Inaugural Department of Religion Annual Lecture

Delivered on March 25, 1998

Religious Diversity and Public Reason
Professor John Clayton
Chairman of the Department of Religion and Director of the Graduate Division of Religious and Theological Studies

The vigor with which radically conservative religious movements have gained ground around the world – east and west, north and south – caught the liberal intellectual establishment unprepared. Many consoled themselves at first by insisting it was a temporary blip and predicted that the corrective forces of secularization would soon reassert themselves and set things back on course in and beyond the West. It has not happened quite like that. In the meantime, the liberal community has gone on the offensive, warning with uncharacteristic sensationalism against domestic cultural wars and global clashes of civilizations if commonality is not maximized. Rawlsians may have soberly realised that citizens of modern democratic societies share less in common than they had once imagined, but they have not abandoned the strategy of seeking out and expanding where possible patches of overlapping consensus that may survive. This typifies the intuitive response of liberalism, both classical and contemporary, to diversity: privatize difference and cultivate common ground as a means of containing the potentially destructive social effects of cultural, especially religious diversity.

Who indeed could doubt that staking out and tending common ground is the first thing required to overcome difference and to establish a common good? Where there are differences of opinion between persons or states or religions, most of us instinctively look to strategies that maximize common ground. The image of common ground evokes public parks and village greens; it is an image full of warmth and reassurance, exuding a sense of community and well-being. It is an image that can inspire even the likes of former British Prime Minister John Major to eloquence in homage to village cricket, warm beer and prim spinsters cycling to Evensong.

But the image of common ground has also another side, one that has to do with control and power. Access to shared space requires a willingness to conform to rules (usually posted) that regulate hours of access, modes of dress, kinds of activities that are permitted not only by the visitor but also by their pets. Such regulations are rarely oppressive, but occasionally idiosyncratic. Access to common ground is never entirely free of regulation; the regulations on display reflect local community standards; the more nearly one approximates those standards, the less difficulty one will have feeling “at home” in public space.

Common ground is not always unitive; it can be the cause of conflict. Sometimes the greater the share in common ground, the more destructive the conflict. It might be observed, at the risk of seeming over-literal, that no one has more common ground than do the Palestinians and the Israelis. What they share in common is in fact the basis of their conflict. Common ground, in short, does not always contribute to peace; nor, I would add, does radical difference necessarily give cause to worry about imminent culture wars at home or impending clashes of civilizations on the global scene.

Clarification of defensible difference, not identification of “common ground”, may be what is required to gain the co-operation of disparate religious interests in achieving pragmatically defined goals that enhance human flourishing. This approach would entail a shift from focusing on reasons as grounds to focusing instead on reasons as motives and on reasons as goals; that is to say, focusing less on the grounds of argument and more on the ends of argument. That, at least, is the possibility I want to put forward for your consideration. To get there, however, there is groundwork to be done.

The terms public and private are notoriously slippery, and not just in England where public schools are private nor just in America where the private lives of politicians are treated as matters of intense public concern. So upside-down have public and private become in the brouhaha of the last few months that more Americans can name women with whom the President has been sexually linked than can name members of his cabinet. One does not have to wait for a Gallup poll to be confident that more Americans could discuss in lurid detail the President’s private sexual preferences than could intelligently discuss his public policies. Even apart from this episode, however, it has to be allowed that the conceptual boundaries between “public” and “private” are somewhat indeterminate. The private sphere can be extended to cover everything that is not an official function of government or it can be restricted to what goes on between consenting adults within their own four walls, unless those four walls happen to enclose a study just off the Oval Office. The public realm can be conceived narrowly, or it can be expanded in liberal democracies to include anything open to all qualified members of the public, such as the market place, the academy or the “public square”.

For the American conscience, however, it is organized religion’s possible involvement in matters political that causes greatest suspicion about religion’s public role. This suspicion is deeply rooted in our origins as a nation. The Republic and its ideals were forged at a time when European liberal thinking that so impressed the likes of Jefferson and his generation had served up a minimalist idea of civil government. Citizens were to be left relatively free of interference to pursue their own vision of the good life providing that pursuit did not impede the ability of other citizens to pursue theirs. In respect to organized religion, this was perceived to have two consequences, both of them embodied eventually in the first amendment to the US constitution: it is not the business of federal government to privilege parochial religious interests by establishment, but it is the business of government to protect the free exercise of religion from hindrance, be it initiated by those hostile to religion, other religious groups or by some agency of government.

