Sunday, October 14, 2012

Reductionism, Globalization and Faith

Sorry that I've been so down on religion lately, but to be honest, religion has not been showing its best side and so it has deserved a good scolding! In this more positive and helpful contribution to the blogosphere, I'll explore an idea that I hope we can agree on whether we are religious or not...

We must stop fighting each other over how life was created, and start fighting together to stop those destroying it...

As I hope is obvious by now, I desperately aspire to a better world and I believe that we must move fast to realise that world. Despite the concerns that I've expressed about religion recently, I am an optimist. In particular, I optimistically believe that religion is a powerful ally to bring about the sea-change in hearts and minds that we need to mobilise for the tough times that we face this century. The problem lies in finding ways to rise above dogma and to come together to support Sustainable Human Flourishing.

To this end, I seek out ways to communicate across ideological divides. Because I'm not very good at such communications myself, I am always delighted when I find theists who can engage in rational and positive dialogue with each other, and even with avowed atheists like me. This post introduces two compelling and respectful theistic voices, and their important Faith in Diversity Institute.

Robert Stucky (an American and former Episcopal priest who has also studied for eight and a half years with a Hindu master) and Sadig Malki (a devout Muslim political scientist from one of the famous families from Mecca) are working together towards (among other admirable goals) "lasting peace and collective wellbeing" - This, is of course just a nice way to say that they are also working towards Sustainable Human Flourishing, so they are my kind of theists :-)
Robert Stucky and Sadig Malki at the European Parliament
I met Sadig and Robert last month at the European Parliament in Brussels where they were launching their book "Reductionism, Globalization and Faith"

They were invited to the EP by MEP Jürgen Klute and legendary Brussels connector, Frank Schwalba-Hoth - Here is an interesting video interview with Jürgen, Sadig, and Rob beforehand:

When I first heard of the book through Frank and Jürgen, I was interested, but had reservations because I doubted whether reductionism could lead to any kind of workable consensus across religions. I checked with a “bible Christian” pastor friend of mine who confirmed my concerns. While he certainly agreed that working together for common good, mutually exploring each other's viewpoints, and combating ignorance, intolerance, and manipulation are all excellent objectives, he held showstopper concerns about any attempt to paper over real and significant differences between religions.

Even as an atheist, I can see where he’s coming from. I appreciate that in his worldview, the lordship of Jesus and his bodily resurrection from the dead are core and non-negotiable tenets of his kind of Christian religious belief. I also accept that these are directly in conflict with Islam, for example, and so any classical attempts to reduce and reconcile these differences are bound to failure.

So, it was with trepidation that I chatted with some of the 70+ attendees before the launch. Most seemed to harbour similar concerns related to their religion. (It was a diversely religious audience – Very few fellow atheists though, which I guess is understandable given the subject matter - Yes, I do realise that my chronic fascination with religion is quite an unusual fetish.)

I was therefore delighted when Sadig and Rob quickly dismissed this concern in their presentation by turning the question on its head from the outset!

Their novel approach to the problem is not to attempt to look across religions to find common ground through classical reductionism, but rather to acknowledge that every major religion is in fact inherently reductionist.

Their admirably extensive research into the scriptures and practices of so many religions was not driven by a desire to deconstruct them into smaller things that could be made equivalent, but rather to bubble all religions up, and to identify their relationship to the more metaphysical aspects of "divinity".

I'm going to cheat now and directly cut'n'paste core messages from key slides that Rob and Sadig presented, and which Rob kindly shared with me - To be honest, the atheist in me does not necessarily agree with a lot of these ideas, but I don't have time to "constructively deconstruct" them now... I definitely get their general angle though, so I am happy to share the following direct quotes, with thanks to Rob and Sadig:

The Eternal Challenge of the Human Condition:

The most powerful paradigms in human society have to do with our beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality, and our relationship to the universe in which we exist. 
In pursuit of understanding, we continue to ask:
“Where do we come from?”, “Why are we here?”, “Where are we going?” and, “What is the Source of our World and Universe?”
And we shape our societies according to our answers.

Why do our answers fall short of the mark?

  • We intuit the existence of a higher power that gives order and meaning to our existence.
  • We then reduce that intuition to a formula presumed to be universally applicable to all, and divinize the formula, making it absolute.
  • We become attached to the formula, rather than the experiential truth it attempts to express.
  • We end up with an oxymoron - There is only One God- an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent consciousness - by my God is better than your God.

The Birth of Religion:

  • We have a unitive experience of a Higher Power that inspires us.
  • We want to share that experience.
  • We seek affirmation of that experience from others.
  • We institutionalize that experience to encourage the sharing and affirmation by creating Religions.
  • By so doing, we risk increasingly distancing ourselves from the actual  experience, and inadvertently create differences that separate us, rather than unite us.

