Thoughts on the Impossibility of Being both Deeply Religious and Cosmopolitan

News Abroad

Ms. Jacob has written extensively on the origins of modern science, on Newton and his followers, on the Enlightenment and the cultural foundations of industrial development in the West. Much of her family resides in Northern Ireland and she has witnessed fundamentalism up close and personally. She is a member of the history department at UCLA.

We have leaders on the national stage who think they can respect, even encourage, fundamentalism, and still build a peaceful world where creeds and colors act hospitably toward one another. They have got it badly wrong.

Fundamentalism breeds resentment or disdain for other religions or simply different ways of being in the world. Think about Christian fundamentalists in this country or recall the Pope's recent visit to Spain to condemn the new freedoms given to gays there. Both forms of extreme orthodoxy are openly hostile toward gay men or women. Think about the jihadists, or the mullahs of Iran, and imagine the world they wish to create for those not of their creed.

Our problem is that we sent a technologically advanced army into their world, and we failed to understand that what they actually needed was their own army of Voltaires. That is, they need to imbibe the values of cosmopolitanism.

As I defined the phenomenon in my recent book, Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Origins of Early Modern Cosmopolitanism (Penn Press, 2006), being cosmopolitan in Europe during the early modern age meant then - as now - the ability to experience people of different nations, creeds and colors with pleasure, curiosity and interest, and not with suspicion, disdain, or simply a disinterest that could occasionally turn into loathing. This benign posture, whether toward foreigners or disbelievers in one's own religion, did not come about - then or now - automatically, or even easily.

Then and now, intense religiosity stood as one of the most powerful inhibitions working against a cosmopolitan stance in the world. The topic of the book suggested itself after a look through the eighteenth-century records of the Roman Catholic Inquisition in France. Yes, in one French place, Avignon, the Inquisition ruled supreme right up to 1790 when the French revolutionaries stormed the town. Up until then the religious authorities busied themselves not just with ferreting out Protestant heretics but also with making sure that Christians and Jews, as well as social inferiors and superiors, never mixed. The inquisitors in Avignon even took away children from their families if a Christian baby-sitter had managed surreptitiously to baptize the child. We know this because of court records showing the Inquisition trying to make the Jewish child's father pay for the Catholic orphanage to which it had been sent.

The Inquisition's records told about what France might have been like if this church court had possessed authority outside of Avignon. One adjective also best described all the myriad forms of social behavior that bothered the good fathers as they raided Jewish hotels, sought confessions from heretics, spied on the visiting king of England, arrested the socially transgressive, or raided the lodges of local freemasons: it was the cosmopolitan that they set out to ban.

But we would not want to think that historically only the Inquisition sought to repress behavior that opened out toward difference or strangeness. In mid-eighteenth century England a remarkable cloth merchant, living in Leeds, spent hours each week writing in his spiritual diary. Joseph Ryder left us over 12,000 pages in 41 volumes that detail his agonizing search for salvation amid the temptations of worldly success and his growing prosperity. No one could have been more pious, and neither could anyone have been less cosmopolitan.

Let me be clear about what I mean. Ryder details his many social and chapel experiences and he makes continuous mention of the who and why of those encounters. Always and self-consciously he wanted the company of only those pious like himself. The men and women of his chapel and denomination, fellow Presbyterians, were the only people with whom he would mingle, and who could, he believed, help him stay the course toward eternal salvation. I am suggesting that far from being an anomaly, Joseph Ryder's self-monitoring against cosmopolitan tendencies illustrates an uncomfortable truth about intense religiosity - then and now. And I do not mean here simple church-going or Friday evening prayers. I mean complete devotion to a creed, a life lived primarily for the fulfillment of its doctrines, to the exclusion of all distractions (an interest in literature, in science etc). That impulse to cling tenaciously to a set of beliefs and practices intended to promote spiritual well-being, or salvation, or purity in this world, or the coming of the millennium, inhibits border-crossings, the seeking out of people not in possession of those same, often exactly the same, values. By contrast the cosmopolite is a social risk taker, a habitue of places and people unfamiliar, different, strange, exotic, or even transgressive and bohemian.

