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Monday, November 4, 2013

What's Normal?

Once when I was exploring various blogs, I came across a blogger who stated that he'd started his blog in order to figure out why some people are religious. By framing the question in this way, however, he's almost certainly biased whatever conclusions he arrives at. It reminds me of academics who search for reasons why people vote "Republican." It's as if "Republicanism" is some sort of disease of which people need be cured. And like such academics, the blogger appears to regard religion as a disease in need of a cure, which if found, could rid the world of religion and then everyone could become like him: normal.

From a statistical point of view, however, given that most of the world is religious, it is people of faith, rather than those without faith, who are normal. As the sociologist Peter Berger cogently observed back in 1996 (The National Interest, #46):
A few years ago the first volume coming out of the so-called Fundamentalism Project landed on my desk. The Fundamentalism Project was very generously funded by the MacArthur Foundation and chaired by Martin Marty, the distinguished church historian at the University of Chicago. A number of very reputable scholars took part in it, and the published results are of generally excellent quality. But my contemplation of this first volume gave me what has been called an "aha! experience." The book was very big, sitting there on my desk--a "book-weapon," the kind that could do serious injury. So I asked myself, why would the MacArthur Foundation shell out several million dollars to support an international study of religious fundamentalists?
Two answers came to mind. The first was obvious and not very interesting. The MacArthur Foundation is a very progressive outfit; it understood fundamentalists to be anti-progressive; the Project, then, was a matter of knowing one's enemies.
But there was also a more interesting answer. "Fundamentalism" is considered a strange, hard-to-understand phenomenon; the purpose of the Project was to delve into this alien world and make it more understandable. But to whom? Who finds this world strange? Well, the answer to that question was easy: people to whom the officials of the MacArthur Foundation normally talk, such as professors at elite American universities
And with this came the aha! experience. The concern that must have led to this Project was based on an upside-down perception of the world, according to which "fundamentalism" (which, when all is said and done, usually refers to any sort of passionate religious movement) is a rare, hard-to-explain thing. But a look either at history or at the contemporary world reveals that what is rare is not the phenomenon itself but knowledge of it. The difficult-to-understand phenomenon is not Iranian mullahs but American university professors--it might be worth a multi-million-dollar project to try to explain that!
In short, what constitutes normal is largely a matter of perspective. This does not make all perspectives equally valid, but it should give us pause and make us consider whether it's others who are in the need of fixing or whether it's us. Or to paraphrase a wise philosopher, perhaps we should take the plank out of our own eyes before we remove the speck out of the eyes of others.

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