Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Is There a Middle Ground?

Washington, D.C.

Peter Berger, an eminent sociologist of religion and a lifelong Lutheran, asked himself several years ago: “Would my moral convictions change if I woke up tomorrow as an atheist?” For Berger, this perplexing question led to a research project involving fellow Judeo-Christian religious thinkers, which will culminate in the publication of two books, one later this year. One of Berger’s central concerns was finding a middle ground in religious belief between fundamentalism on the one hand and relativism on the other.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life invited Berger to share his insights on the topic with an audience of journalists and academics. Responding to Berger’s assertion that doubt is ultimately a key element of religious faith in liberal democracies was New York Times columnist David Brooks and noted professor of religion Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

Speaker: Peter Berger, Director, Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, Boston University

Respondents: David Brooks, Columnist, The New York Times Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Studies professor, George Washington University

Moderator: Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Navigate this transcript: Faith without certainty The example of slavery Do moral judgments require faith? The Muslim world’s middle ground Religious fanatical but politically moderate? Fundamentalism as a response to modernity’s choices Are good fanatics necessary? Living with religious doubt Peaceful fundamentalists versus violent fundamentalists Has relativism withered?

LUIS LUGO: Good afternoon, and thank you all for coming. I’m Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which is a project of the Pew Research Center. The center is a nonpartisan organization and does not take positions on policy debates.

This event is part of an ongoing Forum series that brings together journalists and policy leaders to discuss timely topics at the intersection of religion and public life. The Forum’s partners in this series are Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, who are both senior advisors to the Pew Forum.

Michael Cromartie

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Our topic today is “Between Relativism and Fundamentalism.” Professor Berger has been the director of a major project for the last year and a half, with other academics, discussing the question of fundamentalism and relativism. We’re delighted that, as he comes toward the end of that project, he’s going to give us an overview of what they discovered in their work. Then we’re going to hear from two distinguished panelists on that, and then we’ll open it up to you.

Many of you already know Professor Berger by reputation, and you’re here because you know his work. I would simply say many of us consider Dr. Berger to be the leading sociologist of religion in the world today. But he also writes about politics, international relations, global poverty and globalization. One of my favorite books of his is one called Redeeming Laughter: A Philosophical, Theological, and Sociological Look at the Comic. It’s a serious book on humor. I highly recommend it to you; even though it’s out of print. Professor Berger, thanks for coming down and being with us.

Peter Berger

PETER BERGER: Thank you very much.

Let me begin with a commercial. What I have to say here comes out of a project under the title “Between Relativism and Fundamentalism,” recently completed by the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs, which I direct at Boston University. Two books will come out of the project: One a volume of papers by members of a working group – and I’m delighted that one of them, Os Guinness, is here this morning – and the other written by me together with Anton Zijderveld, a Dutch colleague.

The project, which is now finished, dealt with the question of how, using resources from different strands of the Judeo-Christian tradition, one could define a position that avoids both extremes: a relativism in which all assertions of truth are deemed to be irrelevant or unattainable, and a fundamentalism in which an alleged truth is propounded in an attitude of aggressive intolerance. Such a position boils down to a seemingly simple, but actually very complex statement: It is possible to have religious faith in the absence of certainty. I will not pursue the religious issue here, though I’d be happy to take it up if it is raised in the discussion. But there’s also a moral and indeed a political dimension to the relativism and fundamentalism dichotomy. That is my topic here this morning.

Fanatics have a big advantage in politics: They have nothing else to do. (Laughter.) This is what Oscar Wilde had in mind when he quipped, “The trouble with socialism is that it takes all of your free evenings.” (Laughter.) The rest of us do not have this advantage. Our free evenings are taken up with family, hobbies, vices. Even if we bring ourselves to act politically, we do so without the comfort of absolute certainty enjoyed by fanatics. We are rarely truly sure. We cannot suppress all doubts. We weigh the pros and cons of possible actions.

Yet, there are some moral judgments on which we are indeed certain. What are some of these judgments, and where does the certainty come from?

Relativism and fundamentalism seem, at first sight, to be direct opposites. Rather, I think, they are two sides of the same coin. Both are rooted in the same distinctly modern phenomenon. Modernization progressively undermines the closed communities in which human beings lived through most of history, communities in which there was a very high degree of consensus about the basic cognitive and normative definitions of reality. Such consensus brings about a situation in which these definitions have the status of taken-for-granted, self-evident truth.

Under modern conditions, where almost everyone lives in communities in which diversity has taken the place of consensus, certainty is much more difficult to come by. Relativism can be described as a world view that not only acknowledges but celebrates the absence of consensus. So-called post-modernist theorists like to speak of narratives and, in principle, every narrative is as valued as any other. The moral end result of this world view can be captured by imagining a television interview with a cannibal. “You believe that people should be cooked and eaten. I certainly don’t want to be judgmental, but the audience will be interested. Tell us more.” (Laughter.) This is not all that fictitious.

Fundamentalists respond to the same situation of certainty-scarcity by seeking to regain absolute certainty about every aspect of their world view. No doubt is permitted. Whoever disagrees is an enemy to be converted, shunned or, in the extreme case, removed. The last two centuries of history have made it very clear that there are secular as well as religious fundamentalisms. Both relativism and fundamentalism threaten the basic moral order without which no society, least of all a liberal democracy, can exist: relativism because it makes morality a capricious game, fundamentalism because it balkanizes society into mutually hostile camps that cannot communicate with each other.

There are a number of moral judgments I am certain about, even if it can be shown I would not make them if I lived in a different period or even today in a different society. Example: Slavery is totally unacceptable. Of course, this proposition has not been accepted everywhere. Through much of history, some people enslaved others with no compunction whatsoever. However, in the course of history, there emerges a perception of what it means to be human. That perception makes it impossible to accept slavery.

I deliberately use the word “perception.” In other words, unlike the propositions of religion, which are not empirically accessible, this moral judgment does not require an act of faith. It only requires an act of attention: “Look at this. It must not be.” A masterful description in literature is the growing certainty of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that he must not return the fugitive slave to his owner. And, of course, this perception had enormous political consequences not only in America, but throughout the world.