The cosmopolitan now matters so much because it has become the only alternative, the only viable approach to living amid the extraordinary diversity of peoples who occupy most modern cities, whether it be Belfast or Baghdad, Rotterdam or Buenos Aires. Since 1945 vastly increased foreign migration to every country - the cities of the United States have also witnessed the same pattern - has meant that everywhere we turn we see ethnic, racial, religious and linguistic diversity. One theorist involved in the on-going discussion around cosmopolitanism describes large cities everywhere as now possessing"multicultural enclaves [that] are harbingers of new faces of citizenship... no longer based upon exclusive attachments to a particular land, history, and tradition."

We see the effects of this new identity in everyday social interactions, in the classrooms, or workplaces, or dinner tables of Los Angeles, to name but a few familiar settings to this author. And with horrified eyes we also now routinely see places where people have at best a tentative grip on a cosmopolitan acceptance of those with profoundly different beliefs and religious customs from their own. Intense religiosity (and like pornography we know it when we see it) is the enemy of civility and toleration, the hallmarks of a cosmopolitan stance in the world. This was true three centuries ago in the West; it is true today, at home and abroad. It is not accidental that contemporary theorists devote more and more attention to trying to define and refine the meaning of cosmopolitanism. Both historically and contemporaneously we know more and more about the dangers created by those who repudiate it as an ideal.

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    More Comments:

    ccw sparks - 9/17/2006

    Fundamentalism is hardly the only "deeply religious" form of faith. Far from it!

    Coming from a liberal/progressive Christian background (my dad is an ordained American Baptist minister who worked as a community organizer for several years) and having been an active member of liberal/progressive churches for most of my life, I've known many people who are both "deeply religious" and "cosmopolitan."

    That combination of deep faith and respect for the faith of others is one of the defining characteristics of our nation. A number of our country's founders were deeply religious (some conventionally so and others not), and their commitment to freedom of religion made it the first right guaranteed by our Constitution.

    But one need not be a religious liberal or follow an unconventional belief system to show a "cosmopolitan" face in the public arena. For long periods in our history, Evangelical Christians have been one of the strongest forces for the public good.

    Many (if not most) of the leaders of the antislavery and women's suffrage movements were Evangelicals. More recently, we have Martin Luther King and Jimmy Carter, both of whose religious beliefs may be defined as Evangelical and fairly conservative, and both based their strong commitment to human rights on those beliefs.

    Perhaps the author should take a more "cosmopolitan" second look at us Christians...........

    John Chapman - 9/17/2006

    This is the main point of Jacob’s article as I see it. Yet, there is a certain degree of fundamentalism in any belief a person has whether it's in science or religion or the idiotic fluff that constitutes an individual’s “way of life”, fundamentalism can have nothing to do with religion or politics.

    On the other hand, if you’re going to look at it politically, at one level, it seems to imply that religious fundamentalism in the US has become an extension of right-wing religion, anti-intellectualism and Taliban-like moralism which have translated into political policies, Rapture politics, right-wing evangelicals touting their messianic view of the world where there is no room for tolerance, where absolutism drives attacks on science in the name of faith by endorsing Creationism over the teaching of evolution. A Pope makes a calculated comment on another religion – and since he’s not stupid it must be some higher form absolutism I suppose.

    Religions attack other religions as well as secular thought which is an attack on all religious freedom and on all free thought.

    john crocker - 9/17/2006

    Your response to my post did not address a single point in my post.

    "a leftist article castigated exactly 50% of the available targets"
    I can only guess that by this you mean she condemned Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists while ignoring Hasids and the followers of Jackson and Sharpton.

    The central thesis of her argument is "We have leaders on the national stage who think they can respect, even encourage, fundamentalism, and still build a peaceful world where creeds and colors act hospitably toward one another. They have got it badly wrong."

    Perhaps you can explain how it is that bringing up Al Sharpton or a small and uninfluential Jewish religious movement would strengthen her argument.

    If you respond please respond to these points and those I made before.

    Frederick Thomas - 9/16/2006

    Antisemite for questioning racist Hasids? Racist for criticising racist blacks? Threatening for pointing out the bias in this article? Peter, do not squander your puerile wits with such stupid, self defeating asertions.