Jefferson spoke famously of the need for a “wall of separation” between the state and the affairs of religion, a phrase over which he took some care. It was, he said, seasoned to Southern tastes and feared it might be too strong for the more delicate digestion of those living in New England. In retrospect, his intended wall was neither especially high nor particularly substantial; it was more like the back garden wall of an English terrace house – high enough to keep the neighbor’s children and pets out of the flower beds, but low enough not to exclude light or exchanges of local gossip on the weekends. For instance, Jefferson did not think all forms of religion unfit for access to public space – rational religion retained privileged rights of access to the public arena. However modest his wall may have been, it has been raised and reinforced by subsequent custom, legislation and judicial interpretation, until it is now a formidable barrier that effectively excludes religious access to the public realm. Even though the wall may have been “improved” over time, its foundations remain Jeffersonian. He set the tone of the American liberal tradition by insisting on the separation of personal belief from civic virtue. In Jefferson’s view, it is not of public concern whether a citizen has this religion or that or no religion at all.

Religion in the Jeffersonian project was effectively privatized and made subject to market forces, not to state monopoly. Though it is not actually entailed by Jefferson’s position, the extended “wall of separation” threatens to deny private religion access to public space or influence in defining public virtue. The liberal state is fully secular; public reason, secular reason; public virtue, secular virtue. Critics of modernity sometimes point to the privatization of religion as an important aspect of the much-hyped loss of community and fragmentation of cultural values. Accompanying this indictment has gone a call, first from the right and more recently from the left, to reassert religion’s right of entry to the public sphere of civic life.

Early architects of classical liberalism anticipated the charge. In a recent article on religion and community in the thought of the Scottish economist, Adam Smith, Charles Griswold has examined the initially counter-intuitive argument of The Wealth of Nations that incorporating religion into civic life undermines community by leading to a variety of public vices, including fanaticism and intolerance, while the privatization of religion builds up community by encouraging a variety of liberal values, including moderation and tolerance. On such an account as this, diversity of religious interests in a society would lead not so much to culture wars as to peace and harmony. How does it do that?

If the civil government withdraws from the religion business, so to say, and favors no religious persuasion with establishment, then religion – being based on a combination of volatile and irrational factors – can be predicted to fragment into a large number of independent sects. These sects will then compete vigorously for new members, since their very survival depends upon the moral and financial support of their membership. In order to make themselves more attractive to more punters, however, the individual sects will tend to moderate their more extreme positions. They will then adopt a less strident and more tolerant attitude toward other groups – an attitude which is highly conducive to community. Ergo, privatization leads to an enhanced sense of community.

Earlier, I talked about the hold that the image of “common ground” has on our thinking about ways to avoid the destructive effects of religious difference. It would seem prima facie that Adam Smith’s appeal to the imagery of the market offers an alternative that values diversity positively without requisite “common ground”. First impressions may be misleading, however, so it will be necessary to return to this issue. Before doing so, it may prove useful to see how Jefferson used forces at work in the market place to project the future of religious diversity in America.

The privatization of religion, Jefferson insisted, was an advantage both to the state and to true religion. Establishment leads to the corruption of the state and of religion alike; exclusion of parochial religious interests from the public arena is necessary both for the integrity of the state and for the prosperity of true religion. Privatization advantages the state, he argues in language reminiscent of Smith, because a diversity of “good enough” religious groups in a society acts to stabilize and to moderate religious excesses. Writing at a time when many States(including the Commonwealths of Virginia and Massachusetts) still had legally established churches, Jefferson pointed to the successful experiments in New York and Pennsylvania where, in the absence of legal establishment, religious diversity and public order happily flourished together: Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order: or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors than we do. They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions. On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled, and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them.

That last sentence is telling. In it we glimpse how Jefferson’s private opinion on the pointlessness of sectarian religious disputes and the irrationality of parochial religious interests colors his recommendations for public policy in respect to religion. Religion is privatized not to allow a hundred flowers to blossom but to subject religious sects to the corrective forces of the marketplace that serve to control fanatical excess and also to instill liberal virtues, such as tolerance and “good sense”. Privatization of sectarian religion effectively allowed Jefferson to institute his private religious preferences as public policy; the forces of the market place, not the forces of state, would be used to maximize rationality in religion.

