Religious Passion and Public Life: Religion and the Demise of Liberal Rationalism; the Foundational Crisis of the Separation of Church and State; the Transformation of American Religion; the Story of a Late-Twentieth-Century Awakening; Landscapes of the Soul

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Religious Passion and Public Life: Religion and the Demise of Liberal Rationalism; The Foundational Crisis of the Separation of Church and State; The Transformation of American Religion; The Story of a Late-Twentieth-Century Awakening; Landscapes of the Soul

Roger S. Gottlieb is the author of A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart, Protecting the Earth, and Joining Hands: Religion and Politics Together for Social Change. He teaches philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Seeking an end to centuries of bloody religious conflict, Enlightenment thinkers proclaimed that religion should be free--but private. Because modern society was religiously diverse, and because science possessed the rationality religion lacked, our spiritual lives were to be excluded from the public realm. Yet modern society finds itself confronted by a vital interest in God, spiritual development, and cosmic meaning--an interest which constantly challenges the location and, indeed, the appropriateness of boundaries between public and private, state and religion, reason and faith. At the same time, contemporary believers who want to coexist with rather than overthrow democracy and human rights must fashion a religious identity that can resist fanatics who think faith requires orthodoxy and the crushing of "unbelievers," as well as the tendency to make religion so private and narcissistic that it has no more social, moral, or spiritual relevance than any other "lifestyle."

The books by Owen, Porterfield, and Porpora each illuminate an important facet of religion's complex relation to current public life. Yet their central claims are weakened by critical omissions of historical perspective. As a collection, the Snyder anthology is necessarily less analytically developed than the other books; yet it manages to convey a rich sense of the best of religion's current social meaning, and also to be an inspiring example of what it discusses.

J. Judd Owen rejects the way three of secular philosophy's biggest guns try to relegate religion to the sidelines of public life or dismiss it as irrational. His adversaries are no less than John Rawls, Richard Rorty, and Stanley Fish, the first two of which are among the half dozen most influential philosophers of the last twenty years. Despite important differences, the three share a basic concern with the public status of religion now that the Enlightenment belief in universal standards of knowledge and truth has fallen into disrepute. Thirty years of post-empiricist philosophy of science has challenged the detached objectivity of science's account of nature. Political movements have shown gender, racial, and ethnic bias in every humanistic discipline. An awareness of other cultures and of history makes us all realize that what we believe is historically and socially determined. With reason in retreat, how will the liberal state delimit religion's public presence?

Rawls tries to separate out political rules that will work for everyone from substantive religious (or philosophical) perspectives that will necessarily manifest wide differences. The former will be public and universal, the latter private and particular. Unlike earlier liberalism, this one will provide rules we can share, and not try to impose a vision of human nature which we can't.

Rorty, by contrast, doesn't believe that any universal rules can be found. The liberal trust in natural science and rights is just one more ethnocentric habit, no more "rational" than fundamentalist Islam or alchemy. The best we can hope for is that we'll all tolerate each other's idiosyncratic beliefs, while trying to develop some compassion for each other's suffering. Instead of trying to impose competing truths, we'll share our stories.

Fish rejects altogether the notion that we can construct a realm of tolerance, reason, or compromise among different perspectives. Different religions, just like different secular world views, are simply opponents, motivated by fundamental principles, none of which are susceptible to rational justification. …