The Gospel of Cosmopolitanism: Embracing Religious Diversity in the Modern World
By David Metcalfe
January 19, 2019
In this article, I wish to explain the subjectivity of belief that is intrinsic to religion, and in so doing, show that religious tolerance is the most reasonable approach to take to responding to the immense diversity which religious views inhabit. If there were someone who was not really interested in philosophy, and merely wondered the barest practical of my opinion, I should say, “Believe in the religion that makes sense to you and provides meaning to your life, and do not condemn others who find a different path.”
There are two things one must embrace in order to come to an understanding of this opinion: exposure and conceptual truth. There is one danger that must be avoided, and that is “absent absolutes”. In embracing exposure and conceptual truth, and avoiding absent absolutes, one comes to understand the variety of religious belief not as oppositional, but as shared expressions of the human experience. This understanding is what might be called the “gospel of cosmopolitanism”.
Yes and No: How Complexity Necessitates Nuance
As we sit down for another meeting, this time at Starbucks, he mentions something about the weather, but I’ve never been one for small talk.
“When you die, do you believe you’ll get 72 virgins?” I ask, somewhat abruptly.
He laughs, “Well, yes and no.” (He starts most of his answers that way).
He goes on, “I’m not sure where the 72 virgins thing comes from. It’s certainly not in the Quran; I would know if it was, trust me.”
“It sounds like you just answered the ‘no’ part. What about the ‘yes’ part?”
“My understanding is that in paradise, all desires and pleasures are fulfilled to the greatest extent possible. We don’t need anything, but we get to enjoy everything. So, we have desires to be important, to be loved, to have relationships, and so on. And sexual relationships are a very important part of earthly life; after all we wouldn’t exist without them. That sexual desire is corrupted on earth because of our carnal nature, but in paradise it is perfect and holy. And the hadiths talk about each man getting many wives in paradise. Not 72 exactly, but many.”
“Two things I wonder about that: first, wouldn’t there need to be way more Muslim women than Muslim men in order for each man to have several wives? Secondly, wouldn’t this be paradise for the man a lot more than it would be paradise for the woman?”
“Actually, the hadith describe these many wives not as women from earth who died and came to paradise, but as women specially created to serve this purpose. So, for them, they are fully happy to be able to satisfy the man who enters paradise, because that’s what they were created for. To address the other question, the women from earth who die and go to paradise are said to be ‘queens of the household’. Essentially, they rule over all of the servants alongside their husband.”
We continue discussing a wide range of topics as I ask, “Is Sharia law compatible with American liberalism?”, “Should women have equal rights to education, work, and social life as men?”, “Does Islam promote violence?”, “Do you believe in the same Jesus as Christians do?”, and so on.
All of the answers start with “yes and no”, and proceed with a ton of information from secular and religious sources, and ultimately conclude at something with so much nuance I almost forget what my original question was. It makes sense that he answers this way. He has a master’s degree in sociocultural studies from Northwestern University, has read the Quran and hadiths nearly every day for the last 10 years, and has met and discussed religious topics with people of many different beliefs.
People who have a breadth and depth of education tend to be more humble, subtle, and gradual in their opinions. They understand that their current view on a subject could be proven wrong at any time, should new evidence or approach to thinking occur. They understand that there are many people of great intelligence who espouse a great variety of views, and that it would be severely arrogant to claim that they know the “ultimate truth” of any matter that is contentious among those who are intelligent and well studied. In anything of great complexity (as is the case with religions) making blanket statements leads to wrong ideas, even if they have a somewhat correct basis.
Imagine if, at Starbucks, I had assumed that Muslims believe they get 72 virgins if they are faithful to Allah. Beyond that, imagine I assumed that being “faithful to Allah” in Islam meant killing infidels. My conversation would have gone something like this:
“You believe that you should blow yourself up in a crowd of people so you can get 72 virgins.”
And he likely would’ve responded, “Umm…what? You don’t know what I believe at all.”
If, instead of accepting correction and having an open mind, I insisted that I was right and he was wrong, the conversation would’ve ended. I wouldn’t have learned anything, and he would’ve left quite insulted.
You might think it absurd that someone would make such an assumption about another person, but millions of people do this about Muslims. They see something on the news, or know that the 9/11 attacks were committed by people who professed belief in Islam, and they make assumptions; close-minded, arrogant, and hurtful assumptions.
But this intelligent, educated, kind hearted Muslim man believes in human rights, democracy, and freedom of religion. He likes to quote a passage in the Quran that says, “there is no compulsion in religion”. He sees Islam as something that gives his life meaning, purpose, and inspiration to be a better person.
What qualm could any good-natured person have with someone who believes such things?
