Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger

In recent days we've had a local example of academic bitching at University College Cork and a clash of religions in reaction to Pope Benedict XVI's quotations from the transcript of a Christian Byzantium Emperor's conversation with a Muslim from Persia in the fourteenth century.

UCC President Gerry Wrixon may deserve all the brickbats from his academic colleagues or his antagonists may be preening, arrogant peacocks like the cabal who drove the former US Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers from the office of President of Harvard University.

When I was at UCC, the head of the Psychology Department, a Capuchin priest, was at loggerheads with the senior lecturer in the department who made it clear to students that he was an atheist. Following a pushing encounter on a staircase, the latter issued a copy of a letter to students that he had sent to the then president of the college.

So much for warring psychologists.

The late French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), who will be remembered as one of three most important philosophers of 20th century, had to contend with a lot of bitching from the defenders of the conventional wisdom in the academic world of philosophy and thought a lot about religion.

Philosopher Simon Critchley wrote the following on his tormenters:

Derrida's treatment by mainstream philosophers in the English-speaking world was, with certain notable exceptions like Richard Rorty, shameful. He was vilified in the most ridiculous manner by professional philosophers who knew better but who acted out of a parochial malice that was a mere patina to their cultural insularity, intellectual complacency, philistinism and simple jealousy of Derrida's fame, charisma and extraordinary book sales.

In the English context, the incident which brought matters to a head was the initial refusal in late Spring 1992 to award Derrida an honorary doctorate at the University of Cambridge, a refusal that found support amongst prominent voices in the Philosophy Faculty. After finally receiving the honorary doctorate with his usual civility, humour and good grace, a letter was sent to the University of Cambridge from Ruth Barcan Marcus, the then Professor of Philosophy at Yale, and signed by some twenty philosophers, including Quine, who complained that Derrida's work "does not meet accepted standards of rigor and clarity."

I would like to take this opportunity to register in print my gratitude to these know-nothings for the attention they gave to Derrida because it helped sell lots of copies of my first book - on Derrida and ethics - that also came out in 1992 and paid for a terrific summer vacation.

Derrida on Religion

Derrida understood that religion is impossible without uncertainty and that God can never be fully known or adequately represented by imperfect human beings.

However, we live in an age when major conflicts are shaped by people who claim to know, for certain, that God is on their side. Derrida said that religion does not always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by providing secure foundations. To the contrary, the great religious traditions are profoundly disturbing because they all call certainty and security into question. Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger.

US Professor Mark C. Taylor writes that as the process of globalization draws us ever closer in networks of communication and exchange, there is an understandable longing for simplicity, clarity and certainty. This desire is responsible, in large measure, for the rise of cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism—in both the US and around the world. True believers of every stripe—Muslim, Jewish and Christian—cling to beliefs that, Derrida warns, threaten to tear apart our world.

Taylor says that fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief—one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open.

My favourite aphorism is from another Frenchman, André Gide (1869-1951), Nobel Laureate in Literature 1947: Believe those who search for truth. Doubt those who claim to have found it