    What happened, did the ghost of your hero, mass murderer Menachem Begin visit you last night? Or perhaps Jesse Jackson repeated his "hymie town" comment about New York in your presence? Or are you simply a transvestite at that time of the month?

    Speaking of spittle, I notice a wealth of drool in many of your posts recently.

    Frederick Thomas - 9/16/2006

    My point was just this, that a leftist article castigated exactly 50% of the available targets, excluding those who are allied with the left. How typically hypocritical.

    Peter Kovachev - 9/15/2006

    Yes, Freddie, old stuff; we already know that you are an antisemite and a racist ... the kind who's evidently slipping from the skin-deep "intellectual" version to the raving threat-issuing, spittle-flying brownshirt kind. I suppose now that you've learned that HNN will let you get away with almost anything, including issuing threats, we'll be getting a less restrained view of your mental decline.

    Paul Noonan - 9/14/2006

    Pope John Paul II was certainly civil, but he wasn't a fundamentalist by any stretch of the imagination. He accepted Darwinism and I recall he once wrote something to the effect that the early chapters of Genesis represented "human truths, not historical truths."

    Because of the similarity of the Catholic and Fundamentalist positions on social issues relating to human sexuality and "life" issues such as abortion, many people think Catholics interpret the Bible similarly to Fundamentalists, they do not. I attended Catholic schools from K thru 12 in the 1960s-70s and was taught that the Earth is billions of years old, how evolution worked, that the story of Adam and Eve was an allegory and not to be taken literally, that Noah's flood did not cover the whole world but only the part of the earth known to the Jews at the time the Bible was written (i.e the Middle East) and even that the Book of Isiaih was a compilation of two texts written by different men at different times. All this is anathema to Fundamentalists.

    Actually, if the Fundamentalists get the teaching of evolution stopped in public schools, we'll need vouchers so parents can send their kids to Catholic schools to learn about it!

    john crocker - 9/14/2006

    "The Catholic Church is not hostile towards men and women who are gays. I think it would be more correct to say that the position of the Catholic church is one of affirmation of the people themselves but disagreement with their attitudes."

    Much the same as some homosexuals might affirm Catholics as people themselves but disagree with their practicing Catholocism?

    john crocker - 9/14/2006

    The author seems to have conflated deep religiousity with fundamentalism and cosmopolitanism with rationalism.

    Neither is fair.

    Her coupling of civility and tolerance is also troubling.

    I grew up in the Bible belt around many very religious people who were exceptionally civil. Their tolerance did often leave something to be desired though.

    john crocker - 9/14/2006

    The overall Jewish vote does go strongly Democratic. A quick search did not turn up Hasidic voting patterns. Do you have some evidence that Hasids vote primarily democratic, or are you assuming that their voting pattern is the same as other Jews?

    I agree that orthodoxy is a form of fundamentalism and I believe that if you look over my past comments that you will see that I give Jewish extremists the same treatment that I give Christian extremists.

    I am not sure of the other group you are attempting to castigate.

    If your issue is with "Black Baptists" in general, what is your complaint?
    African-Americans do vote overwhelmingly Democratic regardless of religious devotion. The voting pattern here does not seem to follow the religion.

    If it is only the followers of the two people you mentioned above, I think that they need to be treated seperately.

    Jackson was a much stronger cantidate in 84 than Sharpton in 2004. He made that unfortunate remark during the course of the primaries and it effectively destroyed his political career. He still mobilizes support for some issues, but he is not a key player as he was before.

    Sharpton is criticized in Democratic circles. He recieved just 27 of 4,322 delegates in his bid for the nomination in 2004. He plays almost no role in shaping Democratic policy in contrast to evangelical Christians who play a major role in shaping the Republican platform. Power matters.

    I don't regularly criticize the Unarians. They believed that Paul was the anti-Christ and that they are in mental communcation with Martians in underground cities. If they were a powerful force in shaping the policies of a major political party I would criticize them. As they are not I generally ignore them.

    My problem is with religious views being made into public policy. Neither Sharpton, Jackson, the "Black Baptists, or the Hasids attempt to turn their religious views into legislation that effects public at large.