Man-made limitations placed on divinity:

  • With sincere conviction, humankind has repeatedly tried to understand that Higher Power by reducing it to a particular form, name, time, place, object, ritual, language or person.
  • The lives of spiritual giants- Buddha, Lao Tzu, Abraham and the prophets, Jesus, Mohammed, and countless saints and sages, become models we attempt to emulate.
  • Because we cannot grasp or contain the enormity of the divine as it is, we attempt to understand it through the perspectives of the people who have come closest to it- and then think that by emulating the context or circumstances in which they did so, we can reproduce their experience for ourselves.

The principal types of spiritual reductionism:

  • We limit the divine to specific historical events or people.
  • We limit the divine to a single gender.
  • We limit the divine to particular emotions.
  • We limit the divine to specific symbols or objects.
  • We limit the divine to a particular race or culture.
  • We limit the divine to a particular language.
  • We limit the divine to a particular political or institutional expression.
The presentation goes much further into many of these ideas, but I hope you also get the gist... It is also worth noting that Rob's 16 years of experience as a preacher (during which, he was awarded a National Best Sermon Award) make him a confident and compelling presenter.

To me, this approach of seeking to rise above the scriptures, and above "religion" to the very metaphysics of human spirituality feels like a helpful way forward – spirituality is a human concept and a human desire that is not unique to the religious mind. Their core theses and messages speak clearly to most considered humans, whether we believe in supernatural deities or not. 

As an aside, if you don't believe that atheists have a capacity for the spiritual, then I recommend you check out some of Sam Harris's stuff such as his recent take-down of that ridiculous Newsweek "Heaven is Real" article. Better yet, check his session at this year's Celebration of Reason Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. To watch one of the world's most celebrated "militant" atheists lead thousands of hard-core atheists on a guided spiritual meditation is a truly enriching, if somewhat surreal experience :-) 

Back to Rob and Sadig's presentation - Listening to them, I felt strongly that at the metaphysical level that they were exploring, respectful and “human” communication between equals can occur, allowing progress that is simply not possible when trying to shout at each other across ideological chasms.

This feeling was backed up by the personal connection that I made with Rob and Sadig after their presentation when I joined them, Frank and another 5 people for an intimate drink and dinner in Place Luxembourg. They are a bit of an odd couple - Sadig still a very traditional and devout Muslim; Rob no longer classically religious but more pantheistically "spiritual" - but I can say without a shadow of a doubt that they are highly intelligent and genuinely good people. Good people on a mission, and who passionately believe that they have a "calling" to combat "religious ignorance, intolerance, and manipulation". As I already mentioned, Rob and Sadig are definitely my kind of theist.

Their "book", at only 30 (English) pages plus extensive footnotes is not really a book at all, but is rather a dissertation - an interesting and digestible dissertation. (To pad it out into book form, my copy contains translations into German, French, Italian, and Spanish, but I believe that other translations, including Arabic are also available) It is undeniably written for a theistic audience, so as an atheist, I found the many appeals to a creationist agenda to be a grating and unnecessary distraction from their core theses. Having spent several hours engaged in deep, open, and universally positive and respectful discussion with Rob and Sadig though, and having had extensive follow-up correspondences with Rob, I am confident that they do not intend to jam a creationist agenda down the throat of the reader.

Thus, in the spirit of the "dissertation" analogy, I offer them the kind of friendly advice that a philosophy professor might give a research student on a draft paper - Take it away and see if you can rewrite it without the unnecessary crutch of supernatural creationism - I am convinced that if they managed this, then their message would be clearer and more easily accepted by any reader. To do so though, I imagine that they will need to reflect and research even more deeply on what drives the vast numbers of non-believers to be “Good, without God”, than they needed to do on the many scriptures that they have deconstructed to date - a challenge worthy of their talents, and I believe vital to their broader unitive mission.

Despite this complaint, I recommend their work to anyone who seeks meaningful communication with others who don't share their precise flavour of (ir)religious belief… Unfortunately, "Reductionism, Globalization and Faith" does not seem to be generally available yet because they are still sorting out some distribution issues, but if you drop a mail to, he'll find a way to get you a copy.

So, at last, I come to the end of this post, and I will close by reiterating the message that I gave personally to Rob and Sadig - that I fully support their work and that I encourage them to be even more ambitious – In addition to their current target audience, I believe that they can address the huge global community of non-believers who share the same goals that they do (whether they are proud “out” atheists like me, or are still “in the closet”.) 

Sadig, Rob, I obviously cannot claim to represent all atheists, but if you guys ever wish to explore the ideas in your current or future works from a non-theistic perspective, then I offer my most sincere support and will assist in any way I can. Please do not hesitate to call on me.


  1. I never thought that as a Muslim I will say this to an atheist, but you know I love your views on Rob and Sadig. You're OK. Thanks for being objective.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to share some good vibes Bridge Builder. I hope you will be encouraged to talk to more atheists. I think you'll find that on average, we are at least as reasonable as theists. ;-)

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Dear Anonymous - Speaking as an atheist, only your the first claim is of any of my concern. Speaking as a father, it is obviously a big concern.
    This is also a *very* big claim of which I have no reason to believe an anonymous internet commenter over a person that I have met and spoken with in detail about the nature of morality. You have 15 hours to back it up with some hard evidence, or your post will be deleted.
    Thank you.