The great Rabbi Hillel was once asked whether one could explain the meaning of the Torah while standing on one leg. He replied that one could and then stated what I think was the first version of the Golden Rule, adding, “The rest is commentary.” I think that the core value of liberal democracy can also be stated while standing on one leg. It is a sentence at the beginning of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany: “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” The rest is commentary.

Now, obviously, the application of this core value to any practical or political problem is often quite complicated. Commentary can be a strenuous business. The centuries of rabbinical disputations since Hillel proved this very clearly. Yet, there are moments when the application becomes crystal clear, as when the British army was ordered to stop the slave trade, or when Abraham Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Emancipation or, for that matter, when the above lapidary sentence was inserted into the post-war German constitution in the passionate certainty that the horrendous assaults on human dignity by the Nazi regime must never be repeated.

Peter Berger

In my own experience of people I have met, an exemplar of the sort of moral certainty I have in mind here is Helen Susmen, who was, for many years, the only anti-apartheid member of the South African parliament – definitely no relativist. Her commitment to the anti-apartheid cause was infused with moral certainty, but she was definitely no fundamentalist either, a person with an open mind, questioning herself as well as others and with a wonderful sense of humor. In one of my favorite moments, when speaking in parliament, she suggested to the cabinet that they go and visit the black townships, but that they should go disguised as human beings. (Laughter.)

What kind of political ethics emerges from these considerations? I think this question has been anticipated and, to a large degree, answered in Max Weber’s famous essay, “On Politics as a Vocation.” The essay was based on an address given by Weber before students of the University of Munich and published in 1919. The circumstances were dramatic. Many of his students were bitterly disillusioned veterans of the war, veering between cynicism and new fanaticisms. Munich, the locale of the event, had just been through a leftist uprising and was four years away from Hitler’s first attempt to gain power through a coup. Yet what Weber had to say continues to be highly relevant today.

He distinguishes between two types of ethics. The first is best translated as an ethic of principle. The second is an ethic of responsibility. Let me just observe in passing that this distinction curiously amounts to a secularization of the Lutheran idea of the two kingdoms. But that is another story.

The first type of ethic dictates actions based on absolute principles, regardless of consequences. Invariably, fanatics follow this type of ethic. But it is not only fanatics who do so. Absolute pacifists also do so. As an example of this, Weber discusses Tolstoy, whom he admired – a sentiment I do not share – but ultimately deemed to be irresponsible and destructive.

By contrast, an ethic of responsibility may have absolute principles in the background, such as the core value I discussed earlier, but what guides actions is a sober assessment of probable consequences. To describe this option, Weber cites a thinker who might be called the anti-Tolstoy par excellence, Machiavelli, who wrote that in order to save the city, a ruler may put in peril the eternal destiny of his soul.

Relativism and fanaticism do not exhaust the possibilities of moral and political positions. There is a vibrant middle position. It is the position we would be well advised to occupy as we confront the fanaticisms of our own time.


In any case, the story he – he was still a he then – wrote about happened early in the 19th century. General Napier, a British general, occupied the Sindh, which is now part of Pakistan, and did there what the British usually did: They left native rules, customs and laws pretty much in place except for some things they thought were totally unacceptable.

One of them was sati, the burning of widows. The story is, and I think a true story, that a delegation of Brahmins came to see the general and said, “You cannot forbid sati.” He said, “Yes, I can. I have.” They said, “No, no. You cannot do this. This is an ancient tradition of our people.” Napier replied, “We British also have ancient traditions; when people burn a woman alive, we hang them.” (Laughter.) Let us all follow our traditions. It is a kind of moral certainty I rather admire.

CROMARTIE: Thank you, Professor Berger. We have two distinguished people to respond to Dr. Berger’s comments, and we’ll begin with David Brooks who, as you know, is an op-ed writer for The New York Times; his columns appear twice a week. He also appears on the Jim Lehrer NewsHour on Fridays. He is the author of several very important books: Bobos in Paradise and also On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. I recommend both books highly. David?

David Brooks

DAVID BROOKS: First, it’s a great honor to be here with Peter Berger, whose writing I’ve long mimicked, copied, and stole from. It’s also a great pleasure to be here on this topic, since there is no way anybody can possibly expect me to say anything new or interesting on relativism and fundamentalism, and especially in this company. But I will say a couple of things.

First, the only place I fervently disagree with what Peter just said is the sentence that fanatics have nothing else to do. If anybody has kids who play Little League, as E.J. and I do, we know that fanatics not only go to work and have their fanaticism at work, but they bring their fanaticism to the baseball field, to the soccer field, to the town meeting. Fanatics are all over. They’re very energetic. (Laughter.)

I was tempted to defend fanaticism, but I’m not temperamentally suited to do that – (laughter) – so I’ll leave that to somebody else. What I thought I’d do is try to fill in the middle ground Peter rendered with his discussion of the middle ground between fundamentalism and relativism. That really is the crucial question: Instead of just having a void or a reasonable center there, how actually do you explain what that center is, and what it actually consists of, so you’re not Osama bin Laden on one hand and the Happy Hooker on the other.

For people involved in more day-to-day politics, that question is extremely germane. If you’re an American conservative, over the last couple of years, you’ve been caught between the normal prudence of Madison and George Will and the high ideals of Bush’s second inaugural, between clinging to an abstraction, and therefore a very daring set of policy agendas, and a much more withdrawn and cautious temperament toward politics. If you’re a Democrat, as Bill Galston and I were just saying, you have the choice between Barack Obama’s fervent idealism and Hillary Clinton’s more prosaic style of politics. It’s finding that middle ground between an abstract gripping of truth and the much more relativistic, if less interesting, caution, that is in many ways the essence of trying to find a political middle ground.

So I’m going to try to be the Al From of relativism versus skepticism, trying to find the DLC middle ground. I’ll do it just quickly in the guise of two characters, and none of the things I’m going to say is at all original. But it seems to me there are two characters or two streams of thought that have helped us fill in the middle ground to find a prudent way to approach truth that is neither relativistic nor fundamentalist.

