voices of distinction and serious purpose from around the world. It does not want to be “the guardian of any ideology”, and it belongs clearly in the political center with voices from the moderate right and the moderate left. Its Executive Committee includes people like Francis Fukuyama and Zbigniew Brzezinsky, and its Editorial Board includes members like Samuel Huntington, Bernard-Henri Levy, Mario Vargas Llosa and others.
Among the many interesting articles in The American Interest, one that deserves particular attention (and that is freely available on its website, unlike most) is an essay with the title “Dissecting Anti-Isms” in the Summer 2006 issue. The author is Josef Joffe, the publisher-editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit, and he provides a penetrating psychological/political analysis of the long-running story of European anti-Americanism. This cultural-political phenomenon, if left unchecked, has the potential of ultimately destroying western civilization itself.
But, my real purpose here is to draw attention to another article (with a more philosophical bent) in the issue of September/October 2006, under the title “Between Relativism and Fundamentalism”. It was written by an academic sociologist, Peter L Berger, and is of relevance to an issue that was raised repeatedly in The Brussels Journal by Paul Belien, i.e. the ongoing three-way conflict in Europe between secularists, Christians, and Muslims.
THE PROCESS OF RELATIVIZATION
In the first part, Berger explains how the Enlightenment philosophy of progress led to various theories of modernization, including in the social sciences to secularization theory. While modernization has clearly undermined taken-for-granted beliefs, authority and values, there is nevertheless increasing empirical evidence that it does not necessarily secularize. Modernity has greatly increased the scope of pluralism, i.e. co-existence of different ethnic and religious groups, and accelerated its impact in many parts of the world. There are virtually no more “pristine villages with cultures untouched by the turbulent pluralism of the contemporary world”, he writes. Indeed, for growing numbers of people there is now “a veritable market of worldviews and moralities” on display.
The consequences of pluralism are many, and can be observed in different spheres of life. Increasingly people are moving from taken-for-granted allegiances to voluntary ‘associations’. In sociological jargon this process has been referred to by terms like “de-institutionalization” and “subjectivization” etc... The net effect of this ongoing transformation can be described as follows: “certainty becomes much harder to achieve”. For many people, particularly those at an early stage in the process of relativization, this change can be experienced as a great ‘liberation’. For others, it imposes a burden which they do not want to carry.
THE RESPONSE OF FUNDAMENTALISM
In the second part, Berger sees “fundamentalism” as a reaction against the aforementioned modern relativization process, i.e. as a modern phenomenon or a “neo-traditional” one (not to be confused with “tradition” itself). He defines it as “the attempt to restore or create anew a taken-for-granted body of beliefs and values”. Thus, it is not taken for granted, but rather deliberately chosen and, precisely because it is chosen, it is also fragile and inclined toward intolerance. Berger illustrates with concrete examples the difference between tradition and fundamentalism, and shows that the latter can be found in both religious as well as in secular movements. In the religious history of Europe one can find many attempts to restore a challenged taken-for-granted order and, of course, religious totalitarianism also characterizes contemporary radical Islam. But, in recent times there have also been many secular versions of fundamentalist projects, both in ambitious forms (of remaking entire societies, exemplified by various 20th century totalitarianisms) and in less ambitious forms (i.e. sectarian or sub-cultural fundamentalist projects) in enclaves within society. It always involves significant degrees of self-isolation and of thought control. Fundamentalists of whatever stripe must suppress doubts and downplay empirical observations that (in psychologists’ parlance) can create “cognitive dissonance”. Their message is “come join us, and we will give you certainty”, and there is a very large market for that message.
A NORMATIVE AGENDA
In the third part, Berger argues for a normative agenda, “a middle ground between relativism and fundamentalism”. He makes an important distinction between (a) cognitive relativism and (b) moral relativism. With regard to the former, he points to the untold damage that has been done by so-called “post-modernist theories” which deny the very possibility of objective criteria of truth or validity, and which have reduced much of the human sciences to “an un-falsifiable exercise in propaganda, or perhaps… poetry”. Concerning moral relativism, he gives examples to illustrate that “there are moral certainties that withstand relativization”. Some may find his specific concrete examples not totally convincing to fully underwrite the basic idea, but his examples do underscore the reality of fundamental human moral dilemmas, as opposed to the mindless unquestioned certainties of fundamentalists.