    If the religious right supported Republicans, but did not push their religious agenda into policy initiatives, criticism of them would be muted.

    Democratic politics has generally been no more or less hypocritical than Republican politics. Some degree of hypocrisy seems to be endemic to politicians. In the parties of the current moment, it is the Republicans who seem to me to be the more hypocritical.

    A prime example would be the reactions of prominent Republican critics of the war in Kosovo to dissent in the current war in Iraq. Delay, Hastert, Hutchison, Hannity and Limbaugh all vocally opposed action in Kosovo, even as our troops were involved. Now they claim that those who oppose the current conflict are hurting our troops and giving aid to the enemy.

    Frederick Thomas - 9/13/2006

    By "cosmopolitan," did she slip and really mean "bourgeois?"

    Frederick Thomas - 9/13/2006

    Group "orthodox" with Hasidic and how many do you come up to? Add in the slime who killed Rabin and how many do you come up to? Your argument is simply evasive, and a fallacy. An extremist is an extremist.

    Calling either Jesse "shakedown" Jerkson or Al "Towana Brawley" Sharpton ANY denomination is an insult to that denomination, since those denominations do not support overt criminal behavior.

    All members of both groups are comfortably bedded down in dem sheets, where their offenses against humanity and their fellow white citizens are ignored by dems.

    Just use the same standard, which is not the hypocritical one which normally underlies all dem politics.

    Charles K Dilley - 9/13/2006

    Bravo! Well stated.

    Charles K Dilley - 9/13/2006

    I like your methodology.

    Charles K Dilley - 9/13/2006

    I am definitely on the same page. To clarify I think that xenophobia, racism, and other militant ideologies form within religious perspectives just as they do from secular ones. Secular fundamentalism would be precisely your two examples; a group who followed a set of Marxist principles literally and precisely, or those who followed an interpretation of laicité to the point where all religious expression was banned from public spaces (parks, streets, transportation,) and not just government or school buildings. Simply stated, the assumption that 'secular = tolerance' and 'fundamentalism = intolerance' is a farce. Both are equally capable of intolerance.

    -“Intense religiosity is the enemy of civility and toleration, the hallmarks of a cosmopolitan stance in the world.”

    This would be, in my estimation, an example of secular fundamentalism. The non-religious principle that those who are fundamentalists are “the enemy of civility,” states that one cannot be religiously devout and civil simultaneously. The author may have been speaking only of fundamentalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; however, this is not clear in her statement. A few examples of more recent fundamentalists who were both devout and civil are Mother Teresa, Tenzin Gyatso, and Pope John Paul II. This article states that one can only be cosmopolitan (the hallmark of which is tolerance) if they are not fundamentally religious. This is a belief intolerant unto itself because it excludes the religious from civility; it is an act of intolerance and therefore anti-cosmopolitan for it does not follow the hallmark of cosmopolitanism...I’ve now rambled on far too long, please forgive me.

    Clio Lansdale Smith - 9/13/2006

    "And with horrified eyes we also now routinely see places where people have at best a tentative grip on a cosmopolitan acceptance of those with profoundly different beliefs and religious customs from their own. Intense religiosity (and like pornography we know it when we see it) is the enemy of civility and toleration, the hallmarks of a cosmopolitan stance in the world."

    I read Ms. Jacob's piece several times. Still I can only shake my head. The excerpt above was telling. I wondered for awhile if perhaps the piece was originally intended as a work of irony--that is, to rail against intolerance and to then point surreptitiously to the intolerance inherent in the stance of many who claim to be against it. It's simply hard for me to fathom that this column could pass as a straight-faced argument.

    Ms. Jacobs has gotten it badly wrong. There is no impossibility in being both deeply religious and cosmopolitan. The impossibility lies in being both deeply cosmopolitan and regarding those with "profoundly different beliefs and religious customs" with the sort of dread and suspicion that is abundantly expressed by the author herself.


    john crocker - 9/12/2006

    The fact that there are little over 250K Hasids in the world explains there general lack of mention when speaking of major religious movements.

    Jesse Jackson is still Baptist and as far as I know Sharpton has always been Pentecostal.

