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BILL MOYERS ON FAITH & REASON DISCUSSION GUIDE
Episode I: Salman Rushdie Episode II: Mary Gordon and Colin McGinn Episode III: Jeanette Winterson and Will Power Episode IV: David Grossman and Anne Provoost Episode V: Richard Rodriguez and Sir John Houghton Episode VI: Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis
THINKING ABOUT FAITH AND REASON
You've been watching Bill Moyers and his guests discuss some of the central issues of our time. Why not explore those issues further on your own, in the company of your own family, friends, and colleagues
Around the world and throughout modern history, thinkers have struggled with faith and reason some have reconciled the two, others have sought to disentangle them, and still others have privileged one over the other.
In the history of Western thought, one of the most influential statements about the relationship between faith and reason, between the demands of belief and the needs of the human community, comes from the 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian S¯ren Kierkegaard.
In his book FEAR AND TREMBLING, Kierkegaard makes a detailed study of the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis, and finds in it a paradigmatic example of the struggle between faith and reason.
Acting on God's command, Abraham the founding father of the monotheistic religions is willing to murder his son, jeopardize his family, and alienate himself from his community to commit what appears to be an immoral act. Kierkegaard calls this a "teleological suspension of the ethical" a leap of faith in which an individual leaves behind a community's apparently universal moral structures in favor of the higher goal of satisfying the absolute requirements posed by religious belief.
Does this notion of the leap of faith shed any light on the small and great problems of faith and reason discussed by Moyers' guests, from Mary Gordon's fantasy about running Hummer drivers off of the road; to Jeanette Winterson's mother's choice between happiness and normality; to Richard Rodriguez's continuing commitment to a Catholic Church that in its doctrines questions his very identity; to even the thoughts of those who feel divinely inspired to commit acts of terror? Where is the line between faith and fanaticism?
But while current events tempt us to narrow our interest to fundamentalisms and their impact, in doing so we miss a host of other issues concerning religion and its place in the modern world. Mainstream adherents of the world's major religions within and without the Abrahamic tradition - are grappling today with the impact of technology, of environmental change, of globalization, and are ever more coming into contact with one another, offering a possibility of exchange of ideas on an unprecedented scale.
We can ask ourselves, along with the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, how religions and cultures can coexist in a contemporary context. For Chodron, getting along in the world can be seen as a matter of breaking addictions: addictions to criticism, to escalation of aggression, to received ideas and prejudices. Can we educate ourselves and our neighbors into acceptance and understanding of our fellow human beings and their belief systems?
Or are we committed to a notion of tolerance that is purely secular? Should we, with Salman Rushdie, look to a future where we "don't bring religion to the settlement of our political differences"? Can we ever really avoid bringing religion to the table? Even when we attempt to put aside religion to make a better world, as Mary Gordon points out of Soviet Communism, we tend to replicate its forms, so deeply is our reasoning, our sense of moral progress, and the very language we deliberate in formed by the religious experiences of our cultures. Can this be avoided? If not, can we imagine a world that incorporates - peacefully, progressively, and even reasonably the varied faiths held by human beings.
Salman Rushdie tells Bill Moyers that he'd contacted writers rather than theologians or philosophers because - in what he describes as a period of "imaginative failure" - he wanted to generate "imaginative acts of response" to questions of faith and reason.
How do you understand this imaginative failure (or, "failure of empathy" as Bill Moyers puts it)? Is it a matter of mutual incomprehension between the West and the Arab world? Do we in the West even understand what we are talking about when we talk about "the Arab world" or "the Islamic world"? Conversely, do people in the Arab world understand what they're talking about when they're talking about "the West"? Can you easily define these worlds?
Can imagination bridge the gap? Is the very act of imagining something all human beings have in common? If we're all "dreaming creatures" as Rushdie puts it, with a common drive toward transcendence, toward imagining a world which is more than simply the sum of physical objects, can simply recognizing this be a starting point for mutual understanding?
In the contemporary world, does religion fail to build such understanding? Does politics also fail, as Rushdie points out, to "address itself to the grieving and achings of the soul"? Should politics fill this role?
Along with a group of other writers and intellectuals, Salman Rushdie this year signed a statement, published in the French paper Charlie Hebdo, calling for "resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all."
While many of the writers involved most famously Rushdie himself - have personally experienced persecution by religious fundamentalists, nearly all at the hand of Islamic fundamentalists the events that inspired this manifesto were the series of violent protests, in Europe and across the Islamic world, in the aftermath of the publication of cartoons of Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
Rushdie feels that freedom of religious observance and freedom of speech are inextricably intertwined - that one cannot exist without the other but that "when there is conflict between the liberty of speech and the beliefs of private individuals, the liberty of speech must always take precedence," because to do otherwise calls all other forms of liberty into question.
Are there some situations in which leveraging freedom of speech above all other freedoms is unwarranted? Can religious belief and freedom sometimes collide, sometimes coexist, in free societies, and is it worth considering religious sensibilities before making political utterances, whether personally or in the media? Did the editors of the Jyllands-Posten cry "fire" in a crowded theater, in sociopolitical terms?
