The Right to Annoy People

The Right
to Annoy People:
In Defense
of Fundamentalism

by Theodore Plantinga

Philosophy professors are supposed to talk about truth. Or, if that claim sounds too bold to you, let me suggest that their job is to shed light on the circumstances under which an assertion might plausibly count as truth. Professors who study religion also deal with such issues, since most of the great religious traditions make claims to truth and/or respond to truth claims made by other traditions. When professors representing both of these academic disciplines come together, as in a conference devoted to philosophy of religion, there is usually some discussion of the notion of competing truth claims and some reflection on the question how dangerous differences can best be dealt with.

Recently I attended such a conference held at the McMaster University Divinity School in Hamilton, Ontario. The stated intent of the conference was to explore “Irreconcilable Differences.” The conference subtitle was “Fostering Dialogue Between Philosophy and Theology.”

Although it was not our explicit purpose to worry about all the unrest in the world that can be traced back to zealots inspired by religious fundamentalism, such worries are never far from the minds of informed people in this post-9/11 era, and so they came up. In short, part of the conference turned into a discussion of “fundamentalism” and what can be done about this deadly danger. Nowadays we do not regard fundamentalists as irritating but harmless kooks; instead we tend to fear them as potential terrorists, and we wonder whether they can be allowed on airplanes.

I had been asked to open the conference and did so with an address entitled “Trimming Our Sails with the Help of Philosophy.” As lead-off batter, so to speak, I thought I should inject a bit of humor into the proceedings; moreover, it so happened that a student had provided me with just the thing. Since the conference was held only a few miles away from Redeemer University College, where I teach philosophy, I had time to meet a morning class before giving my McMaster address during the lunch hour. When I got to class, James Sikkema, a philosophy major, presented me with a John Cleese video entitled “How to Irritate People.” I told the conferees about the video, noting that in my days of teaching elementary school I would sometimes get an apple from one of the students: a funny video is even more welcome! I reminded the conferees that it is one of the traditional tasks of philosophy to irritate people, and I promised to see what I could do in that regard.

By the end of the opening session devoted to my address, I was not sure whether I had succeeded in irritating anyone, but by the time the whole conference was over, it was clear that some of us were irritated — but not at anyone in the room. The source of our irritation was a familiar object of hostility — those scary fundamentalists.

The address with which the conference closed was delivered by Prof. Gary Madison of McMaster. He had many fine things to say, and he included in his address some expressions of concern about the state of religion in the world today. He also did what he could to solve the problem posed by the fundamentalists — at least, on a theoretical level. He postulated the familiar thesis (by no means original with him) that religious claims do not have the status of ultimate truth. The implication, of course, was that one should not kill people or blow up buildings in the name of shaky claims to truth. He told us that religion is essentially “myth,” but then in a positive sense. His address was intended to leave room for religion. For more on Madison’s thinking on these matters, see his fascinating book Understanding: A Phenomenological-Pragmatic Analysis (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1982).

Although I have high regard for Prof. Madison and have known him for many years and have learned much from his book on understanding, I felt obliged to take issue with him in the discussion session. I pointed back to the beginning of the conference, when I had made certain comments about “enthusiasm” and “exuberance” as bound up with what we call religion. It seemed to me that Prof. Madison was almost outlawing enthusiasm and exuberance as he issued ethical injunctions from the ivory tower of the university, in the hope that such injunctions would take root among the people and serve to temper the conduct of hot-headed zealots. I was reminded somewhat of the Islamic discussion in the Middle Ages about the differences between prophets and philosophers. [NOTE 2] It was recognized that prophets have a better record than philosophers when it comes to inspiring the ordinary people to act and deterring them from bad conduct. But what Prof. Madison was offering was definitely not prophecy. And so it seemed to me an unrealistic way to address the problem that had worked its way onto our conference agenda.