The first stream of thought is the secular, conservative stream of thought, which starts with epistemology and epistemological modesty, the idea that we are very limited in knowing what we could know or will ever know. If you start with that, then you move to Adam Smith, whose claim to truth was not so much based on any absolutist belief that he understood truth, but on an observation that people are guided by each other and that people seek the praise of others. Not only do they seek the praise of others, but they also seek to be praiseworthy in their own eyes. Smith created that in this character he called the “impartial observer,” who he said people used to judge themselves. That is really the moral arbiter. When he talked about the impartial observer, really what he was talking about is the accumulated wisdom of a culture, of a family, of an upbringing.

So Adam Smith had a very cultural-based attitude toward how people should appreciate ultimate questions like truth and morality. That leads, for any conservative, to Burke, whose famous doctrine of just prejudice, as I don’t need to go into in this company – but simply to say that Burke valued the slow, stately accumulation of wisdom through the ages and believed we grow more confident in a truth the longer it’s been around, the more it’s stood the test of time, and that truth emerges organically.

[It is]


So most cognition happens below the level of awareness. Wilson’s colleague, Jonathan Haidt, also of the University of Virginia, says the conscious mind’s relationship to the unconscious mind is like the relationship of a boy to an elephant he is riding; “the boy can see further, but the elephant does most of the work.” The second general finding of this research is that we’re extremely social creatures, as Adam Smith understood – and I guess as Aristotle understood before that – and that our minds are fed and formed beneath the level of awareness by these mental loops, by social contagions.

The third finding is that reason is not separate from emotion, but reason is really formed through emotion. A scientist named Antonio Damasio, who’s at USC, had a patient who had some brain damage and could not experience emotion. Damasio had meetings with the patient, whose name was Elliot. He asked the patient, “When do you want to come back?” Elliot said, “Well, Monday would be good, but Tuesday would also be good.” And Elliot then spent the next half-hour, literally, describing why Monday would be good, and Tuesday would be good, but he was completely incapable of reaching a conclusion because he was incapable of feeling emotion and, therefore, incapable of assigning value to any fact or possibility.

You take these three things – that most of cognition happens below awareness, that we’re highly social creatures formed in subconscious ways by the loops and social contagions and norms around us, and that we really learn emotionally more than rationally – and you get a sense of how people learn and think that’s quite similar to the social conservative character I described before: a character that places a high value on intuition, on an awareness of reality that comes in through many different channels, some of which comes from deep in the evolutionary past, some of which comes through culture and norms in ways we’re not aware of.

My favorite example of something that comes from deep in the evolutionary past is that all men of all times prefer women with a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio. (Laughter.) This is true in all cultures, in all societies. Even Twiggy had a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio. (Laughter.)


CROMARTIE: Thank you, David. Professor Nasr is a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, and he’s been teaching there about the variety of dimensions of Islam since 1984. He received his doctorate from Harvard at the age of 25 and since then has authored over 50 books and hundreds of articles and essays in four languages on Islamic science, religion, comparative studies and the environment. You’ve been a busy man. Thank you for coming today.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr

SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Thank you very much. First of all, it’s a pleasure also for me to be here. I have probably known Peter longer than any of you around this table. I invited him to Tehran almost 40 years ago, when not many people in the West realized the significance of his writings. We’ve been friends ever since. He is usually one step ahead of other sociologists of religion in seeing what is lurking on the horizon. The other people catch up a bit later.

So it was a great pleasure when I was asked to say a few words. I went over Peter’s paper very carefully, and I just tailored a few comments based on what he had written himself. Usually when I’m invited to functions such as this, they expect me to speak only about Islam, but I have a few comments to make before we get to that.

First of all, the significance of today and every future study that will come out in this field of secularism as fundamentalism – and much of what we call religious fundamentalism today is really the result of modernist fundamentalism, which is the most absolute form of fundamentalism that human history has ever known. This is especially true of the Islamic world. Without modernist fundamentalism, there would have been no Islamic fundamentalism. Of course, you could say the Mongols who invaded in the 13th century were fundamentalists, but that’s stretching the term a bit too much. I’m using the term fundamentalism as it has developed since 1979 in this city and in New York and then has spread to other places.

Also, to set the record straight, as Peter brings out quite rightly, the importance of the inviolability of humanity – I shall turn to that in a moment. But the policy of exclusion always leads to dehumanization. At the moment of history in which we live, the term Judeo-Christian, which was invented after the Second World War for obvious reason of the great tragedies that had occurred, is not completely tenable between “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and “love thy neighbor.” There is a big enough space for Islam to fit in, and it does. I think we should use the idea of the Abrahamic family or Judeo-Christian-Islamic and that would bring, I think, a new dimension to this whole debate, which is usually left aside in most discussions.

Now, relativism, in contrast to what Peter said – and my point is a bit different: I’m philosopher and theologian; he’s a sociologist, so he’ll permit me if I say this – even relativism cannot evade the question of truth. Secondly, relativism itself is based on an absolutism, because if you say, “All things are relative,” that statement itself is absolute. That’s the lawyer’s paradox of philosophy.

Therefore, to distinguish completely between one and the other is not quite right. It’s a bit like the yin/yang: something of one is in the other, something of the other is in the first. We must soberly look upon relativism as being based on a particular view of the nature of reality, which is then absolutized in a certain way in the minds of those who consider themselves to be relativists.

This term brings up this very important question of human dignity being inviolable, as the German constitution says. If I were to play the role of a devil’s advocate, I would say, “Why is it inviolable?” Mr. Brooks was just pointing to all of these evolutionary trends. Is the human being simply just complicated molecules banging against each other? What is inviolable? What is human dignity? Where does it come from except from pure sentimentality?

If I pose the question like this, it becomes clear there is always a philosophical underpinning for human nature, human dignity, human person – all of things that are written about. If you do not accept that, and accept instead the purely materialistic and evolutionary idea of the human being, I think the whole question of human dignity is nothing but pure sentimentality. There’s nothing inviolable about it, and somebody’s going to come along in the future, as they did in the past in one of the countries that was the foundation of modern science, that is, in Germany, and break this up because it’s very difficult to defend intellectually.