But people get trapped in their certainties. These certainties form dogmas that are static, unquestioned, and held tightly. Any potential for learning and further understanding is neglected in favor of their dogmas. One of the dogmas that seems to permeate faucets of western culture is that Islam is bad, and every Muslim is therefore bad. If one should come to believe such an unfortunate view, the only possible antidote is first to embrace humility, then empathy, and then compassion. We need to realize that we do not know everything, look to understand the other person’s perspective, and then come to understand that they are a person just like anyone of us, and deserving of love and kindness.
How Wisdom Necessitates Liberality
In his iconic masterpiece Walden, Henry David Thoreau goes on quite a long rant in favor of the idea that people should read more high quality, thoughtful literature. At one point in the rant, he says,
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from reading a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things that we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life. Moreover, with wisdom we shall learn liberality. The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes into silent gravity and exclusiveness by his faith, may think it is not true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, travelled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal, and treated his neighbors accordingly, and is even said to have invented and established worship among men. Let him humbly commune with Zoroaster then, and through the liberalizing influence of all the worthies, with Jesus Christ himself, and let ‘our church’ go by the board.”
Thoreau had many criticisms of the people around him, but his most pressing is summed up in his quote that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation”, due to what he saw as a lack of contemplation and appreciation of life. In the area he lived in, the people were often very close minded, and assured that they had “absolute truth”. But, of course, even just by reading books, one can become acquainted with many different times and cultures who had very different beliefs, and if one considers the variety and vastness of belief which is capable in humanity, they will find that many of their own beliefs are merely products of their own time and culture (and, within that, the available evidence and approaches to reason they happen to become acquainted with). Thoreau thought it best, in recognition of this, to gain wisdom from all, and embrace tolerance.
Bertrand Russell makes note of this process of exposure to new ideas causing liberalism in his essay Politics and Philosophy, in which he says,
“What may be called, in a broad sense, the liberal theory of politics is a recurrent product of commerce. The first example of it was in the Ionian cities of Asia minor, which lived by trading with Egypt and Lydia. When Athens, in the time of Pericles, became commercial, the Athenians became liberal.”
He goes on to cite several more examples, and then says, “The reasons for the connection of commerce with liberalism are obvious. Trade brings men into contact with tribal customs different from their own, and in so doing destroys the dogmatism of the untraveled.”
When we read books and meet people with different perspectives, we come to gradually appreciate the many varieties by which belief and understanding of the world come. Someone may, for example, believe that a bride has to wear a white dress at a wedding, if he has only lived in a culture that conforms to that practice. But if he should venture out and come across a culture that insists the bride must wear a blue dress, his belief in the certainty of white dresses will diminish. If he ventures out further, and finds 10 different cultures with 10 different colors of dress for their brides, he will lose certainty altogether. In returning home, he will no longer insist his bride wear a white dress, but instead allow her a choice.
This is the case with religion. What we find is that there are a great many religions in the world which are meaningful in the lives of many different people. In coming to understand this, whether by reading books or interacting with people, we come to understand that their experience is not much different from our own. The “absolutes” we thought we had fade away, and are replaced by humility, and a broad appreciation of the vastness of belief and experience. We no longer insist on our own religion being the only acceptable one, but allow for many people to believe and practice in the way that they think or feel is best.
Embracing The Conceptual Truth
Scientific, Historical, and Philosophical Approximations of Truth
There are different methods of obtaining knowledge, and these result in different types of truth.
The first is the scientific method. This is simply observation and analysis of the physical world, and at best, yields a type of truth in the nature of physical things. It is not perfect, as scientific theories continue to improve from old ones, and undoubtedly, will always improve with further research. But it does give us an understanding and practical application of certain things, which are essentially indisputable. For example, the fact that a telephone works shows that our theories of sound must have at least some truth to them. And, as phones improve, we find that our theories must also be improving. This is what is helpful about the scientific method. However, while it can tell us what is, it has no ability to tell us how things ought to be. Or, in other words, has no ability to develop any type of ethical or metaphysical truth.
The second type is historical. This is the record of events that people write or pass down through oral tradition that comes to be what we call history. There are many impediments to historical truth, as it is much less direct than that which science provides. For one, history is written by the victors, and more so, by those with the ability, means, or approval to write it. Often times, history is written many years after the events occurred, and it is never written without at least some level of bias. None of history can be counted even close to an “absolute” account of what happened. Rather, we come to approximate guesses that fit what make sense of the available evidence. But many historical concepts are highly disputed, and historians hold most details, and sometimes even major concepts, very lightly. We also read into history with our philosophical presuppositions that define our perceived narrative.