In my impromptu remarks during the Madison session, I again made reference to the John Cleese video. I had originally introduced the video and shown it to the conference participants (holding it aloft — I did not insist that people watch it) as akin to what philosophers do. The Monty Python folks have studied some philosophy themselves and like to make fun of philosophers. In the spirit of Kierkegaard and Socrates, many philosophers pride themselves on asking difficult questions and upsetting people; in the process they often insinuate that leading lights in our society do not know what they are talking about. But they have no monopoly on irritating or annoying people — fundamentalists do it as well.

Much received wisdom in the academic world asserts that fundamentalists should tone down their rhetoric and generate less heat because a great many philosophers have concluded that no one has the truth. It seems that what we are left with is endless interpretations — many of which turn out, on closer inspection, to be interpretations of interpretations. Polite disagreement is possible, but no one seems to have a basis for imposing his views on anyone else. The days of bashing others over the head in the name of religion are over — or they should be, according to many academics. In making such pronouncements, academics seem to think that they are taking a step toward reducing tensions in the world. On this matter, see also “Hot-Button Ethics: Reflections on Harassment, Imposition and Autonomy.

I know I am over-simplifying here, but that was the gist of what was said. In the conference I proceeded to plead for a more realistic understanding of how human beings function and what makes them tick. And so I extended the right to irritate and annoy people from philosophers to fundamentalists. I then went on to make an admission that probably surprised many of the participants in the conference (but not my own students, some of whom were in attendance): I stated that I like fundamentalists. I don’t say that I am always comfortable with people who get carried away with religious enthusiasm, but I generally find them interesting and usually appreciate them as persons if I have opportunity to come to know them well.

Because of the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear in the world today, this observation needs a bit of explanation. I will also relate my appreciation of fundamentalists to my own life history.

It might be said that there are two kinds of people when it comes to how one should feel about religious enthusiasts. Some people who are members of a religious community stick to their own kind and wind up liking only people of their own kind, restricting their friendships and social interaction largely to a community of the like-minded (including such enthusiasts as share their point of view). Others are curious about people in other camps and have a genuine liking and appreciation for them — even for the enthusiasts among them. I’m definitely of the latter stripe.

In this regard, I have been influenced considerably by my late wife, Mary Plantinga, who studied history when she was an undergraduate and developed a genuinely open-minded appreciation for peoples and communities in faraway times and places. Although she was more theologically conservative than I am, I often marveled at how much she enjoyed learning about other faith traditions and talking with people from those traditions. I recall a time when she cultivated a friendship with a very conservative Islamic woman who lived in our neighborhood. Mary would tell me what her Islamic friend had to say about the moral decline of Canadian society. What was reported to me seemed an unnecessarily harsh critique, and Mary did not altogether agree with her friend either, although she had definite sympathy for her views. But there was no patronizing condescension or dismissal in her relationship to her Islamic friend. Mary clearly enjoyed their times together.

Mary was both the daughter and granddaughter of Calvinist preachers. Her father, Dr. Edward Masselink, was a Christian Reformed minister who was certainly theologically conservative, especially in his approach to issues of Biblical criticism (his doctorate was in Old Testament studies), but at the same time was considerably more broad-minded than most of his associates in the denomination’s ministry, especially when it comes it the attitude he took toward truths and insights that had developed outside the local camp. He often described himself as a “maverick.” I believe Mary absorbed much of his spirit and thinking.

During the discussion of Prof. Madison’s paper, another participant asked him about his position on “evangelization” or proselytizing. Is such a thing still appropriate and permissible? At an earlier point in the conference Gandhi had come up for discussion. Of course Gandhi was a broad-minded thinker, but he was also known to be an opponent of proselytizing, and so he supported the impulse among many Hindus in India to place legal restrictions upon it. It is surprising how often a commitment to tolerance is accompanied by intolerance of religious advocacy.

