July/August 2012

Don’t blame the postmodernists

Written by Stuart Sim

Religion and Politics

Multiculturalism has its drawbacks and paradoxes, but it is still worth defending if the alternative is enforced cultural homogeneity. It depends how the concept is interpreted. At the moment it is increasingly an argument for cultural separatism, whereas it ought to mean peaceful coexistence and the mutually-beneficial sharing and disseminating of ideas. Perhaps that would be better termed polyculturalism? Crucially, however, I do not see how such a system can work without a context of secularism. Personally, I'd like to see religion wither away as a force in human affairs, but I'm well aware that is a utopian dream. Yet that need not prevent us from striving to realise one of the key objectives of Enlightenment thought: the removal of organised religion from politics. When religions enter politics, they have a depressing habit of gravitating towards theocracy. And I'm not just speaking of Islam. Christian fundamentalists in America and Jewish fundamentalists in Israel are driven by the same ideals, even if they are currently less successful in achieving their desires than their Islamic counterparts are.


I'd like to make the case for a role for scepticism within the debate on multiculturalism, and also to defend the reputation of postmodern thought after what I consider to be unfair treatment at the hands of Paul Cliteur. If multiculturalism can be persuaded to take scepticism on board, and to acknowledge that all religions and belief systems have a history of scepticism that can be activated against their tendency towards dogmatism, then it can still contribute to constructing "'a new European story." The problem isn't Islam, or Enlightenment, or multiculturalism, or postmodernism, or relativism: it's dogmatism, and unless that is addressed we're treating symptoms not causes.

Like Ian Buruma, I feel myself to be the subject of a misreading by Cliteur, and I agree with Buruma's complaint that there has been a great deal of misrepresentation, of both views and concepts, over the course of this debate. It is my intention here to try and clear up some of these misrepresentations in the hope that this pushes the debate further forward. Polemic is one thing, but distortion of opposing viewpoints is something else again. It's time to revisit some of the key terms we are all using.

I am taken to task by Cliteur for being a "postmodern nihilist" in my book "Fundamentalist World: The New Dark Age of Dogma," which I find very odd, as I am careful to point out that my intent is to graft the best aspects of postmodern thought onto the best aspects of Enlightenment thought – "Enlightenment Plus," as I call it – in order to confront dogmatism. I continue that theme in a subsequent book, "Empires of Belief: Why We Need More Scepticism and Doubt in the Twenty-First Century," and I will return to the arguments of that later. I agree with Buruma also that one of the Enlightenment's "greatest achievements is the rejection of dogmatism," and with Pascal Bruckner's observation that the Enlightenment has "showed itself capable of reviewing its mistakes."

Modernity may have many sins that can be charged against it, but modernity and the Enlightenment, although they overlap, should not be conflated. How my own rejection of dogmatism turns me into a nihilist I am at a loss to understand.

What is most questionable about Cliteur's piece is that it consistently conflates concepts in order to dismiss the views of opponents. From his perspective, scepticism equates to relativism, and relativism to nihilism. This is a travesty of what scepticism and relativism actually involve. Scepticism has a long and distinguished history in Western philosophy (and as I note in "Empires of Belief," features in non- Western philosophical traditions, such as Islam, too), and its role as an internal critique of the discipline's wilder speculations should be valued rather than mocked. Its main enemy has always been dogmatism, and it asks us to reconsider all those assumptions claimed to be beyond all possible doubt: that God exists; that our God is the only true one; that the Bible - or any other holy book, for that matter - is a literal transcription of God's will; that the free market is the only acceptable way to run a national economy, etc. These are treated as articles of faith by believers, whose refusal to countenance an alternative viewpoint is the source of a great many of the world's current sociopolitical problems. Scepticism argues that we should suspend judgements where we lack proof of their truth: I cannot see what is wrong with that, it strikes me as an entirely healthy attitude to adopt. Unquestioning belief is rife amongst us, and it always leads to trouble. Surely it's a worthwhile project to subject that tendency to close scrutiny?

Neither is it nihilistic to concede that various interpretations of the world are possible. Again, it is dogmatism that is being confronted. At base, relativism is calling into question the notion of there being an absolute truth - precisely what all those of a fundamentalist disposition claim there is (their version, naturally). Even worse, fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge that other views have any validity at all. You can't debate with them - about multiculturalism or anything else.

As for postmodernism, I just do not recognise Cliteur's interpretation of this. Postmodernism challenges authority in its many guises, and questions the assumptions that underpin our value system. It is a tactical exercise designed to make us rethink the ideals behind modernity, many of which have proved over time to have an adverse effect on our world. But I'd regard that as in the best spirit of the Enlightenment: refusing to take things on trust just because they have the weight of traditional authority behind them. And if Cliteur thinks that postmodernists "refrain from criticism" in the political domain, then he is failing to take account of the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard, particularly his impassioned critique of fascism in Heidegger and "the Jews." Much of Lyotard's philosophical career was spent in searching for ways of being politically active, in a leftish sense, while steering clear of the unexamined assumptions by which ideologies justify themselves.

I'd also contest Cliteur's claim that for me, "every single set of ideas that is not completely relativistic is fundamentalist." First of all, I don't know what it would mean to be "completely relativistic"; secondly, I explicitly commit myself in "Fundamentalist World" to what I admit could be called "universal values": "equality of opportunity, an end to cultural oppression and the tyranny of tradition (religiously inspired or otherwise), and the eradication of discrimination on the grounds of gender, ethnic group, social position, or sexual preference." This hardly sounds like nihilism to me, and I make these commitments precisely because the various fundamentalisms I discuss are denying their validity. If it's a universal value to be against discrimination then I'm more than happy to subscribe to it. My argument in "Empires of Belief" is that we need to encourage scepticism and doubt as a method of countering the spread of dogmatism and unquestioning belief. There is almost always more reason to doubt your beliefs than to feel they are beyond dispute. The natural impulse of empires of belief is to stifle dissent, and that is all too common an occurrence at present. If multiculturalism is to mean anything then it has to include the possibility, even desirability, of dissent within any system of belief. Islam is not going to go away, but non-believers should be doing what they can to stimulate debate within it, as well as make information widely available about the traditions of dissent, and, yes, outright scepticism, that exist within Islam as a system of thought. Islam will have to change from within, but that does not mean it should not also be challenged vigorously by ideas from the outside. I very much endorse Bruckner's plea that we should extend all the support we can to oppositional voices within the Islamic world - creative artists, for example, who have a proven ability to have an effect on public consciousness.

So it's not postmodernism that we have to worry about if we're trying to put together "a new European story," it's dogmatism. Timothy Garton Ash argues for "less Bruckner, more Pascal," but I'd put it very differently: what is wanted is less belief, more scepticism and doubt.

Stuart Sim is Professor of Critical Theory at the University of Sunderland. His most recent book is "Empires of Belief: Why We Need More Scepticism and Doubt in the Twenty-First Century" (Edinburgh University Press, 2006).