The third type is philosophical. This is, in its most basic sense, speculations as to how things are, could be, and should be. There is no method of proof for most ideas in philosophy in so far as they are consistent with logic. This makes the practice of philosophy a questionable enterprise to those who want quick results and easy answers, because it will not provide those. In fact, good philosophy does just the opposite; it criticizes and questions the quick results and easy answers so as to force a justification, and thus produce an idea that contains more truth than the former. The methods of testing philosophy are found in science and history, which give us a closer estimate of truth than philosophy can provide. If a certain speculation, such as that the earth is flat, is disproved scientifically, it is no longer philosophically justifiable. If a certain speculation, such as that of Nazism, is proved historically to produce great suffering, it is no longer philosophically justifiable (within the philosophical assumption that suffering is bad).
We may say, in summary, that science is the acquisition of that which can be known through observation of the physical world, history the acquisition of that which can be known through the recorded communications of people, and philosophy the acquisition of that which can be known by positing speculations that the former two cannot yet answer.
And we must keep in mind that “that which can be known” is often more limited than we might hope, and certainly too little by which to create the kind of beliefs which religions seek to espouse and create adherents of.
Truth as Concept and Personal Meaning
One might say that the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare” or “Romeo and Juliet” are not true. Scientifically, these are not things which we have observed or tested. Historically, we cannot verify that these events actually occurred based on any communications provided us. Philosophically, there is no logical proof for this, and any assertions would be unfounded speculation.
But I believe they are true, and so do most people in our time.
Has anyone ever assumed they are better than they are and failed as a result? Has someone who was unlikely to win a competition come out the victor?
Has anyone ever had such passionate love for another person that they would reject social expectations to be with them? Or such passion that they would rather die than go on living without them?
In history, we see Napoleon’s excessive confidence cause him to invade Russia, and lose the entire empire as a result. We see America’s excessive confidence cause them to invade Vietnam, and lose badly in a messy and expensive war. We see the Golden State Warriors end the longest winning streak in NBA history against a team they expected to beat easily. Many of us have assumed that an exam would be easy, and didn’t study as much as we should, and did poorly. And so on…
History and our own life experience and observations prove “The Tortoise and the Hare” to be true.
We see William Wallace, Joan of Arc, and Patrick Henry willing to die rather than forsake the country they love. We see Mark Antony sacrifice his empire due to his love for Cleopatra. In our personal lives, many of us have become infatuated with a love interest and feel as though we would do anything for them.
History and our own life experience and observations prove “Romeo and Juliet” to be true.
Throughout literature, both ancient and modern, we find a variety of powerful truths that go beyond the “factual” events and into something that applies to larger concepts, applicable to a great variety of “factual” events.
Religious literature is no different. It contains powerful truths that, while perhaps not literal events, nevertheless prove to be profoundly true when understood conceptually. There is true wisdom told in the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, the Bible, the Tripitaka, etc. The Pope, the Dalai Lama, pastors, Imams, priests, etc. are often men of great wisdom, developed from the study and application of these texts.
No religion can be “proven” through scientific or historical means. After all, if they could, they would no longer be religions; they would simply be science or history. Religions are a type of philosophical speculation on conceptual truths as we can best understand them. For this reason, they require faith.
Faith is making an assumption on philosophical speculation so as to create a belief. Anything related to science or history should remain science or history, and faith should never contradict or seek to add or take away from them. Faith does not carry any “factual” knowledge, like that which we gain from science or history. Instead, faith carries a conceptual knowledge that helps us to make sense of the big, unanswerable questions of life and how they apply to us as individuals.
If you were to set out to know whether a soul exists, you will not find it under a microscope or ancient manuscripts. In setting out into philosophy, you may first find a philosopher with a huge number of arguments, seemingly convincing, for why a soul exists. But if you continue studying, you will find a more intelligent philosopher who destroys all of the arguments of the former, and suggests that there is no soul. In further studying, you will find philosophers who disagree with the both of them, presenting arguments from all directions, indiscernible in their application of logical principles.
But in your own life experience and understanding of people, you may have a profound sense that there is something more to humans than what we see; there is something more to love than chemical reactions in the brain, something more to life than the one we have on earth, something more to thought than synapses firing. Believing in a soul that dwells within you as a conceptual understanding of human nature can then provide meaning and value to your life. And such a belief, with insufficient grounding in the sources of literal truth, then assumes a philosophical speculation to be true, and that is faith in action.
Dangers of Absent Absolutes
Believing that you are absolutely right on any religious matter is more than arrogant; it is stupid, self-aggrandizing, and malicious in its effects. It extinguishes free thought in favor of dogma, and this dogma is never content within the mind of its adherent and is inevitably forced upon all others.
