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What happens when the Enlightenment ideals of openness and tolerance run up against religious orthodoxy and fanaticism? And what follows when those same ideals are marshaled to protect speech that seems to denigrate and antagonize religion? Is reconciliation — or even dialogue — possible between secularism and deeply held faith?

These are the problems the nations of the world face as they move into the 21st century and continue to absorb unprecedented numbers of immigrants, many of them bringing with them cultural and religious values at odds with the West's traditional liberties. Compounding that tension is a growing religious extremism, marked by intolerance and violence and driven by a profound disdain for secular, democratic traditions.

FAITH & REASON host Bill Moyers asked guests to address the complicated intersection of tolerance, democracy, secularism, and militant faith in the modern world. Their answers shed light on the nature of the conflict between religious fanaticism and freedom — as well as the role writers play in charting a path through the labyrinth of conflicting beliefs.


What happens when the laws of the state conflict with the will of God? When a religious group claims to have the only direct line to the divine, sometimes democratic values and pluralism seem to stand in the way. As religious scholar Elaine Pagels noted: "There's practically no religion that I know of that sees people in a way that affirms the others' choices. But in our century we're forced to think about a pluralistic world."

listenHear more from Elaine Pagels (48:12) or read the transcript (PDF)

Anne Provoost: "Every people at some point probably has said this — they have said, 'This group of people is The Chosen.' Whenever you have a proclamation of being chosen, it's always a self-defining process. It's always the people who are chosen who say they are chosen. They never say that about the other. If you're going to do that as a group, if you're going to say, 'I'm chosen,' it loads you with a very heavy burden."

David Grossman: "[Being killed] is the danger that awaits individuals and peoples who are undertaking a 'total mission' or who are formulating themselves in absolute terms. They know the will of God. They were chosen. I prefer people and peoples who are more down-to-earth in that sense, who have very high spiritual aspirations and high values, but at the same time they leave God to others or to more 'Godly' and religious dimensions, because I think that total belief, total behaviors and hermetic, absolute terms in which one defines oneself are dangerous. They are lethal."

Richard Rodriguez: "There may be coming people who find themselves within this complexity [of the modern world] desiring black and white again. The 'pure.' And being horrified by the 'unclean.' And beware of that in this world." On a past Bill Moyers program, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe addressed the destruction of native African religions by an intolerant missionary Christianity that viewed them as worthless:

"It was not necessary to throw overboard so much that was thrown overboard in the name of Christianity and civilization. It was not necessary. I think of the damage, not only to material culture but to the mind of the people. We were taught our thoughts were evil and our religions were not really religions." Chinua Achebe. Nigerian author

listenHear more from Chinua Achebe (26:01) or read the transcript. (PDF)

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Religious fanaticism has manifested itself in many ways, perhaps most shockingly in violent acts of murder like suicide bombings. Whether there is ever a moral justification for such acts remained a matter of debate among several guests on FAITH & REASON.

David Grossman: "[The philosophy of suicide bombers] is hermetic, because it's very difficult to justify it in terms of other systems. And according to their system, they have full justification to do what they are doing. For us, people like me, who are out of this system, it looks horrible, looks so cruel. But they can justify it according to their own terms."

Martin Amis: "We're trying to make it rational, suicide bombing. And it isn't. Our response should be like a factory siren of disgust and incredulity … Suicide mass-murder is a monstrous distortion of the Koran and a monstrous sort of theological moral deformity that they've made central to their new ideologies."

Mary Gordon: "My imagination can understand somebody who would say, 'This is a life or death thing. This is about the truth. I will give my life for the truth. And if I have to take lives in order to defend the truth, I will do it.' "

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The issue of just how far free speech is protected when it comes to religion was thrust to the fore recently with the publication in a Danish newspaper of a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in what many Muslims considered an offensive manner — Islamic tradition bans images of the Prophet altogether. The cartoons, which were reprinted in several other European papers, touched off riots in a number of Muslim countries, resulting in the death of 50 people and the injury of hundreds more.

In the aftermath, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a Saudi-based association of 57 Muslim countries, urged the United Nations to pass a resolution that would declare in part that "defamation of religions and prophets is inconsistent with the right to freedom of speech." One Pakistani Muslim cleric offered a reward of $1 million to anyone willing to assasinate the Danish cartoonists.

The fracas sparked on ongoing debate in many Western nations about the line between freedom of expression and incitement to violence. Several European countries have recently introduced laws criminalizing religious defamation, and in the summer of 2006 renowned Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci will go on trial in Italy for allegedly insulting Islam in her 2001 book THE RAGE AND THE PRIDE. She faces up to two years in prison.

Salman Rushdie has faced death threats for allegedly criticizing or insulting Islam in 1989 in THE SATANIC VERSES.

Salman Rushdie: "It's really important to say in a free society that offense is not the limiting point. It seems to me 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 otherwise every other liberty, including freedom of religious observance, is put into question …The world should be a place in which people debate fiercely from well-argued and thought-out but different positions."