It also leads to the idea that human dignity becomes inviolable among those human beings in whom we are interested. As it happens with the people of Iraq, over 500,000 people have died; there’s not even a discussion. It’s not even on the screen. Nobody even talks about it. That’s one of the very, very important results when this inviolability is based not on a philosophical, religious or metaphysical certitude, but on either simple political expediency or sentimentality.

I also believe in – and here I differ from Peter – that moral judgments are independent of certitude and a particular vision. First of all, I think all moral judgments require an act of faith. Secondly, they consider themselves to be certain because they are functioning within a certain world view. We cannot say George Washington was less moral than us because he had slaves in Mount Vernon; “We are so good; we don’t have them anymore.”

That’s not a defendable position. He was also a moral and upright person. The fact that we consider this to be obvious that slavery is terrible: Where does that obviousness come from? It comes because we have accepted a worldview that was not acceptable to George Washington. Other parts of his worldview are the foundation of this country. But this particular part – I’m just giving him as an example.

Let me now turn to, for the few minutes I have, the Islamic world specifically. First of all, I want to say the assault of secularism, the aggressive assault, has been the most important factor in the destruction of a middle ground – I’m not a specialist on the West – but at least in the Islamic world, about which I know something. As I just mentioned, modernist fundamentalism is the main reason for the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. It has taken place only within a couple of generations.

I’m now in my early 70s, pretty soon-to-be middle 70s. When I was a young boy in Iran, 50- or 60-some years ago, we lived in a completely different world. The word fundamentalism hadn’t been invented. Modernism was just coming into the country. I remember the very day when the first electric lights came into our house. And we lived in the upper echelon of society; we got the lights first. Many people got it later.

So I remember all of these transformations. When I was a young boy, there was not any animosity among Christians and Muslims and Jews in Iran, not at all what one observes in the Islamic world today. The older people always respected the Armenians and Jews and Zoroastrians and whoever else was around. The young people have gradually become modernized. They were not becoming fundamentalist at that time; they were becoming modernized.

The next step was that their modernism then led to an attitude very different from that of the generation before. That attitude was of exclusivism, of rejection of any other points of view, and then that began to work within the Islamic universe, itself because the Islamic world is not, of course, a monolith. It began to destroy, as much as possible, the middle positions, ending up with the Wahabism that we have decided, because of the price of oil, not to discuss anymore for a while, with its relation to bin Laden and the other great tragedies we have seen.

[this middle ground]

Traditional Islamic thought and this middle ground – there are always extremists on one side or the other. The middle ground had no trouble in bringing about an authentic theological and religious defense of being absolute in one’s faith while accepting the faith of others. All of the – (unintelligible) – takes place on this issue is really drawn from the European experience. It’s drawn from what happened to the Jews and Muslims in Spain and the Inquisition and pogroms and all of these things leading to the very unbelievable catastrophes of the 20th century.

In the Islamic world of course there were prejudices; people all over the world are the same. But the idea in Islam was that there was such thing as Islam with a small “i,” which is surrender to God. And that had been there from the beginning of human existence, from Adam, the prototypical human being Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity. God had given to each person a path to surrender to Him. The Koran has many, many statements explicitly mentioning this point.

Now, that’s where the whole problem comes in. The Muslims lived like that for a very long time. The Ottomans drew from those verses when they protected the Jews who were fleeing from Spain. Many of them became bankers, ministers, and so forth in the 17th century, in Iran the same way. When Islam went to India, and the Muslims ruled over the whole of northern India, the Hindus were not massacred. Many of them were wives of Mogul emperors. They always quoted those verses.

There are, however, verses in the Koran – as there are in the Bible – of exclusivism, and especially as it concerned the foundation of the Islamic state in Mecca and Medina. Those are also in the Koran. What has happened in the last few decades is disregard for the first category and attention to the second category, precisely because of this polarization between relativism and fundamentalism, which is a modern invention, is a modern predicament and is coming to any part of the world. Also Hindu India – nobody talks about Hindu India. The BJP is not a traditional Hindu party. It represents the same thing in the Hindu world. And in Judaism – other religions are facing the same thing.

This polarization has brought about the weakening of that center. But the metaphysical teaching that a person can be a devout Christian, Jew, Muslim or Hindu, and at the same time respect other religions is very deeply ingrained in that middle ground in the Islamic world, expressed over the centuries primarily by great Sufi masters and their poetry, such as Rumi, who is now a favorite poet here in the United States, but also by many others. In this whole discussion of trying to rediscover the middle ground, it’s very important to turn one’s attention to the cultural factors, the political factors, and the religious factors which have tried to melt away this middle ground in other parts of the world, and what to do to prevent this from happening.

CROMARTIE: Thank you, professor. Peter, I suspect you want to make some comments before I get others in?

Peter Berger

BERGER: I don’t disagree with anything David Brooks said. What Hossein Nasr said, there’s one thing I do slightly disagree with, when he said that moral judgments like the inviolability of human dignity always require a philosophical underpinning. I’m not so sure of that. I could talk about this at great length. It seems to me there’s a huge difference between religion and morality and the political implications of morality.


Nothing I believe in, in my case, as a theologically very liberal Lutheran – I don’t perceive this. God is not available for inspection, but the slave is available for inspection. It seems to me the rock-bottom moral judgments we make are not theories or the result of theories, but are things we see, we perceive, both things that we feel we must do and things that we must never do. That, it seems to me, is a very interesting way of looking at it. The political implication of this is, how does one make a balance between these root convictions – and we can talk about where they come from if you like – and the innumerable political judgments in which doubt and reflection and uncertainty have a very important place? I think this is not an impossible project, but it is also not very easy.

Matthew Crawford

MATTHEW CRAWFORD, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: This is to ask Peter Berger to return to Huckleberry Finn in light of your last remarks about perception. How does one apprehend a moral demand such as Huck does? You talked earlier about a taken-for-granted horizon within which we perceive and make our way in the social world. Here is a moment when the taken-for-granted horizon of opinions – somehow, he overcomes or finds a wormhole through it, and he apprehends this moral demand that goes against all of that.

BERGER: I’m sorry. I don’t quite get what the question is.

