Friday, April 30, 2010

Beyond remedy?

My erstwhile colleague José Casanova, now at Georgetown, has some interesting thoughts about proselytism. While everyone has the right to exit a religious community, he asserts, The individual’s right to exit his or her religious community does not necessarily entail the right of outsiders to enter that community in order to encourage others to exit. Some religions (like Christianity) are called to missionize, but [e]very universalism is particularistic and irremediably so. Although religious diversity may seem a painful mystery, we should develop a respect for the irremediable plurality of world religions and human cultures. Yes perhaps, though further argument is required; one wonders what work the strong and unhappy word irremediable does in all this, and why we should permit it to.

The most interesting part of Casanova's argument (which partly explains his view that some things are beyond our remedying) is that our very conception of proselytism is inadequate to the realities of religious life. Responding to a definition of proselytism as the effort to win adherents for one’s religious community through persuasion Casanova questions three things it assumes:

a) That individuals can change religious communities at will,
that religious communities are nothing but voluntary associations, confessions or denominations.

b) That individuals need to choose, to belong to one particular religious community rather than another, rather than being able to belong simultaneously to multiple religious communities or to none at all.

c) That conversion happens through “persuasion,” as a kind of cognitive rational choice process through which individuals weigh the pros and cons of the various alternatives and settle for the one which makes most sense to them.

By the time you've absorbed the arguments against these assumptions (arguments I find compelling), you've ended up in a quite different religious world. It's not one where religious change doesn't happen, but one where many more factors than the "rationality" of traditions and the "search for truth" of individuals are at work. It may be that religious change - like religious life more generally - is driven by different needs and capacities than we fully comprehend. And what we can't remedy may not need remedy ... or not by us.

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