Prof. Madison was prepared for the question about evangelization. He reached into a folder he had brought with him to the conference and pulled out rules for appropriate evangelizing or religious advocacy. They seemed a bit strict to me, and I wondered just who would be competent to enforce such rules. It seemed to me that rules of such a sort would have to amount to more than an honor code if they were to have any real effect. But in essence I agreed with his rules and sympathized with the thinking behind them, for his rules embodied a recognition that proselytizing should not be outlawed.

In my own presentation at the beginning of the conference I had mentioned that religious people often get carried away. They become guilty of what John Locke called “enthusiasm” and what I chose to characterize as “exuberance.” This tendency is just what makes them irritating in the eyes of many people. Academics, in particular, are inclined to be annoyed when they are buttonholed by a fundamentalist or someone who practices religious advocacy of one sort or another. I’m an exception in this regard: I have been evangelized at various points in my life, and I have not objected: indeed, I honor the efforts made by others to improve my spiritual condition. I should hasten to add that all the evangelization attempts were unsuccessful in my case: no one has ever persuaded me to relinquish membership in my religious community or take out membership in another. But I appreciate the spirit behind such advocacy, and I regard it as a manifestation of human nature at its best.

For the record, I am also in favor of leaving legal room and space for advocacy in other sectors of life. I am myself a food advocate: at the drop of a hat I am known to lecture people on issues of diet. My favorite theme in this regard is vegetarianism, on which I have written elsewhere in Myodicy: see “The Scoffer and the Believer” and “Making Room for Ahimsa” and “In the Beginning It Was Not So” and “Feed Me Till I Want No More.”

When I preach against meat-eating, I sometimes irritate and annoy people, but I also hope to amuse them. I believe arguments about health and diet can be fun, just as arguments over religious and theological differences can be a source of enjoyment. A little good-natured kidding helps in both cases.

In the course of the discussion at the conference, I came to realize that many academics fundamentally dislike religious zealots, partly because they fear them. But I genuinely like them (or perhaps I should say: many of them), although I do fear them on occasion, and am sometimes known to steer clear of certain of them.

Critical readers might wonder if I would sing a different tune if I had ever been “burned” by association with fundamentalists. It is sometimes said that a conservative is a liberal who got mugged recently. The idea is that a person’s broad-minded ideals that translate into “liberal” stances on social and political issues would quickly be cast aside and replaced by rather stern convictions if one ever became the victim of a robbery. And so someone might suppose that if I ever had a nasty encounter with fundamentalists, I would no longer talk about how I like religious zealots. Nor would I defend the right of fundamentalists to annoy people.

Because such thoughts might run through your mind as you read my essay, this is the place to explain I have indeed been on the receiving end of very nasty (to put it mildly) treatment on the part of religious fundamentalists who could certainly be characterized as zealots. What was done to me is quite a story, and it deserves to be told, but this essay is not the time or place to tell it. What I need to stress here instead is that in virtue of my life’s experience, I cannot be dismissed as a Pollyanna thinker when it comes to the dangers of religious fundamentalism and zealotry.

I believe the philosophical point at the heart of my difference with Prof. Madison is that the line between good and evil is only a thin one. Most Christians believe that such a line runs right through the human heart. All of us as human beings have the capacity to perform wondrous good deeds in the world, but we also have the capacity for cruelty and unspeakable evil. Moreover, the powers and abilities on which we draw in order to do good can easily be twisted and perverted in such a way as to become the tools of evil. The upshot is that people who do much evil in the name of religious fundamentalism are easily capable of enormous generosity and good. Indeed, many of the people who make a major nuisance of themselves in the name of religion are also do-gooders who need to be saluted for some of the other things they do. Psychologically speaking, there is a profound kinship between energetic good deeds and energetic evil deeds.

Therefore, when I look upon the works of religious fundamentalists, I see something good in them, something to like, something to admire — even if such folks are also to be feared. I am reminded of the powerful yet beautiful animals we see in the zoo. One might like to reach out and pet the tiger, but it would be dangerous and unwise. And so we watch and admire from a distance.

