Religion is a deep human need: American Professor

“In my view religion is a deep human need and thus an inevitable part of almost every human life,” says Michael A Gillespie, a professor of political science and philosophy in Duke University.

(Ahlul Bayt News Agency) - In an interview with us, Gillespie also says, “Mu’tazalite thought played a very important role in shaping the thought of scholastic realists such as Thomas Aquinas.”

The interview was conducted by Hossein Kaji and Javad Heirannia.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: What is the status of religion in our time? Do you think we are entering a world without religious values? If so why?

A: I do not believe that religion has become less important nor do I believe that religious values are disappearing, but there is considerable change within our religious sensibilities. In last hundred years we have seen an enormous expansion of the world’s population with the widespread breakdown of rural and village life. In vast numbers people have moved into cities and away from the traditional structures of communal life and authority. The influence of husbands over wives, of parents over children, of elders over the young, and of religious leaders over their followers has diminished. This is a process that has disrupted life in every country in which it has occurred. In Europe this process was identified with secularization and there was a widespread belief beginning in the Enlightenment that this would lead to a rejection of religion and the rule of reason. What these thinkers did not recognize was that the disappearance of communal forms of authority not only made greater individual liberty possible, it also undermined the web of relationships that supported people’s identities and provided them with psychic support. Alienated and feeling cast adrift, many people look for something to hold on to and it is in this context that they are open to new ideas. Some of these ideas may be may be political or social but often they are forms of religious faith and practice adapted not to the life of the village but the urban milieu that replace the associational life that has been lost and provide people with the psychic and spiritual substance they have been missing. We see the development of these groups in various guises but particularly in fundamentalist movements among many different religious groups. By this I mean those who reject traditional practices and return back to what they take to be the literal or original meaning of scripture. For them the doors of interpretation have reopened and in place of the wisdom of the tradition or the learned, they argue for new and often radical interpretations of scripture that reflect their own interests and passions, and particularly their hatred of individualism and modernity. They offer in place of such alienation and spiritual isolation not a return to the authority of traditional life, but a fanatic attachment to charismatic leaders who spring up everywhere to take advantage of the spiritual vacuum and turn young people toward their own vision of God and scripture.

 In my view religion is a deep human need and thus an inevitable part of almost every human life. The question is not whether there will be religion but what kind of religion it will be. With the collapse of the traditional structures of authority we thus seem to have a choice between charismatic religions that often preach the imminence of apocalypse and demand self-sacrifice and martyrdom that is not ultimately in the interest of the people or the faithful but of those who are at the head of such groups. My hope is that we can find ways and forms of religious believe and practice that are more compatible with our respective traditions and that allow us to retain a sense of rootedness and belonging in our societies and communities.

Q: Defending religious beliefs was difficult in the 18th and 19 centuries. What is your view?

A: Defense of religious belief in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was difficult for several reasons. Although Protestants and Catholics in Europe and America had reached a modus vivendi, the many forms of Christian belief at the time were still convinced of their own rectitude and of the falseness of the other sects. This was also true in even greater measure of the Christian believers views of both Judaism and Islam, as well as the polytheistic sects the Europeans encountered in their imperialistic expansion. This attitude was exacerbated by the rise of rationalism and a soft atheism during the Enlightenment that saw all religions as forms of superstition. In the earlier period such doubts existed but led to skepticism and not to atheism. In our own time, when many have called the Enlightenment faith in reason into question and even suggested in the twentieth century that it was responsible for a number of disasters of its own, the search for a metaphysical or theological world-view that can provide spiritual sustenance has grown. The growth of tolerance among diverse religious groups and the decoupling of religion and nationalist/internationalist political aspirations is crucial to the continuation of the acceptance of a diversity of religious beliefs. Historical experience suggests that this will be difficult and that it is likely to be achieved only if there is active and widespread support among both religious leaders and intellectuals in the face of attempts to use religion for nationalist and imperialistic purposes.

Q: What are the main differences between the western and Islamic philosophies? What are the impacts of Islamic philosophy on the western philosophy if there is any?

A: I believe that Mu’tazalite thought played a very important role in shaping the thought of scholastic realists such as Thomas Aquinas, while the Ash’arite thought had a similar impact on the voluntarists/nominalists such as Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and others. The development of nominalist thought, however, took a different direction from that of the Ash’arites, in large measure because the nominalists recognized the importance of secondary causes while the Ash’arites denied any force other than that of the primary cause, that is Allah. This had a profound impact on the development of modern science in the West and the turn away from such explanations in Sunni countries. Shi’a Islam occupies a more middle position between the two and therefore offers a greater possiblility for opening a path toward an alternative to both.

Q: Humanities dose not have some advantages of natural sciences in our era? Why have you chosen humanities for your specialty? What are your reasons for studying your discipline?

A: Francis Bacon remarked in the early seventeenth century that knowledge was power and Napoleon claimed at the beginning of the nineteenth century that politics was destiny, but in both of these instances they relayed upon concepts that were themselves derived from humanistic studies. The study of the humanities encompasses many different subjects but in my case I was drawn to it because it seemed to me to offer a vehicle for understanding the basic ideas that have guided and that continue to guide science, political life, economics, and social interactions to name only the most prominent areas of human activity. These ideas in my view are derived from the religious heritage, the philosophical tradition, and the imaginative constructions in art and literature that have shaped our experience of the world. What could be more thrilling as an intellectual enterprise and more useful as a means of understanding how best to act in the world than such a study.

Q: Do you agree with this view that paper (and not book) is the main format of writing in humanities? Why? How do you write your papers? Are your papers based on your lectures?