[one have a]

[there are]

Toward the end of our project, which was purely religious in its emphasis, I realized there’s a moral dimension where I think in quite different terms. So I decided to write a book, apart from the volume in which there are wonderful contributions from Os Guinness, and which, by the way, Eerdmans will publish later this year. I decided to write a book with a colleague who was not a member of the group, Anton Zijderveld, who’s a sociologist and philosopher in the Netherlands. And we dealt with this moral issue. He describes himself as an agnostic. The book, which is with an agent now, is called “In Praise of Doubt,” which is an in-joke because he was, until his retirement, a professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Erasmus’ most famous book is In Praise of Folly. So we wrote “In Praise of Doubt.”

But in the realm of morality and its political implications, where does one doubt, and where does one not doubt? That question, it seems to me, is very different from the religious one.

Os Guiness

OS GUINNESS: Probably most of us would argue for the middle ground; I certainly would. I’d agree with you that the middle ground is disappearing. But I just wanted to raise a different dimension. If we argue for the middle ground, which, at the end of day, is a matter of individual integrity, does it not assume and require a vision of public life that matches it? In other words, if you look at a lot of the questions of how we live with our differences today, people are afraid of fundamentalism. They are afraid of fanaticism. They are afraid of exclusivism, rightly and understandably. But then the alternative is often relativism.


Paul Marshall

PAUL MARSHALL, HUDSON INSTITUTE: Picking up on one of the themes Professor Nasr raised, and which also just came up in your response, Peter, Oakeshott once said, and I paraphrase, “It’s a mistake to call someone a conservative. People are very often politically conservative because they are so not conservative in everything else they do.” I think he had himself in mind. (Laughter.) Remember, his second book was called A Guide to the Classics. People bought it to find out about Oakeshott on the Greeks, I think. They didn’t read the subtitle, which said, “How to Pick the Derby Winner.” (Laughter.) Being a horseracing fanatic, I think, was one reason he might have wanted to keep politics in his box.

[they want it]

Alternatively, you may have a healthy appreciation of original sin or, for Calvinists like me, of total depravity, and therefore want to be very careful in pushing too much in public policy. Or you may simply say, “I already have a religion therefore I don’t need to make politics my religion, so I can sit fairly easily on it.” The basic theme is, would a religious fundamentalist necessarily be a political fundamentalist? And isn’t our problem, the one we’ve been talking about, political fundamentalism, of either a religious or secular kind – (inaudible) – debatable public-policy issues get fought over in absolute terms?

BERGER: The meaning of fundamentalism hasn’t been dictated by an angel. Obviously, one can define it in different ways. I think the most useful way, for my own thinking, of defining fundamentalism – and I agree with Hossein Nasr, it’s a modern phenomenon. It’s very different from traditional religion. Traditionalists can be very tolerant. A fundamentalist cannot.

Fundamentalism, I think, is an attempt, whether in religion or some other ideological form, to restore the taken-for-granted-ness that has been lost as a result of modernization. And the reason why modernization undermines taken-for-granted-ness is not mysterious. If we are to take certain cognitive and normative ideas for granted, it requires a social context in which most people around us, at least our significant others, agree on these basic definitions of reality. Modernity makes these closed communities very hard to come by.

So we are constantly surrounded by people with other views, other norms, other lifestyles which, on the one hand, is a great liberation, which I personally welcome. I would hate to see that reversed. But, on the other hand, it can become a burden. And the burden can be – Luis said I should tell some jokes. There’s a classic American joke that beautifully sums this up. It’s not a very good joke, but it’ll do – (laughter) – for the purpose here. It’s about a –

CROMARTIE: We’re easy to please.

BERGER: I doubt that. (Laughter.) Two friends meet, and one looks very sad, and the other says, “Why are you so unhappy?” He says, “It’s my new job.” “What’s your new job?” “I work in an orange grove, and all day long I sit under a tree, and people bring me oranges. I have three baskets: for the big oranges, the little oranges, and the in-between oranges. That’s what I do all day.” And the friend says, “It seems to me like a very easy job. Why are you unhappy?” And the other man replies, “All those decisions.” (Laughter.)

[there are]

Michael Gerson

MICHAEL GERSON,COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Let me get at a similar question a little different way and maybe bring David into it, too. Unlike David, I’ll make a partial defense of fanaticism. I think that, clearly, you can’t organize a society based on fanaticism and fundamentalism. It’s an oppressive place. It violates pluralism. But that seems to be very different than saying a society can get along without people who are fanatics or fundamentalists. If you look at the history of social change in America, you often find people willing to kill poor British soldiers because of theories of representation and taxation. You’re going to find people, like abolitionists, who were deeply religiously fundamentalist and sometimes rather odd in the way they approached these things; women’s rights crusaders; others who have pushed the boundaries of social change.

You could say that in history, too: Joan of Arc or Martin Luther, who was not a moderate Lutheran. (Laughter.) He could be a very overbearing, prideful person who didn’t take the middle way on many issues. “Because Martin Luther says so,” was one of his responses to theological debate. You could even say that about modern dissidents in many societies. They’re malcontents and often people who can’t get along in the just societies they create afterwards. But they play important historical roles in trying to press boundaries and draw logical conclusions about the nature of the human person based on deep, even intolerant, theological beliefs.

So I’m wondering, how do you explain that role? What if society – I guess I would want to live in a society where everyone’s like David Brooks. (Laughter.)

BROOKS: I think my wife wouldn’t. (Laughter.)

GERSON: But it seems to me social progress has some element of fanaticism and vision, even an intolerant one, that sometimes comes out and pushes history.

BERGER: I disagree with – David, maybe you want to?

BROOKS: No, go ahead.

BERGER: I disagree when you say a society cannot be organized on the basis of fanaticism. It can. That’s what we call totalitarianism. The totalitarian formula has to be – In order for the totalitarian state to re-impose taken-for-granted-ness through the society, it can only do so by stopping communication with all of those who disagree within and outside the society. I think one of the happy lessons of the 20th century is that this is extremely difficult to do successfully.

The other fanatical project, which is also difficult, but more easily done, is mini-totalitarianism. You create a sectarian sub-cultural group within which taken-for-granted-ness is enforced. That’s also difficult. (Chuckles.) I think that’s good news, this difficulty. Can one live with fundamentalists in some areas? Yes, of course, if they give up the idea of infecting the rest of us with their fanaticism, that’s fine. We can deal with sectarians, sure, in a liberal democracy. We cannot deal with totalitarians.