Rushdie tells us that "What's happened more and more nowadays is that...power has begun to take reprisals, you know...against artists around the world."
What is the role of the artist in a world where political forces - or the forces of politically-charged religion - consider artists and their works to be serious threats? Should artists provoke? Comment? Suggest visions of a better world?
How can writers and other artists whose work it is to produce "imaginative acts of response" help to build connections between cultures, especially when those cultures begin with a radical misunderstanding of one another? Are politicians and artists necessarily in opposition? Or can they work together, for better or for worse? Can you think of recent or historical examples of artists wielding or resisting political power?
Salman Rushdie feels that Islamic fundamentalists are "using the language of Islam" to frame what are really totalitarian political goals more akin to those of the Nazi Party or the Soviet Communist Party under Stalin.
We've seen in the last few years a number of instances in which fundamentalists have been elected through what appears to be a democratic process. Has the process itself been corrupted in these countries, or are people somehow voting against their own interests?
Does censorship in these countries, as Rushdie puts it, prevent scholars from "[going] back to first principles and reexamin[ing] the bases of the faith," thus keeping them from having a meaningful argument about the historical foundations of Islam that might have political impact?
And what can be done? Rushdie seems to endorse continuing to respond to Al Qaeda and similar groups militarily. Has that been effective? In what ways? Could it be more effective? What are the alternatives?
Rushdie believes that ultimately, "in the Muslim world the big change may come because Muslim women reject the oppression that they've been subjected to."
What shape do you think this rejection might take? Will it be inspired by women activists who have left the Muslim world and now work for change in Islam from the West, like Irshad Manji; or from women who have left Islam altogether, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali; or will it be left to women working for change within Islamic societies, like the women's groups in Iran who continue to agitate for change even under the current hard-line government?
Do you think Mary Gordon - who says in the series that she finds it easier to understand the inner life of a suicide bomber than the inner life of a real estate magnate is correct in seeing in bin Laden a mirror, albeit a perverse one, of her own disgust with Western consumerism? She feels that the only thing that stops her from acting immorally running Hummer drivers off the road, for instance, out of disgust at capitalism is her adherence to the moral authority of her faith. Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, seems to have come to the opposite conclusion, at least in Gordon's theory.
Does such a comparison make sense from a cultural standpoint? From a religious one? Is her impulse to clean the cultural slate and "start from zero" the same as his?
Do you agree with Colin McGinn that Americans are indeed deeply committed to the protection of religious freedom contained in the First Amendment?
Where is the line between insult and criticism? Do fundamentalists from right-wing Christians in the US who feel their way of life is under attack to Islamic fundamentalists who feel under assault by cartoons in right-wing Danish newspapers confuse criticism and persecution? Do non-fundamentalists, whether mainstream faithful or atheists or agnostic, tend to confuse these ideas as well? Do we, as McGinn suggests, have a tendency to think of "tolerance" as simply an absence of rational criticism?
While Mary Gordon and Colin McGinn would both proudly call themselves skeptics, Gordon feels her skepticism deepens her commitment to her faith, while McGinn's skepticism has led him to reject religious belief.
Gordon would say that there are many more reasons for disbelieving than there are for believing, but that doubt is an essential element of faith; McGinn, goes further, and states it would be impossible for a person to be a fully committed rational individual and also a person of faith. Indeed, McGinn states that were God accessible by reason, faith would not be necessary that reason would cancel faith out.
Does McGinn make faith too difficult, and therefore make it theoretically impossible to reconcile with reason? Does Gordon who sees faith as a force standing in opposition to the narratives of fundamentalism and consumerism make it too easy?
Colin McGinn reminds us that while scientific reason can prove the existence of things based on evidence it is impossible to prove that something especially something that by definition doesn't obey the physical rules of the universe does not exist, so it's as difficult to prove the nonexistence of God as it would be to prove the nonexistence of unicorns.
Is this the fundamental difference between faith and reason? That faith demands belief without proof while reason denies belief without proof?
For McGinn, this means that the faithful find themselves involved in a paradox, since he feels no human being can believe in something without, at some level, having an explanation for it. He locates these explanations in culture, in psychology, and finds them wanting on the basis of reason.
But McGinn finds them lacking even, he posits, if one believes that the world would be awful without God, that does not, technically, provide sufficient evidence to believe in God.
McGinn and Gordon both children of the Enlightenment - feel that science does not give the full story of human nature. But their responses are quite different. Gordon still feels that religion provides the promise of an answer to the questions that science cannot address; McGinn feels such questions are answered by philosophy, by the arts.
For McGinn, even if our world would be awful without the idea of God, that would still not provide a reason to believe. For Gordon, it is the concept of God that provides justification for the torment of belief itself that provides a moral center for human beings.
EPISODE III - JEANETTE WINTERSON AND WILL POWER