Between Exclusivism and Relativism

By Nicolette D. Manglos

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.

What Makes a Development Expert?

by Amy Reynolds

With discussions currently underway, the World Bank is expected to name a new president next week.  Three candidates are being considered for the position:  Nigerian Finance Minister and managing director at the World Bank, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala;  Columbian professor and former Colombian Finance Minister José Antonio Ocampo; and Dartmouth University President and medical doctor Jim Yong Kim.

The two institutions that make up the World Bank—the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Association (IDA)—have the goal of reducing poverty and promoting development.  As stated on their website, “The IBRD aims to reduce poverty in middle-income and creditworthy poorer countries, while IDA focuses exclusively on the world’s poorest countries.”

What are the qualifications most important for leading an international development-focused organization? Reading through the various articles supporting (or pointing out flaws in) the different candidates, the debates over their qualifications raise at least three important questions about economic development and poverty more generally.

1)  Who should hold the power within a development organization?  The World Bank (headquartered in D.C.) is largely controlled by Europe and the U.S.(based on money invested into the bank). From the bank’s founding in 1944, it has always had an American president. In fact, this is actually the first time that non-U.S. candidates are being considered, even as many predict Kim will be elected because he was nominated by Barack Obama.

Should those putting in the most money have the most say? Should each country have an equal vote? Or should those countries most affected by the policies of the bank be given more weight?

As nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz suggests in an opinion piece,

Since expertise on development by and large lies within the emerging and developing countries—after all, they live development—it seems natural that the World Bank’s head would come from one of those countries.  While the US, the international community, and the Bank itself repeatedly emphasize the importance of good governance, a selection procedure that de facto leaves the appointment to the US president makes a mockery of it.

2)  What is the end of development?  Economic growth is often seen as central to the

equation, alongside issues such as life span and quality of life. The World Bank uses the Human Development Index (HDI) to take into account a number of factors.

As someone who studies the underlying values of markets, I reject the notion that markets are simply efficient structures for the allocation of goods. Likewise, I would argue that development is too often equated with economic growth, and more important than measuring development is figuring out what it entails. Our current markets (and development paradigms) often value individualism over the community; efficiency over equity. We must acknowledge that assessing how to define and measure development is an ethical, and not merely technical, process. As I find in my own research, economists and theologians rarely provide similar answers over the central aspects of development.

3)  Who is an expert in development?  I find this to be one of the most interesting questions in the current discussions, perhaps because the answers are so different.  Okonjo-Iweala and Ocampo are economists; Kim a medical doctor with a doctorate in anthropology. While Forbes and the Economist, alongside a cadre of World Bank leaders, seem to be endorsing Okonjo-Iweala, other development economists have endorsed Ocampo.

What are the most important skills we want a “development expert” to have. Is having experience on the ground important?  Being able to design economic models? Evaluating the data produced by those models? Having experience making economic policy decisions? Understanding the interaction of a local culture to development programs?

While this debate is currently being followed in the media, it is not that dissimilar from those being held in boardrooms in the religious development world.  A number of Christian relief & development organizations have selected as recent presidents those with expertise in the financial and business world; others value someone who has spent time in various parts of ‘the field.’  As a recent post on this site highlighted, when Christianity Today asked what development initiatives were most (cost) effective, it was the economists who made that evaluation.  Kim’s nomination, at the very least, challenges the notion that economic expertise is the most central development-related skill.

Given the current power structures, it seems likely that Jim Yong Kim will take over from current president Robert Zoellick later this month. As someone who spent time with World Relief (a Christian relief and development organization) in El Salvador, I will be watching for the announcement.  Yet to be honest, I’m perhaps equally interested in the responses of both friends and public leaders, to better understand how they think about poverty, development, and power.

12 Curious Statistics about Today’s Young Adults

I hope to blog next week, or sometime thereafter, on the subject of affordable housing. But it’s just not on paper yet, so in lieu of that, I decided to just crunch some numbers from a very recent nationally-representative survey of 18-39-year-olds in America. Here are 12 interesting (to me, at least) statistics from that survey. What you read below is what a large population-based, random-selection survey says about young adults today. Why these 10? No particular reason. I just sat down with the questionnaire and started crunching away. Survey nerds love to do this sort of thing. We’re learning about America, after all. These are simple statistics, by the way. They’re not meant to imply causation, but rather to arouse your attention.