BROOKS: As you were talking, I was thinking, how does a good fanatic develop? (Laughter.) Or, how does a heroic conservative develop? (Laughter.) The answer to that latter question is too deep and dark a question for me to address here. (Laughter.) But it seems to me, what happens is, historically, over time, a norm develops, and it gets accepted as the accumulated wisdom of mankind, for example, that all men are created equal.

But people begin to notice the society they’re living in differs from the norm they’ve inherited. They notice people are slaves or are unequal in their society. Then that observation is buttressed, and has to be buttressed, by an emotional reaction: sympathy for those who are suffering from this deviation, and disgust with those who are imposing it. That’s what creates the fanaticism: There has to be some emotional element to it. That would be a good fanaticism, as in the case of Martin Luther King. What strikes me is it is a fanaticism driven not only by that emotional reaction and not only by the rational reaction that we’re deviating from our norm, but also by strategy.

I’ve always been struck by a book called Stone of Hope about Martin Luther King, and the debate that happened in the Civil Rights Movement. Gunnar Myrdal came here and said, “Americans will realize that discrimination violates their own norms. And all you have to do is educate them and they’ll cure the problem.” But Martin Luther King, having a darker view of humanity based on Niebuhr and other things said, “No, people are too nasty; we really have to be fanatical.” So he self-consciously embraced a fanaticism, as you say, exactly because you need to be somewhat fanatical in order to create that social change.

But I would say even in that just fanaticism – I think what you do is embrace a historical truth that all people are created equal, and you begin to think that’s an absolute truth, but you never actually get there, and that you always have to leave some room for doubt as your own internal guardian. When you were talking about Huck Finn, I was struck by the fact that you said, “A historical piece of wisdom turns into an absolute truth.” I can’t believe that can be true. I think, like that mathematical formula, you get half-way toward the truth, then you get another half and another half, but you never actually get there. In order not to become a fanatic, even in a good cause, it is necessary to preserve that little bit. But I do agree with you that you do need good fanaticism. But it seems to me it grows up organically and emotionally in people, not through some absolute form of reasoning.

E.J. Dionne

E.J. DIONNE, THE WASHINGTON POST: I must say it was delightful to hear Mike Gerson make a quiet, thoughtful, moderate case for fanaticism. (Laughter.) The sequel to Heroic Conservatism can be “The Moderate Fanatic.” (Laughter.) I was also thinking about the man with the oranges and all of this talk of middle ground. Probably, the most agonizing decision is, which oranges go in the middle bin?

I have two questions, or two and a half questions. I have been haunted for years by Professor Berger’s assertion in – I think it was in A Far Glory – that all believers must live with the burden of God’s silence. So I can’t resist asking him if he would elaborate on that wonderful sentence: “It is possible to have religious faith in the absence of certainty,” and would like to ask Professor Nasr if he agrees with that statement.

David’s going to write us a whole book on this, but, listening to him, I wanted to ask, does reason disappear in all of his neuroscience? If our decisions are based on emotion and intuition, what happens to reason?

CROMARTIE: Who would like to go first?

David Brooks

BROOKS: I’ll do it because it’s such an easy question. (Laughter.) I actually was out at UCLA last week, and I asked a prominent neuroscientist whether there’s free will. He said, “It’s very interesting. Why do we have the illusion of free will?” (Laughter.) I said, “Don’t you believe in the possibility that there is free will? (Laughter.) And he said, “Nobody believes that.” That actually is common in that field: that they’ve given up on the idea that there’s anything like free will because they can observe so much that happens before we make a conscious decision; they think it’s a complete illusion.

[we are]

NASR: Mr. Dionne, whose column I enjoy before going to bed, thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED: Even if it’s eight in the morning. (Laughter.)

Seyyed Hossein Nasr


However, there is a point to this that is more subtle. Peter said perception has nothing to do with the nature of reality. I just want to quote to you a very famous Far Eastern joke. A Japanese and a Chinese are walking together, and they see a flight of beautiful geese in the sky. And the Japanese says, “How beautiful!” And the Chinese says, “How delicious!” (Laughter.) They are both perceiving the same thing, but from two different world views. (Laughter.) Therefore, although faith is not based on certainty, nevertheless, it’s based on a certainty of that in which we have faith. It cannot be totally avoided.

We always talk about blind faith. Blind faith itself means you accept the difference between blindness and seeing. Already, it has a philosophical underpinning. It’s impossible to evade that, I believe.

BERGER: I think Mr. Dionne and I should have a retreat and talk about this for three days on a mountaintop somewhere. (Laughter.)

CROMARTIE: We can arrange it. (Laughter.)

Peter Berger

BERGER: Look, let me be anecdotal. I have a good friend who’s a Lutheran theologian, actually. He said to me years ago that he never had any serious doubts about the basic propositions of the Christian faith. He said he tried, because he’s a modern intellectual, and he thought he should have doubts – (laughter) – but he never doubted. I had to say to him, “That’s all very interesting. I don’t dispute what you say. It’s not my case, okay? I have to live with the fact that I don’t know any of the things I would affirm as a Christian.” I think people in other religions are in pretty much the same position if they are honest. There are some people who claim to have had a mystical experience or an angel who visited them. Most of us are not so lucky – or maybe unlucky. I’m not sure which is better.

One has to live with this, and I think it’s a very useful thing to live with. In Lutheran terms, to me, this is what sola fida means. Luther, by the way, was not a fanatic. He was a very flawed individual, and he did some awful things – the peasant rebellions, the anti-Jewish stuff toward the end of his life – awful man – but I don’t think he was a fanatic. He himself said so. He was plagued with doubt throughout his life and then decided to have faith almost as a desperate move.

We need to go to this mountain top to explore this fully, but it seems to me that certain moral judgments – not all moral judgment, but certain moral judgments – are of a very different sort, and I think I know these things. It’s not that I believe them; I know them: not in the way I know this machinery is sitting here, or that I am in Washington, but I know it on a different level. When it comes to the kind of thing they had in mind in the German constitution when they framed that sentence – and what they had in mind, of course, were the horrors of the Third Reich. This was not a matter of faith; this was a perception. “This is unspeakable; this must never happen again.” So I think we deal with different realms here, and it is possible to live in both of them.