The most magnificent creature to have come from the hand of God is man himself, although he is not normally on display in the zoo. And so I genuinely like religious people and find their stories interesting and enjoy reading about their communities. I appreciate opportunities to visit their holy places, and I am even open to participating in some of their rituals — although I do not go as far down this path as Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School. [NOTE 3] I’m sure that if Prof. Cox reads this essay, he will understand the spirit behind it, for I detect the same love of religiously-committed people in him. Like my late wife, I enjoy learning about strongly motivated religious people and their communities. And I’m inclined to appraise their attitudes and motives in a fairly generous way.

But this is not to say that I have managed to define the problem out of existence. When I took issue with Prof. Madison at the conference, the difference between the two of us had to do mainly with the overall strategy we should use in relation to the threat we all perceive. It occurred to me that when the conference was drawing to a close and Prof. Madison was giving his address, there had as yet been no talk of the political and legal ramifications of the situation in which we find ourselves.

When I deal with issues of tolerance and religious freedom in my philosophy of religion course at Redeemer, I place considerable emphasis on the political and legal side of things. I stress that the concept of tolerance needs to be paired with the recognition that the ideal of “freedom of religion” should not be interpreted to mean that conduct that would normally meet with stern disapproval and even be classified as illegal should be permitted if it is undertaken in the name of “religion.” Just as playing professional hockey does not give one an excuse for bashing people over the head with a stick, wearing a clerical collar or ecclesiastical vestments of whatever sort should not give one an excuse for breaking the law.

My conviction is that the main avenue of approach to the tensions in the world today that are generated by religious fundamentalism should not be to give the whole world a crash course in sophisticated religious pluralism in which everyone is encouraged to articulate and express religious sentiments — but without ever judging those sentiments to contain truth in an old-fashioned sense. I believe such a policy is unrealistic and unworkable.

Moreover, I do not assent to the philosophical presuppositions of such thinking. I continue to maintain that relativism and skepticism undercut themselves and cannot be consistently stated. They can function as attitudes, and they certainly do so in the minds and hearts of many people, but they do not add up to a coherent philosophy, as far as I can tell.

Therefore the question remains: what is to be done? I believe the most constructive approach is to urge those countries and areas of the world where religious fundamentalism is a major problem to give careful consideration to two of our Western political and legal doctrines. The first one that merits mention here is the notion we sum up in the phrase “human rights.” What this notion comes down to in essence is that we are trying to raise the standard in terms of how people treat one another and how institutions, including governments, treat people in general, including their own citizens. The opposition we may encounter in certain parts of the world stems from the old notion that the infidel, who is thought to be wickedly in error, is not eligible for considerate treatment — so monstrous are his blasphemies and other offenses. Therefore he should not have his “rights” respected.

This is the attitude that must be opposed. If human rights are to have any force in such a society, they must apply to everyone — including the alleged infidel. And if he is prosecuted by the government (which is not the same as being persecuted), it must be because he is a criminal, and not because his beliefs are in conflict with the convictions widely held in the society in which he lives.

Closely related to this first doctrine is a second, which I will refer to via the familiar phrase “separation of church and state.” This notion, which Baptists have done so much to promote in North America (whereas some mainline churches took their time in getting behind it), is roughly the “no theocracy” rule. It took Western Christianity a long time to realize that the government’s use of power and coercive measures must be entirely separated from the activities undertaken by Christian religious communities. And if there is to be any formal discipline within Christian religious circles, it must be carried out by the churches themselves, with no help or assistance from the government. Likewise, when Christians take on governmental capacities and offices, they must adopt a posture of neutrality between religious organizations and communities, not favoring their own community or tradition. They may not appeal to theological grounds as a reason to withhold a building permit when “infidels” propose to erect a building to house their worship activities.

