March 1, 2010
The problem with American foreign policy is that it never considers that a particular religious belief might be true or that some beliefs might be false. We don't argue with religious folk, we attempt to placate them. There is a weird American notion that people can be persuaded to abandon their religious point of view if we only send them enough CNN, MTV, and uplifting Obama speeches.
We forget they might reject our ideas and so honestly wish us to fail.
Since any belief system can respect an honest adversary, but loathes the condescending bully who assumes his superiority, our style of negotiating is not successful.
American foreign policy treats religion as if it were a matter of opinion, the equivalent of rooting for the Packers or Manchester United. That is not how religious believers think of religion.
Of course, arguing against a bad religious idea requires knowing something about it, and American schools are shy about mentioning any religious ideas. We assume religion is a matter of mere "belief" and are casually taught that "faith" believes despite the evidence.
Centuries of philosophy of religion and thought in a given religious tradition are ignored with this bluff. We think we are being kind to religions to ignore them in the market-place-of-ideas, but the reality is that it too often allows people's real concerns and reasons for their opinions to go unaddressed.
They believe their religion is true and that it makes sense of reality. Sadly, too many American diplomats assume religious beliefs are not true and try to negotiate with the benighted natives who still cling to falsehoods.
Too often, whatever their private religious beliefs, our diplomats act the role of the condescending adult sent to adjudicate between squabbling infants. We irritate with our condescension as we suggest that the other cultures keep their beliefs to themselves and simply adopt secular ones. Too often American diplomats don't consider that other peoples look at America and don't like some of what they see.
We might get further arguing for liberty if took a page from the Founders and argued that it was given by a Creator-God. We might get further with the majority of the population of the world if we conceded that republican ethics did not have to be tolerant of Vegas values.
It does not help our cause when those that argue against a particular religious point of view also argue against all religious points of view. Whatever the merits of a serious secularism, buffoonish Internet atheists who sweep away arguments with rhetoric that only persuades the already unconverted do serious damage to the cause of an intelligent discussion of religion. Secular Americans often act as if a rational argument about religious belief must lead to bloodshed and cannot make progress. They should go pick a journal in philosophy of religion and see that arguments can be made forcefully, but need not be made violently. Arguments evolve under criticism and become stronger. Old opinions are modified by evidence. For example, today's arguments for the existence of God are stronger than they were a century ago, because of the need to respond to critics.
Traditionally, Americans have believed that there should be no established church. Most Americans could believe this because it was compatible with their religious views, since most Americans were Christian.
Not all Christians, and not all religious systems, share the view that church, state, society, and family each have designated but separate roles. Some religions and some secularist accept ideas contrary to the notion that are rights come from God and cannot be taken away by the state. They dispute the American consensus, mostly an American
Christian consensus, which allows religion to inform the decisions of members of government without becoming an official part of the government.
We accept that religion may constitute the reasons for a vote, but deny that it should be the constitution that governs how that vote must be taken.
American diplomats must learn why some forms of Islam, though not all, deny that consensus and make arguments against these bad ideas. We must do so in a form that will be persuasive to an Islamic audience. That means knowing Islam, respecting it, but also being willing to disagree with forms of it or ideas held by some Islamic scholars. This can be done respectfully.
We must oppose any group, religious (as in Iran) or secular (as in North Korea), that wants to settle these arguments by an atomic bomb.
An effective negotiator will begin by learning what his opposite believes, why he believes it, and consider whether his foe might be right. Having decided he is wrong, he must attempt to persuade and negotiate so that two groups that disagree may still live in peace.
Religious people do this all the time. My own school has taught me a great deal about such dialogue by modeling religious discussions that are pointed, but polite. I am pleased when my Mormon friends invite my to the beautiful Salt Lake area and we discuss our serious disagreements. They think I am wrong and I think they are wrong. We argue forcefully, but then negotiate the boundaries of our friendship so that we can agree to disagree. I learn from them, get to enjoy their splendid literature, and I hope they learn something from me.
American government must learn that religion, and secular philosophies, are not mere affectations of bewildered masses yearning to be American. At their best, they are the considered judgments of mature civilizations.
Until we have the knowledge to deal with them in such ways, we will have all the effectiveness of a street preacher shouting facile slogans on a corner or an Internet atheist hurling abuse anonymously in a comment box.
This article originally appeared at the Washington Post's On Faith page. Click here to read the continuing conversation.
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.