CROMARTIE: Two kingdoms.

AMITAI ETZIONI, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I find very useful the argument that relativism and fundamentalism are two sides of the same coin. The destruction of the community in Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, and many of the explanations of totalitarianism – (inaudible) – though to complete the story, one would have to talk not only about the person who escapes choice by becoming a fundamentalist, but the person who is consumed by choice to the point of becoming suicidal, neurotic or unable to function, like your orange guy.

Now to me, explanation lies on that side. So the quest for the strong community is trying to avoid both extremes. If I were to go on, I would talk about how it has to be based in history; it depends where you are. If you are in a place where society is still very traditional and closed, or if you are in a high-rise building in New York, you would go in a different direction.

But my main difficulty is with the next step, that fundamentalism is defined as certitude. I wonder if that is the correct line to draw that distinction.

Now let me be the first to say there is no – as you say, angels don’t tell you where to draw the lines, and the whole intellectual business is to make distinctions, and everybody is free to add some more. But to the degree that we talk about historical context, our problem is really not that people are certain, it’s that people are violent. Those are not the same. That’s the critical empirical and moral and policy issue here. There is the implicit assumption by those who rail against certitude that people who are certain are therefore willing to shove their beliefs down other people’s throats and impose it on other people. But if you look at the evidence, the line that is important to us is between fundamentalists who are just certain and stick to their own knitting, and those who want to force it on us.

Now that will be meaningless distinction if there are be very few of them, but I’d like to take just one minute to argue that most fundamentalists are actually the peaceful kind, and that makes a huge difference for the story. Look at – I’m sure somebody here has much better figures, but let us say conservatively there are about 50 million fundamentalist Christians in this country. Okay? What’s a correct figure?

BROOKS: Evangelicals, but not fundamentalists.

ETZIONI: Okay, let me stand corrected. There are about 50 million Americans who are very certain about their religious beliefs. (Laughter.) And at most, I think, a fraction of a percent will support bombing clinics and killing abortion doctors. That’s exactly the line I’m talking about. It’s not only where to draw the line, but the question is, where are the large numbers? If you go to the Muslim world – and the Pew survey center has a wonderful, wonderful armful of surveys showing that most Muslims in Indonesia, in Bangladesh, in Malaysia, in Morocco and such places oppose terrorism, oppose violence and have a strong belief. Even the Palestinians, who obviously have extra reasons to be aggrieved, 77 percent of them want a peace treaty with Israel and don’t support terrorism. They vote for Hamas for other reasons, some of them economic.

[and the non-violent types.]

Now the next question: Here comes the Turkish story. The Turkish story is particularly impressive because you have here a country that was secularized with a vengeance. And the relativism that secularism implies didn’t take hold. The moral vacuum – we keep going on about how they’re overfilling it, but we should talk a little more about under filling it, and that’s where you invite fundamentalism of both kinds because you created a moral vacuum, and you don’t have anything to offer but doubt.


I can’t resist – I can’t compete with you in telling jokes, but I’m going to try. One of my colleagues tried to see what values all societies share, because presumably that is one source for building some moral consensus. She found out that all societies agree that in a revenge killing, you shouldn’t kill more than eight people. (Laughter.) That is not a very rich moral language.


BERGER: A very important point. Sixty million Americans may be evangelical, but most evangelicals are not fundamentalists, and that’s a very important distinction.

From my point of view, who are the good fundamentalists? They are the ones who choose the sectarian option; that is, within their own community, they follow their – in my mind – insane notions, but they don’t bother me, and they play by the rules of a pluralistic game.

But I’m glad you mentioned abortion clinics because abortion is a beautiful example of what I mean by a middle position. Let me put it very briefly: There are some people who are absolutely certain that a fetus, six hours after conception, is a human being, a citizen with all the rights pertaining thereto. I think that’s pretty crazy. There are other people – a different kind of fundamentalist – who believe that the fetus, let’s say, six days before birth is simply a part of the woman’s body; she’s free to dispose of it as she wishes, which seems to me equally crazy.

What can one say about this? The issue is not where human life begins, because my appendix is life; the question is where a human person begins, and it seems to me the honest answer is we do not know. From that, it seems to me, follow considerations of what one does about legislation concerning abortion. There are two fundamentalisms clashing here, and they are both, it seems to me, equally questionable, and not to be taken for granted.

William Galston

WILLIAM GALSTON, THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Let me begin by saying that, not for the first time and, I suspect, not for the last, Professor Etzioni has anticipated what I wanted to say, which will make my litany a lot shorter than it would have been otherwise.

Just following on this colloquy: Once one admits the distinction, which I think has now common property of this discussion, between what I’ll call defensive fundamentalism, which Professor Berger called sectarianism, and offensive fundamentalism, which is what Professor Etzioni labeled as the religion of the faith of violence – Once one admits that distinction, then one has to some extent reframe the conversation, because sectarians can be just as certain as offensive or violent fundamentalists. Then the problem is not certainty per se, but something else.

Let me just briefly say what’s left of what I wanted to say. First of all, on the relationship between morality and faith, interestingly, according to work the Pew Forum itself has done, more than half of Americans deny the proposition you put on the table; that is, more than half of Americans affirm that one cannot be moral without being religious, and I wondered whether you had any reflections on that sociological fact, which is not trivial in the American context.

Question number two: If I understood you correctly – and this is certainly consistent with your previous work – your argument is that moral perceptions are embedded within a world view. If that’s the case, then that opens, in a very direct way, the clash of Weltanschauungen, and invites us, once we become aware of the clash, to put in brackets the perceptions, including the moral perceptions, that are imbedded in a world view that is itself contestable.

And question number three: Certainty about what? I was just debating this point up at Fordham University in the context of the celebration of John F. Kennedy’s speech to the Houston ministers. It is perfectly possible to be certain about certain first principles – “We hold these truths to be self-evident” – and still embrace an ethic of responsibility with regard to social and political life. I don’t see any conflict between those two things. Once again the problem is not so much certainty as it is the locus of certainty and the consequences of certainty.