Scholars tell us that such attitudes are foreign to Islam. On the other hand, we are also told that most Muslims live in countries that can hardly be designated religious theocracies. And so it cannot be argued that living a Muslim life is incompatible with obeying public legal norms that separate church and state. Therefore I would maintain that the attitudes underlying the separation of church and state can be inculcated in Muslims living in democratic countries and can even be taught, in principle, to Muslims in autocratic countries that appear to be making the turn toward the recognition of human rights and the desire for an open political process. Whether Muslims are much inclined to teach such attitudes to one another remains to be seen.

What I am suggesting here is not quite the same thing as “exporting democracy.” While I would love to see democracy take root in the autocratic countries from which much trouble emanates, I am inclined to view its emergence as something that is likely to happen at a somewhat later point than currently envisaged by certain leaders in the USA. Democracy needs to live in the hearts of people and have opportunity to be implemented in various institutional settings, for it does not apply only to government. It is also at home in certain ecclesiastical settings, such as the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, which rely on a system of governance that assigns a prominent role to a council of elders who make decisions by majority vote. In short, the elements of a democratic culture are needed in countries that are currently autocratic. Schools and business enterprises are prime locations where democracy needs to be encouraged. There is much more to living a democratic life than voting for a slate of legislators every so many years.

The robust recognition of the distinction between church and state for which I am pleading needs to be accompanied by some realistic and sober reassessment of our commitment to “freedom of religion.” In some countries known for their commitment to liberal attitudes and tolerance, such reassessment is already taking place. I think especially of the Netherlands, which has a proud history in this regard.

What is needed, in general, is legislation that restricts certain kinds of activities as injurious to the health of the political order or even as treasonous toward the state, and also legislation that forbids certain specified abuses of other people, even if they are committed in the name of religion. Undoubtedly such legislation would need a bit of clarification and sorting through in the courts, just as much of the legislation that was hastily introduced after 9/11 to combat terrorism needs to be challenged in courts. In the long run it will be hard to resist such a move.

My own religious community, which has a long history, engages in activities that are not regarded by governments as dangerous, such as the eucharist. Therefore freedom of religion for us, in a democratic country like Canada, is not an issue. Yet it can easily become an issue if our churches insist on granting “sanctuary” to foreigners whom the government is determined to deport.

Lest freedom of religion should be considered a blanket exemption from the law, it will be necessary for governments to think carefully about the nature of the activities enjoined by particular religious communities. Such systematic consideration might eventually necessitate the establishment of something like a Department of Religion in governments. It seems a chilling prospect, and Baptists would probably recoil in horror. Yet I think the time may have come to consider such a thing. As far as I know, various democratic governments already have an informal department of religion within their income tax collection agencies, for those agencies need to consider which groups have the right to hand out receipts for charitable donations, whereby the amount of income tax one is obliged to pay in a given year is reduced. To qualify for such a right, a religious community must communicate with the government and provide some information about its objectives and operations. It is a right that is sometimes abused and therefore is sometimes withdrawn. And so I would submit that in essence we have already moved in the direction I am pointing to.

I am not claiming to have offered a neat solution to a major problem. If our society were to move vigorously in the direction I am sketching in this essay, it would run into some interesting difficulties in terms of the distinction between talking and acting.

I suspect that there are quite a few people who would be inclined to sympathize with my approach but would implement it in a somewhat different way than I would. I’m thinking of people who are interested in banning “hate speech” and “hate literature” and so forth. I would still like to leave a substantial zone open for the expression of unusual convictions and opinions that annoy people. It must be possible, somehow, to distinguish the expression and dissemination of annoying opinions, whether via the printing press or the internet (where we find no end of objectionable material with a racist foundation), from physical action.

And that’s why I insist on the right to annoy people. Annoying is not the same as obstructing people. If someone annoys me by his stated opinions, I have the option to withdraw from his presence and the sound of his voice. If he tries to block my effort to get away from him, we have moved into the physical domain and can speak of obstruction. Here, it seems to me, lies the essence of the distinction that would need to be made if we were to implement the measures which I am here recommending and for which I pleaded at the conference. [END]

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