Good Ross Douthat column today, talking about the meaning of Brit Hume’s on-air appeal to Tiger Woods to embrace Christianity. Douthat neither endorses nor condemns Hume, but does question our culture for pushing the discussion of religion strictly to the margins of private life. This is accomplished in two ways, Ross says: one, by secular-minded people screaming bloody murder when somebody like Hume treats the ideas behind religious belief seriously in a public statement, and two, by religious people howling “stop, bigotry!” when someone criticizes their beliefs in public. Here’s Ross:
This doesn’t mean that we need to welcome real bigotry into our public discourse. But what Hume said wasn’t bigoted: Indeed, his claim about the difference between Buddhism and Christianity was perfectly defensible. Christians believe in a personal God who forgives sins. Buddhists, as a rule, do not. And it’s at least plausible that Tiger Woods might welcome the possibility that there’s Someone out there capable of forgiving him, even if Elin Nordegren and his corporate sponsors never do.
Or maybe not. For many people — Woods perhaps included — the fact that Buddhism promotes an ethical life without recourse to Christian concepts like the Fall of Man, divine judgment and damnation is precisely what makes it so appealing. The knee-jerk outrage that greeted Hume’s remarks buried intelligent responses from Buddhists, who made arguments along these lines — explaining their faith, contrasting it with Christianity, and describing how a lost soul like Woods might use Buddhist concepts to climb from darkness into light.
When liberal democracy was forged, in the wake of Western Europe’s religious wars, this sort of peaceful theological debate is exactly what it promised to deliver. And the differences between religions are worth debating. Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them.
If we tiptoe politely around this reality, then we betray every teacher, guru and philosopher — including Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha both — who ever sought to resolve the most human of all problems: How then should we live?
It’s like the anthropologist Wade Davis said in his lecture about cultural diversity, which I quoted in the previous post, people who are raised in different religious or philosophical traditions will at times arrive at very different conclusions about the best way to live in regard to, say, the environment. People who want religion never mentioned in public (unless it’s to make fun of it), and people who only want it mentioned in public favorably, are dishonoring both intellectual honesty, and human potential. Anyway, if we never talk about faith in a critical but respectful way, we’ll never know what we don’t know, and we’ll never learn things we ought to learn. One thing I learned from my Templeton Cambridge fellowship last summer was how very much Taoism had in common with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, especially in metaphysical terms. I had had no idea, and it opened up an intellectually exciting (for me) line of inquiry, one I hope to deepen, and perhaps even turn into a book. I’ve really taken to Sir John Templeton’s saying, “how little we know, how eager to learn” — but that cannot be lived out if, for whatever reason, we cannot discuss religion civilly but openly in the public square.