CROMARTIE: Peter, could you comment on those three questions?

BERGER: Let me think about it.

Katherine Marshall

KATHERINE MARSHALL, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: I wanted to hear a little bit more about the research project this was based on, and, particularly, Peter, did it change your mind in anything? I’m curious as to your insights and how you went about researching it.

Just as a comment: I had three elements I was surprised didn’t come up in the discussion. The first one is personality. It does strike me there are fanatical personalities, and I suspect there’s probably a fairly constant distribution in most cultures.

Secondly, I thought you ducked Mike Gerson’s question a bit as to whether societies need nuts – (laughter) – people pushing the boundaries.

LUGO: To paraphrase Mike Gerson. (Laughter.)


BERGER: I’m not sure I can fully answer your three questions, but let me be anecdotal about this.

Quite a few years ago, I asked myself – my religious views really haven’t changed very much since I was a young man – if tomorrow I woke up and decided I was an atheist. That’s unlikely after a certain age, as a world-view inertia sets in. But suppose I decided tomorrow morning I’m an atheist? What would change in my moral views on things like gender relations if you will, human rights, things of that sort? I decided: absolutely nothing. The only thing I could think of was suicide, and even that I wasn’t sure of – (laughter) – because I think if God is merciful, and I can’t stand it any more, he’ll understand if I knock myself off. (Laughter.)

That led to a series of reflections, some of which I voiced this morning. I don’t know what you mean by gender relations. It enters into everything; it wasn’t there to be specially discussed. It wasn’t really a research project in the sociological sense. We brought together a group of religious thinkers, Christian and Jewish, and over a period of roughly two years we had two meetings where the people met, and then people wrote papers on how can one be neither relativist nor a fundamentalist and yet be a Lutheran or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian or a practicing Jew. The result is a book. So it wasn’t a research project in the sociological sense.

As to gender relations, it seems to me the basic equality as human beings of men and women is precisely the kind of perception I’m talking about. Of course it has a history. Through most of history, what we today mean by that was not there, or only there in very rudimentary form.

Once the perception is there, as a result of the historical process, I think it has implicit in it, necessarily, a claim to universal validity. If it was wrong to regard women as chattel in medieval China or whatever, it is wrong. If it is wrong today, it was wrong then, but people did not perceive it as such. I don’t have a problem with that. In other words, these perceptions take time, sometimes over centuries, to develop.

Steven Lagerfeld

STEVEN LAGERFELD, WILSON QUARTERLY: It’s been a real joke fest, and I wish I had one to throw out on the panel, but I don’t.

I’ve been struck by the way in which we’ve spent so much time parsing what kind of fanatic we’re going to allow into the middle ground. If David Brooks will let in soccer fanatics and other tempered fanatics – we have single-issue fanatics, contingent fanatics, and probably a few other varieties.

I’m struck by the fact that we’re not talking about the other side of the equation, and it almost seems off-topic, but ten years ago that’s what we would have been talking about. We would have been talking about the relativists and the problems posed by that group.

I’m wondering, are all the relativists immediately admitted to the middle ground? Are none of them problematic? We haven’t mentioned them, so I just ask.

BROOKS: It has been mentioned earlier that we’re in a polarized age with fanatics on one end and relativists on the other. This doesn’t square with my experience. I do think, especially in the American academy, which Allan Bloom said was the home of relativism, that relativism, which was once a militant creed has now withered away. The dominant ideology is professional career advancement, which is to say prudence – (laughter) – which is the ultimate middle ground.

While I’m on that subject, I personally don’t think modernization led to fundamentalism; I think bourgeois values, which are very rewarding but ultimately unsatisfying, led to fundamentalism. That’s what causes people to become fundamentalists.

It does strike me that, if you look around the country, people are like you. They believe without having certainty about belief, and that’s why I think the country is fundamentally culturally healthy, and that at least in the U.S., I don’t think we have a polarized country on these grounds. Even the evangelical community is a very doubting and ambivalent community, even about fundamental moral questions.

So I guess I would say I don’t think the polarization is there, though I think you are absolutely right: If we’d been here in the legacy of The Closing the American Mind, we would have been talking about relativism, but that has withered away.

BERGER: I’m not so sure it has withered away, and I’m certainly concerned with it. Look, I’ve been much involved in discussions in Europe about the integration of immigrants from other parts of the world, and a radical form of multiculturalism is relativism institutionalized, where basically everything goes. My remarks about the cannibal being interviewed on television – (chuckles) – can be experienced in a number of situations, though not with cannibalism, at least not yet.

Katherine wants more on gender relations, so let me give an example from gender relations. Multiculturalists who look upon female genital mutilation as a cultural peculiarity some people have, and which we have to tolerate – this view is present and vocal. So relativism is something I would be very much concerned with in certain situations.


CROMARTIE: Well, ladies and gentlemen, we have run out of time. Peter, did you have any closing comments?

BERGER: A closing anecdote, if I may.

CROMARTIE: Good, yes. And then tell people again when the book will be out, and the publisher is Eerdmans.

BERGER: The publisher is Eerdmans, the book should be out later this year. The book that I wrote with Anton Zijderveld – I don’t know. We don’t have a publisher yet; we are peddling it.

No, the reason the anecdote occurs to me is because Hossein is sitting here. He mentioned he invited me to Iran in 1976, and on that occasion I met a young man who was somehow associated with your center. He was an American who wrote poems.

CROMARTIE: Peter Wilson.

BERGER: That’s right. And he wrote one poem – I couldn’t recite it now, but it deeply impressed me. There is a term, and I don’t know what the Arabic term is, about the boundary between the realm of Islam and the realm of unbelief. And he had a poem about this, and he said that boundary today runs through the soul of every Muslim.

It seems to me a basic question is: Does one regret this or does one welcome it? I would welcome it.

CROMARTIE: Join me, ladies and gentlemen, in thanking our speakers.

This written transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling, grammar and accuracy by Andrea Useem.

Photo Credit: Darren Greenwood/Design Pics/Corbis

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