Religious Study, Critical Thinking, and Ijtihad

Today’s New York Times featured an important Op-Ed contribution from Mark Taylor, who is a professor of religion and humanities at Williams College, on the need for critical thinking in religious study.  For a link to the full article, click here. Below I quote the parts of the article that resonated the most with me–

Any responsible curriculum for the study of religion in the 21st century must be guided by two basic principles: first, a clear distinction between the study and the practice of religion, and second, an expansive understanding of what religion is and of the manifold roles it plays in life. The aim of critical analysis is not to pass judgment on religious beliefs and practices — though some secular dogmatists wrongly cross that line — but to examine the conditions necessary for their formation and to consider the many functions they serve.

It is also important to explore the similarities and differences between and among various religions. Religious traditions are not fixed and monolithic; they are networks of symbols, myths and rituals, which evolve over time by adapting to changing circumstances. If we fail to appreciate the complexity and diversity within, and among, religious traditions, we will overlook the fact that people from different traditions often share more with one another than they do with many members of their own tradition.

If chauvinistic believers develop deeper analyses of religion, they might begin to see in themselves what they criticize in others. In an era that thrives on both religious and political polarization, this is an important lesson to learn — one that extends well beyond the academy.

Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, a vestige of an earlier stage of human development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Indeed, the 21st century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.

The warning signs are clear: unless we establish a genuine dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts of the future will probably be even more deadly.

In my view, this article is a clearly exposes the need for intelligent study as the basis for interfaith dialogue to establish common ground.  It reafirms the need for one person of faith to allow for another person’s different but equally strongly held belief system to coexist.  I am fully aware that many rational people are justifiably frustrated by the extremism of dogmatic fundamentalists, and I share this frustration with anyone who is deterministic– whether in their faith or in their secularism.

One should not, however, take the position that dogma, by definition, is unassailable through critical thinking.  To do so closes the door on an opportunity to find common ground and to achieve a synthesis through critical thinking.  For example, consider the reformation of Islam advocated by courageous people such as Irshad Manji through Project Ijtihad.

The real war against fundamentalism will not be won against the hard core extremists by trying to change their views.  It will be won by awakening, energizing, and empowering the very large and still very silent majority of those who can move against the extremists and disempower them from within.  As Professor Taylor argues, interfaith dialogue and critical thinking are important weapons in this war.   

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