Berger rejects both extremes of relativism and fundamentalism, and argues that it is possible and desirable to stake out middle positions using ‘resources’ available from within the world’s major religious traditions. Diverse people can only live together in civic peace if there is a broad readiness to have ‘faith’ without laying claims to certainty.
It is interesting to apply these concepts to the ongoing culture ‘wars’ or conflicts within Western civilization, and point to differences between contemporary Europe and the United States of America. In the former, the intra-cultural conflict is clearly of a three-way character: between secularists, Christians, and Muslims. In the latter, it is more of a two-way struggle between (so-called) ‘secular progressives’ and traditional Christians.
The process of relativization has advanced rapidly in Europe, particularly in Western Europe, over the past half century. Today, it is secular ‘elites’ that dominate Europe’s media, education systems, and politics. Traditional Christianity (in its various forms) has become marginalized and largely ‘expelled’ from the public sphere and beyond. Indeed, many Christian churches and institutions themselves have not escaped the process of relativization and appear to have abandoned much of their traditional belief systems. Meanwhile, Islam has become increasingly assertive in Europe in the wake of large-scale immigration, and seems to be much more resistant to the process of relativization.
While Europeans in general seem to have eagerly embraced religious and moral doubt, at the same time they also show increasing signs of a renewed fundamentalism. This is perhaps most obvious in the case of Muslims, as illustrated by attempts at self-isolation and sectarian thought control, and in broader (and sometimes violent) attempts to put Islam itself beyond public criticism. Needless to say, in this endeavor Islam finds numerous collaborators among European secularists (including ‘Christian’ relativists) - particularly on the left of the political spectrum - who (for ideological reasons) seem to be more interested in continuing yesterday’s battles than fighting today’s battles. But, the renewed fundamentalism in Europe is not limited to Islam, and is infecting the ruling ‘elites’ of secularists as well. This is clearly illustrated, for example, by the growing list of ‘thought crimes’ being created by a number of European legislatures through criminalizing various expressions of ‘political speech’. Another example can be found in the proposed European Constitution, which is not limited to a blueprint for the organization of political power across various political organs and to the enumeration of basic individual rights, but rather attempts to put ideological goals beyond the normal ‘play’ of politics (and of the electorates) by ‘cementing’ them in the European Constitution. Still another example is the recent proposal by President Jacques Chirac to ‘elevate’ a death-penalty ban into the French Constitution. This is clearly a naked populist attempt to put contemporary prevailing opinions beyond the normal play of electoral politics. It is the fundamentalist’s legalistic way of putting his (or current prevailing) opinions as ‘certainties’ beyond potential future electoral ‘questioning’, and thus beyond ‘doubt’.
By contrast, in the USA the intra-cultural conflict is still essentially two-dimensional, between secularists and traditionalists, because Islam remains a marginal factor in American culture and politics. Perhaps a quarter or less of Americans would describe themselves as secular progressives (which in the USA, unlike in Western Europe, would not necessarily be anti-religious as such). But this ‘minority’ largely dominates the controlling ‘heights’ of the traditional media, higher education, and the civil service. The truly ‘undemocratic radical left’ is only a relatively small part of this minority. The fundamentalist temptation among secular progressives can largely be seen in areas such as (1) ‘legislating from the bench’, i.e. the abuse of judicial power by usurping traditional legislative functions, (2) blatant ideological abuse of certain ‘unbalanced’ mass media, and (3) indoctrination of young minds in a significant part of the humanities side of higher education. On the other side of the intra-cultural conflict, perhaps slightly over 30 percent of Americans consider themselves Christian ‘Evangelicals’, of which perhaps a third can be considered “fundamentalists” whose ‘certainties’ appear to be beyond doubt induced by the process of relativization in the modern world. While this fundamentalist wing of the ‘Christian Right’ does have significant political power in some (mainly smaller) states, it is politically impotent in most of the larger states and at the (continent-wide) federal level.
A careful reading of the article by Peter Berger is worth the effort. It facilitates understanding of the social and political turbulence that afflicts many cultures and countries in the underdeveloped and developing worlds today. Also, it clarifies important forces of change at work in the Western world, and the need for the moderate center to pursue a normative agenda of a non-dogmatic nature.