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April 4, 2006

Genuine Faith vs. Antimodern Fanaticism?

Mark Lilla comes to one disturbing conclusion at the end of his erudite and stimulating review in the New York Times of Michael Burleigh's book, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe From the French Revolution to the Great War. He challenges us to realize that:

the world is full of peoples whose genuine faith in the divine gives them a precise, revealed blueprint for political life, which means that for the foreseeable future they will not enter into the family of liberal democratic nations.

But then Lilla seems to take back this hardheaded, dispiriting pronouncement in a second conclusion:

The...challenge is to learn how to distinguish between those whose political programs are inspired by genuine faith, and those whose defense of religion is inspired by a reactionary utopianism having less to do with God than with redirecting the faulty course of history. In radical Islam we find both phenomena today, authentic faith and antimodern fanaticism, shaken together into an explosive cocktail.
And even in the United States we are witnessing the instrumentalization of religion by those who evidently care less about our souls, or even their own, than about reversing the flow of American history since the "apocalypse" of the 60's.

So the problem, perhaps, is not with "genuine" or "authentic" faith after all? It's with hypocritcal fanatics who use the religion. That's a curious distinction. Many religions -- as written, as practiced -- come fully armed with their own varieties of "reactionary utopianism" and "antimodern fanaticism."

Did Lilla have it right the first time? If liberal democracy is our goal, do religions -- "genuine" religions -- have to be defanged not just separated from their manipulative political allies?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at April 4, 2006 9:54 PM


You are essentially correct in your critique of his language. I would agree, if this is what you mean, that some theologies are focussed on the next world in a way that makes this world, even doing good (and doing well) in this world, irrelevant. Certainly this is not the case with all religions, however. So, presumably, the question is not how to distinguish genuine religion/theology from inauthentic belief, but making common cause with religious believers whose commitments include ones in this world, this time, even this moment. By the way, not that I wanted to say this in response to questions you have raised recently, but it's in this sense, too, that I think there IS value in seeing atheism as a religion, again, defined as a set of ideas about (not necessarily, and certainly specifically not in this instance, in) deities. But just as not all religions ideas have the radical utopianism that discounts the value of doing good in this world, not all theologies posit perfection, purity, etc. So, again, while there is merit in thinking about atheism as sect, and as such it might have canonical beliefs, it undoubtedly rejects the notion of saints.

Posted by: george at April 5, 2006 2:01 PM

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