In a society where all religious groups have equal protection under the law and, therefore, free access to the market place, citizens can be expected to shop around a bit, but they will eventually settle on the “best buy”, which in Jefferson’s estimate would be the religious option that is highest in rationality. “Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation.” Unregulated market forces would eliminate faulty goods, thus driving rationally defective religions into liquidation. Religious diversity, for Jefferson a given, is viewed as an instrument of its own destruction: irrational parochial interests give way over time to the superior market leadership of rational religion, which emerges not just as market leader, but as unregulated monopoly. And it does so not by the force of legal establishment but by the power of persuasion, in and through the sort of “free enquiry” idealized in Enlightenment rationality.

This seems rather distant from Adam Smith. For Smith, diversity is not simply tolerated until true religion can eliminate its false competitors, it is actively encouraged. The greater the diversity, the better on Smith’s account. But this is misleading. Encouraging diversity is as strategic for Smith as it is for Jefferson. Both men regarded all sectarian religious groups as fundamentally irrational. The two men differ only in their views of how rational religion overcomes what is patently false and irrational. For Jefferson, it would occur by sects being displaced one by one by rational religion; for Smith, it would occur as gradual modifications to all the sectarian options as part of the overarching process of moderation, until they all finally converge at or near “pure and rational religion”.

In both accounts of diversity, difference is an embarrassment, a sign of irrationality, to be overcome by the totalization of reason. Otherness may be publicly tolerated, but it is privately held in utter contempt.

Smith and Jefferson judged the religious sects of their acquaintance to be irrational in part because their style of argument did not conform to the canons of public rationality idealized in what is widely called by supporters and detractors alike the Enlightenment project – a phrase that has all the descriptive credibility of the “Holy Roman Empire”. Having myself tried elsewhere to define it, I shall resist the temptation to do so again here. For present purposes, it is sufficient to note that in its terms, we are required in all our deliberations to attain neutrality by divesting ourselves of allegiance to any particular standpoint and to achieve universality by abstracting ourselves from all those communities of interest that may limit our perspective. As sovereign selves we lay sound foundations on which to build with reasoned confidence. This account evokes procedures outlined by Descartes in his Discourse on Methodand applied in his Meditations on First Philosophy.

Descartes is your worst nightmare as a neighbor. No sooner has he bought the house next door than he begins to worry that it may be haunted. Then one day he mutters that roofs have been known to leak and infers from this datum that his roof must be unreliable. The next thing you know, he has the roof off and then begins to dismantle the place floor by floor, room by room, until he has the ground cleared. Not satisfied, he digs on until he hits bedrock. With a worrying air of self-satisfaction, he then proceeds to lay new foundations and to begin rebuilding his house. You offer to help, but he refuses all assistance.

According to the terms of the Enlightenment project, you see, we must learn to rely on ourselves alone and not on others, present or past, if we are to avoid error. The free use of reason by a sovereign self, unencumbered by all such entanglements, is a sure guide to truth, justice and virtue. It is also sufficient to discover all that is necessary to know about God, immortality of the soul, and the requirements of the moral law.

Rational religion is supposed to be public religion both in the sense that it is open equally to all and in the sense that it is supported by reasons that are reasons for everyone – that is, it is imagined to conform to classical liberal canons of public rationality. Rational religion was not treated as one sect among other sects, but as the ground common to all religious sects, from which they may deviate to varying degrees, the degree of their deviation being a measure of their irrationality. In practice, however, “rational religion” was little more than the residue that remained after eliminating all the distinguishing doctrines of the diverse Protestant groups that proliferated in parts of Europe and in much of 18th-century America. It was able to pass itself off as “universal” only because of the paucity of knowledge about religious traditions that had no share in the narrative traditions of historical Christianity. Other groups could be imagined to share in rational religion of the requisite sort because of the sheer thinness of contact with such groups.

The point is easily made in reference to America circa 1800. According to the best statistics available, almost 90% of the citizens of the US at that time who belonged to a religious community identified themselves with some Protestant group. About 10% were Roman Catholics and only 0.5% were Jewish. If we focus more narrowly on Jefferson’s own state, whose Statute for Religious Freedom became the model for the first amendment of the US Constitution, the homogeneity is even more staggering. In the whole of the Commonwealth of Virginia at the turn of the century, there was not a single Roman Catholic church and the nearest Jewish congregations were in Philadelphia to the north and Charleston to the south. In such circumstances, maximizing common ground may well have been a reasonable and practical strategy for containing the damage that might be done to the public good by the fact of religious diversity. But this is not the sort of religious diversity that occupies us today, whatever the level of magnification used in our enquiries, whether we focus on the local, the regional or the global scene.

