While reading Peggy Levitt’s 2009 book on religion and immigration, God Needs No Passport, I was struck by her summary of the four prevailing attitudes towards religion. She describes the academic, well-meaning anti-religionist; the indifferent non-religious average Joe; the Christian exclusivist who fears local mosques and Hindu temples; and the religious relativist, with strong beliefs of his/her own who nonetheless values all traditions as equally valid. It is clear how she feels about each. The first two need a dose of reality—religion isn’t going away anytime soon—and the third needs to be hit over the head for their close-mindedness. The fourth, needless to say, is her ideal religious person, as it is for many thoughtful intellectuals. Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace celebrates this trend in American life towards relativist religiosity. The message is that we should all be as religious as we want to be, as long as we accept others’ religious preferences and inclinations as equally valid.
As nice as it sounds, it’s also an illogical and problematic attitude. It perpetuates the barrier between relativist intellectuals and the average religious person (speaking globally). Granted, I appreciate Levitt’s appreciation of how important religion is to the vast majority of the world. That should be the bare minimum for good social science, but it hasn’t always been, so I think we may be getting somewhere. On the other hand, the doctrine of religious relativism is illogical and self-contradictory. Ultimately, it is condescending to the deeply committed. There are three main reasons for this.
First, all major religious traditions are metanarratives. They make an account of human existence that subsumes all other meta-narratives within it. Each one makes a fundamental claim to being true. Jesus Christ may have been the only one quoted as saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” but all traditions take as their starting point that they are THE way. Some may argue that this is not always the case. Usual examples of “non-exclusive” religions are Shinto in Japan, yogic philosophy, or certain strains of Buddhism. Without going into too much depth, I would counter that although those traditions largely recognize the validity of other spiritual beliefs and practices, they also assert their own imperative. Siddhartha’s Four Noble Truths are ultimately a metanarrative. Within that narrative, if you fail to acknowledge those truths and follow Siddhartha to non-attachment, you will be lost in a world of painful suffering. Therefore, serious devout religious people everywhere are going to have a problem with relativism, because they actually believe—as their tradition tells them to believe—that their beliefs are truth. They believe others will be better off believing them. If they didn’t, why would they waste their time?
Secondly, religious exclusivists and fundamentalism, as described by Levitt and many other social critics, are also unacceptable alternatives for believing people. In today’s public discourse, such attitudes are assumed to be based in fear that one’s tradition will disappear or will be persecuted and marginalized. Yet religious traditions, as metanarratives, prepare believing people for this possibility and explicitly tell them not to fear it. This, again, is a logical extension of promoting a certain metanarrative as real truth. If truth is in fact truth, it cannot disappear, no matter how much those who believe in it are persecuted, and no matter how difficult it gets to believe. In fact, persecution may be a good sign. David Koresh seemed to think so, as Nancy Ammerman so clearly described. Christian Smith has similarly noted the “embattled and thriving” identity of American evangelicals.
Finally, what we call religious exclusivism is disproportionately concentrated in the Global South. The Global South is also disproportionately post-colonial and peripheral in global politics, as well as dark-skinned, non-Western, and less-educated. We used to think them primitive because they wore minimal clothing and danced to strange gods. Now we think them primitive because they outlaw homosexuality and premarital sex, and attribute political events to the work of Satan. Their habits and beliefs have changed dramatically since two hundred years ago, and overwhelmingly they have embraced Christianity and, to a lesser degree, Islam. Yet implicit racism and intellectual imperialism from our side persists. Levitt may have talked to some Brazilians and Pakistanis that bewailed the increasing power of fundamentalists in their societies. Her example of religious exclusivism may be a Catholic resident of Lowell, Massachusetts. Yet the fact remains that statistically-speaking, religious “exclusivism” is a non-white phenomenon. We can get away with demonizing it because the majority of the global elite are white. It’s a simple case of Gramscian cultural hegemony.
Most of the believing people I have known personally, and have interviewed in my research, fall somewhere between the exclusivism and relativism Levitt describes. The Ghanaian Charismatics I interviewed in Chicago are a good example. They do not fear that Christianity will be persecuted into oblivion. They decry violence as a conversion method and live peacefully in America. They frequent shops owned by Hindus without much of a second thought. They eat Chinese food. If they are ridiculed for their non-relativist beliefs, they take it in stride Further, they understand the role of cultural variation in religious belief. They can interpret biblical texts in the context of first-century Israel, and their biblical literalism is not a simplistic reading of ancient texts. On the other hand, they fully believe that they are better off as Christians, that African society as a whole is better off since the introduction of Christianity, and that everyone else also needs to believe in Christianity in order to be saved from suffering in this life and the next. Evangelism, for them, has very little to do with cultural change or domination. It has everything to do with collective responsibility and the choice to believe and commit to what one perceives as truth.
As Weber argued, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and I would add the Axial Faiths more generally, are radically universalist. Yet rather than asserting that everyone’s different ideas are equally true, this type of universalism asserts that everyone is a candidate to believe the truth because this truth is true for everyone, regardless of language, history, culture, or skin color. From this perspective, to respect another is to enable them to believe the truth. We as academics, relativists, and white Americans may not agree. Yet we must recognize that this is not the same close-minded and fearful exclusivism that Levitt describes.
So to summarize: 1) religious relativism is an oxymoron; 2) exclusivism, as it is commonly described, is also an unacceptable position for most believing people; and 3) religious relativism is a disturbingly imperialist attitude in global context. For all three reasons, it is a shame it is such a prevailing attitude among those who study religion and shape academic discourse. There is a third attitude, the one taken by millions of believing people, that is neither exclusivist nor relativist. It is a reasoned, confident belief in a given metanarrative. It is fully compatible with the idea that multiple metanarratives must coexist peacefully and that all human persons are due respect, as well as the idea that one day everyone will recognize that their metanarrative is most true. Without understanding this perspective, we cannot understand what motivates religious people.