A: I think that papers in the humanities play a crucial role in presenting and defending a specific idea and in certain disciplines such as analytic philosophy they have become the predominant mode of expression and argument, but in most fields of the humanities the book remains the sine qua non of academic expression. I would distinguish in this context articles from essays. Some articles are essays but many are not since they deal not with a general theme or question but with some small point or case that needs to be explicated within a larger research program. My own papers are seldom based on my lectures and are most often essays that seek to make some larger point by reflecting on a specific instance or example. To give you some examples: John Locke in the seventeenth century wrote a foundational book describing a government of free individuals called The Second Treatise on Government. Rousseau in the eighteen century wrote a famous book describing a collectivist notion of liberty called the Social Contract. The twentieth century author Isaiah Berlin wrote a book about both of these authors and their conceptions of liberty called Two Concepts of Liberty. Many people have written articles supporting or disputing Berlin’s arguments pointing to the logic of his argument or to using specific cases or examples. Berlin’s work is a book in the humanities about other works that are themselves foundational texts. The articles about Berlin are part of the research project that Berlin established in raising the question of multiple ways of understanding liberty. The displacement of books by articles in the humanities would signal a waning of the kinds of big ideas that spur research programs and help us to conceive the world in new and more fruitful ways.

Q: How do you read the texts of your disciplines?

A: The question of whether and how we read texts in political theory and political philosophy is a good one. The entire Abrahamic tradition is rooted in fundamental text from the Torah, Bible, and Koran, to the texts of great literature and philosophers. A great may of the tensions that arise within this tradition are a reflection of the different values we assign to different texts and the manner in which we read them. This is the so-called hermeneutical problem. What do texts mean? In the first instance this is the question of who the author of the text is--historically was the text a product of human thought or was it inspired by God. Even if we believe we have a convincing answer to this question, it doesn’t mean we then know what the texts mean. In “divinely inspired” texts we still need to ask whether they are simply commandments, or are they meant to spur human thought in ways that are not immediately obvious; are the stories meant to be understood literally or interpreted metaphorically; is the history an accurate account of what occurred or is it meant to be taken allegorically. With respect to purely human texts, we must continually ask ourselves whether the authors mean what they say or even understand what they say, and again whether their texts aim simply at conveying ideas or whether they aim at persuading us to do something; and whether they are written with one meaning for one audience and a different meaning for another.

Both in teaching and scholarship we attempt to open up dialogues about these questions in the hope of first dispelling the notion that understanding a text is as easy as it appears on the surface and second making some headway toward understanding the possible set of meanings of the text. Some people have more training and expertise in interpreting texts but that is no guarantee that their interpretations are necessary better or closer to the truth than those with less training. In this context a mutual willingness to listen is essential.

Q: Do you believe that there is a sharp distinction between mysteries and problems in philosophy, humanities and social sciences?

A: Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, says that in order to become master of nature, man must first become its servant, i.e., we must investigate and model the workings of nature. Given the enormous complexity of things, mere observation, however, is never sufficient. Experiments are needed to determine the actual workings of things. Such experiments, however, are determined based on the axioms and methods we have developed in the past. This is the path that contemporary social science tries to follow in the analysis of human interactions using computer modeling, statistical analysis and game theory. Social scientists in this sense seek to determine the underlying sources of our behavior based on our natures as individuals and as communal beings. Literature and the other humanities build on this naturalistic understanding but is ultimately more concerned with the possible than the necessary. It is less constrained, however, by the structures of the natural world and more open to the powers of the imagination, that is to say to the imagination of what is possible for us. Philosophy, on one hand, investigates the possibilities of a world that is fundamental rational, and, on the other, investigates the axioms themselves. Thus, it would probably be fair to say that in general the social sciences seek to solve problems, that the humanities uncover the ways in which all solutions are shaped within a more or less accurate imaginary vision of the world, and philosophy investigates the axioms that shape different imaginaries. This investigation of the axioms almost invariably brings one into confrontation with the fundamental questions or mysteries that underlie our existence. Confrontation with these questions or mysteries guide our understanding and imagining of our world and its problems.

Q: Some people argue that media in our time can not convey deep theoretical thoughts. What do you think?

A: The popular media are generally concerned with information about current events and about entertainment. But we know historically that popular media have been used to transmit more profound ideas. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, were presented to a wide variety of individuals in a popular context. German television carries a show that features four philosophers in debate. The invention of the printing press made possible the theological debates that were at the heart of the Reformation in Western Europe. Today I think we see the increasingly inventive use of the media to consider profound questions in very inventive ways. Entertaining films such as “Groundhog Day” or “Lost in Translation” are in fact also deep considerations of what makes a good life and the extent to which our world is shaped by our communities. Writers such as Umberto Eco have found ways to deal with profound philosophical problems in ficitional form. Internet bloggers have opened up an entirely new realm for the consideration of philosophical, political, and theological questions. The age of the book, the university, and the religious school began about a thousand years ago and is not yet at an end but is being radically and rapidly transformed by the multiple new media coming into play. We may regard this with dismay and see it as a flattening of our spiritual lives but all of the historical evidence we have suggests that humans will adapt and find ways to use these tools to explore and express their deepest thoughts and concerns to their friends and fellows both at home and around the world.

Q: Your new book is entitled “The Theological Origins of Modernity”. What is the main idea of the book?

A: As you may know, I argued in my work The Theological Origins of Modernity, that secularism is in fact a hidden form of theological heterodoxy. What I have been investigating in Romania is the precise conditions under which the notions of religious and political toleration arose in Europe. What is striking is that it was precisely at the meeting place of the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, Orthodox Christianity, Catholic Christianity, and

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