Colin McGinn: "I think there's got to be a very firm distinction between criticism and persecution. And I think people misunderstand the idea of tolerance often. They think that tolerance is the same thing as lack of criticism. But to me, tolerating somebody else's beliefs is not failing to criticize them, it's not persecuting them for having those beliefs. That is absolutely important. You should not persecute people for their beliefs. But it doesn't mean you can't criticize their beliefs-those are not the same thing. I think people have tended to sort of run these two things together, and they perceive criticism as if it was persecution. But it isn't."

Martin Amis spoke with Bill Moyers about the number of "world writers under threat — they're in jail, they're being hauled into court, being hounded and harassed. Amis responded: "Yes, indeed. We who are used to truly infinite freedom have a great duty, and it's a privilege to exercise it, to show solidarity with those writers."

Over the years a number of guests on past Bill Moyers programs have discussed the issue of religious intolerance and the need for reform. Here is what some of them had to say: "I would argue that what is needed today in the world is the democratic reconstruction of the world religions. The greatest single moral failing of many religious traditions is their inability to teach their followers to respect people of a different tradition the same way they respect the people of their own tradition." --Steven Rockefeller, religious historian

listen Hear more from Steven Rockefeller (26:01) or read the transcript. (PDF)

"It's a moral imperative for the 20th century, and of course, the 21st century, that [religions] find a common ground for communication. It is a moral imperative that they share a common concern for the human condition." -- Tu Wei-ming, historian and Confucian scholar

listen Hear more from Tu Wei-ming (29:23) or read the transcript. (PDF) — (DVD/VHS)
"The question is: how in a democracy can we talk to each other about the shared public world given that we have different views about what matters most deeply in the universe? -- Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy
listenHear more from Kwame Anthony Appiah (34:41) or read the transcript.

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A number of guests on FAITH & REASON have characterized the struggle between tolerance and religious fanaticism as a battle being waged within religions themselves — between radicals more moderate believers. By engaging and empowering moderate believers, they say, the fanatical elements will hopefully be pushed to the side, allowing for a more tolerant and peaceful coexistence with secular society.

Salman Rushdie spoke of his grandfather, a pious Muslim, as an model of the highly religious individual who is also capable of being broad-minded and unprejudiced:

"My grandfather, my mother's father, was deeply religious, and he was a believing Muslim. He went on the pilgrimage to Mecca. All his life he said his prayers five times a day, and yet — I don't know why I say 'yet' — but as well as that, he was just about the most tolerant and open-minded man I knew. Even now — he's long dead — he still represents a kind of model of open-mindedness and tolerance … I would say, 'Grandfather, I'm not sure I believe in God.' He'd say, 'Sit down here and tell me how you got such a dumb idea.' You know? You could talk about anything to him. He had flocks of grandchildren heckling him, asking why he was constantly prostrating himself, and he would take it all in good humor."
Native American faithkeeper Oren Lyons, in a 1991 conversation with Bill Moyers, expressed a similar concept of tolerance existing between members of various Native American tribes whose religious views seem to be in conflict: "We hear the stories of other nations, of how they came to be, when we hear how the Hopis talk about the Spider Woman, and coming from the Earth and the fourth world that they've experienced...We hear the walkabout songs of the Aboriginal people in Australia, when they talk about singing into existence these beings ...all the entities in the world, as far as they are concerned, has a song. And we say, "That's wonderful. We Agree. We say yes. Now hear our story, this is how we came." And they listen to us and they say, "That's wonderful. We believe that." -- Oren Lyons, Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, Read the transcript (PDF) (DVD/VHS)

Martin Amis: "Well, Islam is the great religion that has been the donor of countless benefits to mankind, that led the world in civilization throughout the Middle Ages, that gave us algebra and all kinds of intellectual breakthroughs, plus an example of tolerance that nowhere else in the world could offer at that time — a level of tolerance and respect for justice. That is Islam."

Karen Armstrong, religious scholar: "The mystical branch of Islam, the Sufi movement, insisted that when you had encountered God, you were neither a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim. You were at home equally in a synagogue, a mosque, a temple or a church, because all rightly guided religion comes from God, and a man of God, once he's glimpsed the divine, has left these man-made distinctions behind." -- Karen Armstrong

listenHear more from Karen Armstrong (16:01) or read the transcript.
Sissela Bok, writer and philospher:"The Golden Rule exists in every culture. Confucius speaks of it. Buddhists speak of it. The Bhagavad-Gita speaks of it, and, of course, the Bible speaks of it...To the extent it's honored even a little more, there is an improvement." -- Sissela Bok

listenHear more from Sissela Bok (17:17) or read the transcript. (PDF)

William Sloan Coffin, Christian clergyman: "You know, the impulse to love God and neighbor, that impulse is at the heart of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. No question about it. We have much more in common than we have in conflict."

listenHear more from William Sloane Coffin (23:30) or read the transcript.

Perspectives - What do you think?
"'Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it' — Ibo Proverb — "It means there is no one way to anything...If there is one God, fine. There will be others as well. If there is one point of view, fine. There will be a second point of view."
-- Chinua Achebe


"One of the awful things about long term mass censorship is that in the end people can lose a sense of what it's like to live in a free world. You know, because there's nothing automatic about it. It's a thing you have to fight for and preserve."
-- Salman Rushdie


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