Contrast the sort of diversity that concerned Jefferson and his generation with the sort of diversity evident today in a city like Boston or in a major research university like Boston University. Contrast it also with the kind of diversity evident today in the very European countries that produced the leading architects of the rational religion embraced by classical liberalism. In Britain today, for instance, there are more Hindus than Jews and more Muslims than Methodists. Nor is Britain in this respect unique among European lands; the precise mix may be different, but the sort of religious diversity experienced in many European countries today is not that different. What kind of strategy would be effective in respect to this sort of diversity, so that it has a chance of becoming a positive good rather than a detriment to the stability of an open society?

In recent academic debates about the role of religious differences in threatened culture wars and impending clashes of civilizations, too much attention has been given to destructively conflictual consequences of difference and too little to the positive benefits of diversity or to the complex strategies that religions themselves develop to accommodate difference, whether it exists within a single religious community or among a plurality of religious communities that may have existed for some time along side one another cheek to jowl.

Sometimes these strategies are purely local, partial and inconsistent with a given community’s “official” polity and practice. They may nonetheless be effective strategies, which without external interference, can have long-term local benefit. In 1992, the world’s attention was focused on Ayodhya, an inconspicuous village in India, where a mob of Hindu nationalists destroyed the 16th-century mosque that in times of Islamic ascendancy had been built over the legendary birthspot of the God Rama. Press coverage of this event and the violence that ensued throughout India was intense. Less well covered was the fact that local Hindus and Muslims had long ago reached an accord that allowed a corner of the mosque to be used by Hindus to honor Rama.

Local accommodation is more widespread “on the ground” among religious populations than might be imagined, as is extensive syncretism and a variety of pick-and-choose DIY combos. A successful Japanese family might follow certain Shinto practices, opt for a Christian wedding for their daughter, but at death find comfort in a Buddhist funeral. It is not unusual for contemporary Christians to experiment with a wide variety of meditative and spiritual practices that belong properly to other paths, legitimated by narrative traditions, grounded in doctrinal schemes and directed at goals quite different from their own path, narrative, doctrine and goal, and to conduct such experiments with the expectation of spiritual insight that somehow goes beyond what is otherwise available to them in their own tradition’s spiritual practices. In some areas of Nepal, Buddhism and Hinduism are so intermingled in popular belief and practice that a credible difference can no longer be found. If one were to examine the classical polemical texts of Buddhist and Brahmanical philosophers, however, it would be hard to imagine that such syncretism could be possible in principle, much less that it could be sustained in practice – it is a pity that Adam Smith is not available to theorize the effects of market forces in Nepal.

We academics, notoriously susceptible to the mental hobgoblins identified by Emerson, find it easy to dismiss examples from popular religion as intellectually uninteresting. I would protest. I would go on to suggest that such muddling efforts may even contribute more to peace and human flourishing than does professorial hand-wringing over domestic culture wars and global clashes of civilizations. But, I will not labor that point here; instead, I will retreat to academically more comfortable territory and remind us that strategies for accommodating difference occur not just at the popular level. At more reflective levels, spiritual and intellectual elites of religious groups develop means for dealing with difference inside and beyond their boundaries. Some may even be philosophically interesting in their capacity to suggest models of public reason at odds with the dominant paradigm of classical liberalism that continues to inform academic ideals of public reason.

Rather than viewing religions as inherently “irrational” because they fail to conform to the style of tradition-free reasoning idealized in classical liberal or Enlightenment accounts of rationality, it may be better to see religions as localized rationalities, i.e. as largely coherent instances of group-specific reasoning.

Reasons do matter intensely to religious communities, but what counts as a good reason in what circumstance may be tradition-specific and may itself be a matter of controversy within a community. To discern what count as “good reasons” in a given situation requires one to get one’s intellectual fingernails dirty: that is, one must root out particular cases for closer scrutiny. To be maximally effective, this digging about will need to be comparative, so one has to root around under more than one tree; otherwise, there is a danger of attaching general import to a single and possibly atypical instance. It is also necessary to shift the focus of attention from rationality in general to the practical operations of reason in specific contexts, contexts in which reasons as ends and reasons as motives will almost certainly be pertinent to identifying the role of reasons as grounds, contexts in which the boundaries between – say – logic, rhetoric and dialectic are not nearly so well formed as they are in philosophy textbooks.