    The criticism of the religious right increased as their power increased and manifested in attempts at imposing thier religiously based policies on the country.

    When the "formerly Baptist Blacks" take over the legislative and executive branches of government, I will join you in castigating them for their failings.

    Frederick Thomas - 9/12/2006

    I noticed that while (white) Catholics and (white) fundamentalists were duly and hypocritically castigated, two major groups of religious fundamentalists were omitted, Hasidic Jews and formerly Baptist Blacks such as "Rev" Al Sharpton and "Rev: Jesse Jerkson.

    Could the reason be that those two miserable groups groups are associated with the dem party?

    One of these groups forces its women behind lattices during services and persecutes the Palestinians on racist grounds in God's name.

    The other group calls New York "Hymie town", and shakes down old whitey worse than the mafia or Hitler. No crime is too small for them.

    Yet these two groups are studiously left unmentioned while the groups not associated with the dems are blasted for much lesser crimes.


    Sergio Alejandro Méndez - 9/12/2006

    Mr Diley:

    What you are describing is not "secular fundamentalism" but, well, good ole fashioned racism and xenophobia. There are forms of extreme secularism, say from soviet Union to some forms of "laicité" in France (remember the controversy about wearing religious clothes in public schools), but I would not call them "fundaamentalist".

    john crocker - 9/12/2006

    How would you define a secular fundamentalist?

    I am not sure that a meaningful definition for this term is possible.

    1 a often capitalized : a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching b : the beliefs of this movement c : adherence to such beliefs
    2 : a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles <Islamic fundamentalism> <political fundamentalism>

    1 a : of or relating to the worldly or temporal <secular concerns> b : not overtly or specifically religious <secular music> c : not ecclesiastical or clerical <secular courts> <secular landowners>
    2 : not bound by monastic vows or rules; specifically : of, relating to, or forming clergy not belonging to a religious order or congregation <a secular priest>
    3 a : occurring once in an age or a century b : existing or continuing through ages or centuries c : of or relating to a long term of indefinite duration <secular inflation>

    Combining F2 and S1 we get "a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles of or relating to the worldly or temporal."

    But what does that mean in practice?

    Charles K Dilley - 9/12/2006

    What I find missing from too many of these commentaries describing fundamentalism is their neglect to address secular fundamentalism. For example in Europe today there is rampant discrimination and intolerance toward religious Muslims. For example in France there is over a 50% unemployment rate among the Muslim population (this figure is similar in both Belgium and Holland); the majority of these Muslims are French born citizens who graduated from the French education system. Academics should be more honest with their assessments and recognize that cosmopolitans can be just as fundamental about their beliefs as those professing religion. They will discriminate against those who think differently from them just as readily as religious fundamentalist. This is something we should keep in mind if we are to discuss fundamentalism with honesty and clarity.

    Tim Lacy - 9/12/2006

    The article advertises to deal with those who are "deeply religious," and then the very first sentence of the article switches to the term "fundamentalism." The terms are not at all the same! But even accepting Dr. Jacob's bait and switch, the article doesn't define 'fundamentalism.' Finally, since when have 'cosmopolitanism' and 'fundamentalism' (accepting her usage) ever co-existed well? - Tim

    Simon Baumberg - 9/12/2006

    I agree with Susan R. Boettcher: I also believe it is possible to be sincerely religious without being fundamentalist.

    Simon Baumberg - 9/12/2006

    Ms. Jacob says
    "Think about Christian fundamentalists in this country or recall the Pope's recent visit to Spain to condemn the new freedoms given to gays there. Both forms of extreme orthodoxy are openly hostile toward gay men or women. "

    The Catholic Church is not hostile towards men and women who are gays. I think it would be more correct to say that the position of the Catholic church is one of affirmation of the people themselves but disagreement with their attitudes.

    Susan Renee Boettcher - 9/11/2006

    It's unfortunate that Professor Jacob conflates the state of being "deeply religious" with fundamentalism. It's entirely possible to be deeply religious and live one's life according to the principles of a creed (to the best of one's ability) without being a fundamentalist. It's also a false dilemma to say that being cosmopolitan excludes the possibility of being "deeply religious." Some people (me) think it's possible to be both.