Field Notes article

A Reply to Thomas Banchoff and Abdulaziz Sachedina (Part 2)

In my last post, I went along with Banchoff’s hunch about religious and secular justifications for insisting on human dignity, exploring some of the issues in both Christian and Muslim thought. But I can’t say my heart was really in it, because I find that way of putting the question somewhat problematic. Asking venerable religious traditions to play catch-up with the Enlightenment grates on my post-liberal nerves, I am afraid. As Sachedina points out, the process of critique is just as necessary in the other direction. I think we need to stand back from the starting point of my previous post and take in a wider picture. Here are three reasons why:

1. Genealogy: Where Did the Enlightenment Get Its Ideas about Human Dignity From?

Kant, let us not forget was himself no secular humanist but a (somewhat rationalist) Protestant. Along with the other philosophers of the Enlightenment, he inherited his moral vision from the Christianity of his upbringing. As Europe moved through a period of Deism, a certain secularization took place which uncoupled the idea of human value from its mooring in the narrative of salvation history and finally left it as a free-standing dogmatic assertion — a myth which, like the myth of progress, people subscribe to without always knowing why.

One would have to say that in our day and age, these ‘myths of modernity’ are looking rather fragile. The myth of progress, for instance, could, in the 19th Century, just about be sustained by appeal to (then) respectable scientific understandings of evolution. Now that neo-Darwinism dominates, however, you can’t sustain the view on scientific grounds that life just keeps getting better and better. Darwinism does not support this idea (which Mary Midgely calls the “escalator fallacy”). Philosopher John Gray has written scathingly of how the spectre of progress haunts our civilisation on no empirical basis whatsoever. The same, I would suggest, could be said of our commitment as a civilisation to human dignity. So there must be a challenge to secular humanists, I think: how do you justify your impressive commitment to human dignity in a way that is credible and effective in today’s world, helping real human beings and societies to treat one another with more respect? Which brings me to…

2. The Danger of Idealism

The quest for human dignity is not all about who has the most beautiful ideals; it must also be about beautiful outcomes. Having fine ideals is one thing; finding a way to put them into practice is quite another. I, for one, think I would prefer to live in a society where people were in fact accorded real dignity even though the citizenry was conceptually inarticulate as to its reasons for living that way, rather than one which held up a glittering ideal but then seriously failed to live up to it. This raises the question of how ideas and principles can penetrate social life and bring about real social change.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age offers a rigorous account of how the ideas of the Church and of the Enlightenment have indeed played out in the way people actually live their lives. But he goes beyond telling a story about concepts and their evolution to analyse how these concepts filter into the what he calls the social imaginary (the functional map accessible to people’s consciousness which provides them with a sense of the social space around them and their place within it) through the unfolding of events and the adoption of new social practices. It seems to me that if we are going to reflect on the role that religions like Islam and Christianity play in buttressing human rights, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the discussion of certain ideals and their origins in the Bible or the Qur’an. We should also ask the rather more difficult question of how those ideas do or do not get into the social imaginary. Which leads me to my final point, which is about what might already be in the social imaginary…

3. Imagining Persons

Westerners are very good at overlooking the fact that their secular social imaginary is a rather astonishing cultural achievement. Instead they tend to think of it as the natural, neutral view. Notably, we have developed a way of thinking about human beings in the abstract, devoid of specific identities or contingent commitments. When Westerners think about what it is to be a citizen, it is an abstract ideal that will come to their minds, such that any concrete human being could fit into the space thus imagined. You can see the effects of our blindness to what an extraordinary way of seeing things this is, nevertheless, when some among us exhibit shock and amazement that other cultures, which have followed very different trajectories to our own, seem unable immediately to implement whatever enlightened social reform concerns us at a given moment — be it the full equality of women, same-sex marriage, and so on.

What we find hard to take on board is that those achievements of ours are the fruit of decades, if not of centuries, of contingent development along particular lines. They cannot simply be imposed at will on societies which are on very different trajectories. (This, of course, can sound like a relativist’s charter but, for the sake of brevity, I would also point out that it need not be). All of which is to bring us to a question: supposing there were a culture which was not open to thinking of human persons in this abstract way? Lawrence Rosen would say that this is indeed the case with Arab societies, referring to a culture of what he calls ‘personalism’ (to be distinguished from the philosophical school of personalism). Arabs, he claims, do not see political life as the interplay of abstract principles and institutions but of concrete persons:

among the Arabs, the person is largely envisioned as a unity of character traits and situated encounters bounded by the limits of Allah and subject mainly to each person’s capacity to fabricate advantageous ties without needing to create a subjective world focused inside oneself. […] Thus, to know a person’s connections is vital both to knowing his character and how to form your own ties with him; knowing someone’s background tells you what he intends by his acts; knowing how he has dealt with others in the past tells you how he deals with others now.” (58).

Inevitably, this way of perceiving human beings will make it very hard to theorise human dignity in the Western way, by separating each individual off from their social network and according them a notional and abstract worth as an isolated monad. It’s not that to do so is wrongheaded but that the individual person is not thinkable outside of the group and all the relations that go together to make up his/her identity. Human dignity in an Arab society (and note now that we are not talking directly about Islam, though that is part of the picture), therefore, will have to look rather different to its western equivalent. If, after all, we want to talk of Contending Modernities then presumably this is what we mean: contending visions of human dignity. Hence, I like what Sachedina wrote about the way Islam functions to gather people into a unity (something that also needs to be said about Catholicism); but we need to make sure that we don’t hear this as merely tantamount to the Spock dictum: “the needs of the many outweigh that of the few”. It’s a much more radical point than simply a matter of different ‘values’. It’s that different cultures actually envision the person in quite different, and mutually exclusive, ways.

So by all means let’s see what resources our religious traditions have to tell us about human dignity, but let’s do it by learning from them rather than pillaging them as scrap metal to buttress the precarious edifice of the secular model. And let’s look in depth not just at ideas but at the way societies actually work and how religious practices and beliefs get inside them and make a positive difference.

Damian Howard
Damian Howard SJis Lecturer in Theology at Heythrop College, University of London. His research engages with Islamic theology and contemporary Islamic thought, drawing parallels and contrasts with the concepts and experiences that shape the Christian tradition. He is the author of Being Human in Islam: The Impact of the Evolutionary Worldview(2011), which examines the impact of the evolutionary worldview on Islamic conceptions of human identity.

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