Attending to the practical operations of reason in differing varieties of traditional religious discourse opens up a complex and fascinating world of local knowledge and local rationality. We can visit that world, but we may not want to live there; even so, a visit to this exotic world may expose us to previously unimagined possibilities that might enable us to extrapolate fresh ways to theorize the practical operations of reason in the public world of political discourse.

When uncertainties arise or claims are contested in religious communities, complex strategies typically come into play, with differential weightings assigned to authoritative sources (sometimes textual, sometimes oral, sometimes personal), recognized precedents and traditions of interpretation, contemporary experience of narrowly religious or broadly secular kind, and other local circumstances. The kinds of reasoning found in such contexts typically resemble legal argument more closely than the mathematical-experimental reasoning idealized in classical liberal notions of public reason.

The comparison with jurisprudence, however, should not lead us to assume that the operations of reason in religious contexts are always conservative; there are loose and strict constructionists among canon lawyers as well as among constitutional lawyers. As in jurisprudence, however, innovation is frequently disguised as embodying the “spirit” of the tradition or as a recovery of the “true meaning” of some authoritative text or tradition of interpretation or as a reassuring means of resolving a seeming conflict between competing authorities. Religious traditions renew themselves and reshape themselves through these complex operations of practical reason. By such operations, they rarely achieve community-wide consensus. But they do sometimes manage thereby to confine the destructive consequences of internal dissonance and in the process redefine the limits of credible difference in the community and transform internal diversity into positive energy that enables communities more effectively to adapt to constantly changing circumstance.

One common mechanism for defining the limits of credible difference inside religious groups has been the controlled conflict allowed by formal disputation – a feature of traditional education in a number of groups, including Islam, Christianity, Indo-Tibetan and Chinese religions; I focus here on Islamic and Indian practice.

In Islamic cultures, kalam emerged as a method of arguing but also a structure for formal disputation in and among the disparate schools of law that centered on the principles developed by eminent jurists(who have traditionally been occupied as much with philological, hermeneutical and philosophical issues as with narrowly legal ones). Muslims recognized from early days that shari’a would require interpretation, since it is not reasonable to expect to find explicit guidance to cover all cases that can arise. In an hadith from the formative phase of Islam, there is a remarkable exchange between the Prophet and a companion, Mu’adh, who was about to be made a provincial governor. As governor his duties would include settling disputes and offering legal judgements from time to time. The Prophet asked Mu’adh how he would render judgements. “According to God’s Scriptures”, was his reply. And if the answer is not found there? Then, he said, “according to the traditions of the Messenger”. And if the answer is not found there? “Then I will rely on my reason.” The Prophet is reported to have expressed his approval and to have offered a prayer of thanksgiving. The use of reason being encouraged in this hadithis not the tradition-free reason of the classical liberal paradigm, but a reason infused with controlling authority of shari’a as given in Qu’ran, the cycle of ahadith that surround the life of the Prophet, the learned consensus (ijma) of prevailing tradition. It is in short an intricately textured reason.

Even such richly textured reason could not guarantee uniformity of case law in Islam, however, and jurists developed individual approaches to interpreting the obligations of shari’a in new circumstances, approaches that may have had considerable local influence but no overall authority. By one count, there were at the beginning of the 9th century over five hundred competing systems of legal interpretation with at least local influence. The winnowing effects of history, however, together with the vagaries of political patronage, and – not to be forgot – the weight of reasoned argument in legal disputation, resulted by the 13th century in a narrowing down of these local authorities in orthodox Islam to just three or four generally recognized approaches to the law, ranging from the relatively liberal Hanafi to the traditionalist Hanbali, with two moderate schools(Maliki and Shafi’i) occupying the middle ground. Each school had a coherent and cohesive approach to the law; its decisions embodied their distinctive jurisprudential principles. But all four came to be recognised by orthodox or Sunni Muslims as legitimate; what they agreed upon came to be accepted as the orthodox consensus or ijma; what they disagreed about, however, was still tolerated within orthodoxy without threatening its stability. These four schools, in my terms, mark the limits of credible or defensible difference within Sunni Islam. (It would complexify but not undermine the account given here if I were to include the law schools recognized by sectarian or Shi’ite sects – one would then be talking about the credible limits of Islam, not of orthodox Islam; this would further substantiate the thesis) Diversity of legal perspectives in Islam also helps account for its remarkable ability to manage change by adapting itself to new circumstances without losing a sense of identity.