1. Bullying appears to be diminishing: whereas 31 percent of 18-23-year-olds reported having been bullied during their youth, the same is true of 36 percent of 24-32-year-olds and 41 percent of 33-39-year-olds.

2. Just over 20 percent of the sample said that they were currently receiving some form of public assistance.

3. Just over 31 percent of the sample said that during the past year there was a time when they did not have health insurance.

4. Only 26 percent of young adults said that their current or most recent primary job “is achieving my long-term career or work goals.”

5. The modal answer to a question about how much sleep do you get on an average night was “7 hours.” Indeed, 78 percent of young adults said they get between 6 and 8 hours of sleep a night. Good to hear, I guess.

6. Just under 15 percent of young adults said they were “nothing/atheist/agnostic” when asked about their religion. That’s pretty much in keeping with General Social Survey estimates of the same, if I recall.

7. When asked to compare their activity level in organized religion today with while they were growing up, 51 percent said they were less active than before, while only 13 percent said more active. The rest reported a comparable level.

8. When asked whether “single mothers do just as good a job raising children as a married mother and father,” 44 percent of young adults agreed, 29 percent were unsure, and 23 percent disagreed.

9. But when asked whether “it is better for children to be raised in a household that has a married mother and father,” 65 percent agreed, 20 percent were unsure, and only 11 percent disagreed, indicating that while younger adults continue to think that this arrangement is optimal, they’re also quite comfortable saying it’s not necessary (or something like that).

10. While there may indeed be a Democratic party preference at work today among young women, the inclination doesn’t show up when asked, “In terms of politics, do you consider yourself very conservative, conservative, middle-of-the-road, liberal, or very liberal?” When sorted by gender, the results are nearly indistinguishable. The parties should fight over the middle-of-the-road folks, because 50 percent of the respondents selected that category, compared with only four and five percent (respectively) who selected “very conservative” and “very liberal.” Perhaps this is why it feels like there is more “spin” these days, since so many moderates are at stake.

11. The modal category of “number of Facebook friends you have” is between 100-200. Only about 10 percent say they have more than 500, while 19 percent said they weren’t on Facebook at all.

12. Finally, 15 percent of young men, when asked when they had last masturbated, said “today.” Which is an answer category that is distinctive from “yesterday,” which was selected by an additional 19 percent of men. I guess that tells us at least one thing: that most of the men who completed the survey probably did so at some point in the evening. If most had completed the survey before noon, one should expect the “today” number to be much closer to, say, 10 percent.

What would a Regnerus blog be without some reference to sex, right? There you have it.

Time to be present

In the rush of the spring semester some professors (ok maybe it’s just me) reach a point of exhaustion. We see the mountain of research analyses that have yet to be completed and shipped to academic journals or to book presses, the ungraded papers, the unmodified lecture notes created back in 2007 (can you believe that was 5 years ago now?). It’s tiring to even think about what’s left to do and what little time we have to do it. It’s times like this that I seriously contemplate new approaches to minimizing sleep that Thomas Edison and other famous types have been known to employ. Just think: 30 minutes of sleep every 3 hours would result in something like 3.5 hours of sleep instead of my usual 7!  [Read more...]

Who Experiences God’s Presence and How Often?

Who experiences God’s presence the most often? It turns out that the General Social Survey (GSS), in 2004, included questions from the Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale. Coupled with the powerful sampling procedure used by the GSS, it allows for basic analysis of the experience of God’s presence.

To start with, here’s a table of respondents’ self-reported frequency of experience God’s presence, as it varies by religious tradition. As you can see, there’s a lot of variation, with Evangelicals and Black Protestants scoring highest and Jews and the religiously unaffiliated scoring the lowest.

From here, I selected out the Christians (both Protestant and Catholic), and as a group here are their experiences:

Gender seems to matter with everything religious, so I analyzed it as well. Perhaps no surprise, Christian women score higher than Christian men.

Finally, I examined the experience of God’s presence by frequency of church attendance, and it’s good news, probably really good news, for churches in that people who attend church the most often also report experiencing God’s presence the most often. (Obviously this doesn’t tell us if church leads to experience or if people who experience God’s presence attend church more often, and so it’s far from definitive).

Thoughts?


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