As Russell points out in Philosophy for Layman,
“Those who have a passion for quick returns and for an exact balance sheet of effort and reward may feel impatient of a study which cannot, in the present state of our knowledge, arrive at certainties, and what encourages what may be thought the time-wasting occupation of inconclusive meditation on insoluble problems. To this view I cannot in any degree subscribe. Some kind of philosophy is a necessity to all but the most thoughtless, and in the absence of knowledge it is almost sure to be a silly philosophy. The result of this is that the human race becomes divided into rival groups of fanatics, each group firmly persuaded that its own brand of nonsense is sacred truth, while the other side’s is damnable heresy. Arians and Catholics, Crusaders and Muslims, Protestants and adherents of the Pope, Communists and Fascists, have filled large parts of the last 1600 years with futile strife, when a little philosophy would have shown both sides in all these disputes that neither had any good reason to assume itself in the right. Dogmatism is an enemy to peace, and an insuperable barrier to democracy.”
If religious apologetics is done correctly, it is merely a defense of a religion’s consistency with the more exact knowledge we have of science and history. For example, a skeptic of Christianity may say that Christianity is not true because we know scientifically that evolution occurred. The role of the apologist is then to provide an understanding of Christianity that is consistent with the science we know, i.e. theistic evolution.
But religious apologetics is done well too rarely, and is often an attempted forced imposition of one’s “reason” and “evidence”, presented as indisputable. The resurrection of Jesus, for example, is not a historical fact. If it were, it would simply be history. But it is not; it is religion. And religion is merely assumed speculations of answers to unanswerable questions. The same can be said of the appearance of the angel to Muhammad or Joseph Smith, or any other religious claim. The assumptions of truth are conceptual, based on personal meaning and understanding, and cannot be extended to all through “reason” and “evidence” alone, or really, at all (reason and evidence can only provide consistencies of actual knowledge to faith or concept knowledge).
When actual absolutes are extended to all, such as the closest we can get in science, history, and logic, it is a good thing, and truth is advanced. But when we try to extend absent absolutes, or in other words, things that are proposed as truth but aren’t, its effects are quite damaging to the actual pursuit of truth. And more so, since the perceived, subjective truth is not absolute, it inevitably leads to a variety of factions all claiming “truth”. This is seen quite obviously in the great variety of religion, and it is the cause of a great deal of conflict and strife in the world.
There is a fear that embracing all religions as true means that none of them can be true, since they are mutually exclusive. This is quite a stupid and unfortunate approach to understanding religion, as it assumes a great deal of things that are better left to their proper place: philosophical speculation. One can fully embrace their religion as true and still accept the truth of all religions. This is done by recognizing the actual nature of one’s belief as a matter of faith, not with contingencies of factual knowledge, but with consistencies of factual knowledge.
The practical effects of an exclusive view of one’s religion have been discussed, and history paints a clear picture of how damaging it is. What I wish to close with is the practical effects of the mind that embraces religious sincerity and diversity.
The wise person who embraces religious diversity is one who accepts scientific, historical, and philosophical methods of understanding truth, and understands where they are each limited. They come to faith in a certain religion, not by these methods of truth, but by one of speculation drawn from personal meaning and concepts that help them make sense of the world in which they live.
If a God exists and created the universe, it is a God who shows no partiality in the truths most profound to the human experience. This is because a Muslim woman holds her baby for the first time, a Christian man remains faithful to his wife despite lustful temptation, a Hindu visits their friend in the hospital, an atheist cries after dropping their child off at college, a Buddhist is disgusted by the poverty in the world and spends their time volunteering to help the poor…and so on.
For me personally, I have, at times, found a profound sense of inspiration in the words of the gospels in the New Testament. While I see wisdom in many other books, there is nothing that drives the kind of meaning that the concept of Jesus does for me. I’ve found the Mormon worldview to be consistent with the knowledge we can access, as well as the sense of goodness of my own assumed speculation. I’ve also been indebted to the many valuable relationships my involvement has cultivated.
But I feel no need to force my beliefs on anyone. I do not have absolute truth, and neither do they. Rather, I dream of a world where people pursue their faith to the best of their knowledge and find something that is meaningful to them; that speaks to the conceptual truths of their experience and understanding. I dream of a world where words like “factionalism” and “religious conflict” are used by historians rather than news journalists, and where people of all religions attend schools, workplaces, concerts, sporting events, restaurants, public transit, etc. together without conflict, recognizing their shared humanity, and the shared truths that define us all in a greater and more profound capacity than could ever be achieved by separating ourselves based on what are actually quite arbitrary differences.
The “gospel of cosmopolitanism” is a world of greater knowledge, peace, and hopefully, joy, and it’s a gospel we should all embrace.