Disputation or vada arose in Brahmanical circles in India well before the beginning of the common era out of the question-and-answer methods of instruction used to elucidate the intricacies of Vedic ritual or to solve metaphysical puzzles in Vedic scripture. Disputation between learned experts may have developed also from ancient Brahmanic methods of resolving legal disputes and from medical practitioners’ methods of arriving at an agreed diagnosis or method of treatment. In addition, philosophical dialectic had independent origins outside Brahmanic circles within Jaina and Buddhist groups, each of whom had developed its own distinctive procedures and categories which eventually fed into the mainstream traditions of vada-disputation.

The Buddhist influence in particular on that wider tradition was considerable. Despite the Buddha’s warning against engaging in any doctrinal dispute that could risk schism, Buddhist pitakas abound in reports of controversy inside their circles regarding the correctness of rival doctrinal interpretations. Such controversies had over time a certain winnowing effect on Buddhist positions, so that (allowing for regional variation as Buddhism spread North and East) certain schools emerged with widespread credibility – so much so that their existence was attributed to the Buddha’s intention to make provision for different levels of spiritual attainment (a tale told by Madhyamikas, who would have placed themselves at the highest level).

Since Buddhist schools differed in their conception of the nature of reality, debates about ontology and cognition presented practical obstacles. How do you run a debate between someone who believes that our perceptions mirror external objects and someone else who is persuaded that every theory about the nature of things collapses in virtue of insurmountable internal contradictions? You could only do so if the latter person were willing for the sake of the debate to posit the reality of external objects. You must learn to see things as an elephant sees them, the great Dharmakirti advised, if you want to debate with an elephant. The acquired capacity to think as the opponent thinks is a key to the practical operation of reason in the Indian paradigm of public reason. For the willingness and skillful means to reflect systematically on the other’s perspective from within that perspective as if it were one’s own perspective not only enabled internal Buddhist debates between the Madhyamikas and Sautrantikas, but it also enabled external debates with non-Buddhists.

Religious groups in long-term contact with other religious groups typically develop discourses for debate across their respective borders. The types of argument that had been used for intra-traditional debate were also adapted for inter-traditional use. In Persia and elsewhere, kalam provided a framework for public debate among Muslims, Jews, Christians and other local groups. As a style of argument, kalam had much influence within the Jewish and Christian communities, as well as becoming the discourse of public debate in the region. The popular success of open debate in cosmopolitan Baghdad alarmed more conservative Muslims from elsewhere. A tenth-century visitor from Spain went to a public debate at which he found gathered together not only members of disparate Islamic sects, but also non-Muslims of all sorts, including “Magions, materialists, atheists, Jews and Christians”. Upon his return to Spain, ibn Sa’di described what he had witnessed abroad as a calamity (an evident pun on the word kalam) in virtue of the fact that the Muslims present did not insist on everyone’s accepting the authority of Qu’ran as a condition of participation.

A century later, however, the Muslim ruler of Moorish Saragossa in response to a certain “monk of France” who was inclined to try to trump arguments by quoting the New Testament, reminded him that all religions make such appeals and argument [kalam] is the only means we have of distinguishing possibility from absurdity. I do not know what the “monk from France” replied, but it would not be long before Friars from France would be touting also in Spain the value of scholastic discourse as a vehicle of disputation between Christians, Muslims and Jews.

If ibn Sa’di had been concerned that Muslims had not pressed their numerical and political dominance in debates in Baghdad, he would have been equally alarmed at the readiness with which Christians regularly pressed their dominant position of power in the Latin West. Sometimes there was an effort at fairness, sometimes not, and even in those cases where the ruler swore his protection, he was not always in a position to make good his promise. As the distinguished Nahmanides realized before engaging in debate in Barcelona in 1263, it was catch 22: if he did badly and lost, his people would suffer added pressure and humiliation at the hands of the triumphant Christians; if he did well and won, however, his people might suffer even greater retaliation. Who won? It depends whether you believe the summary of the debate written by the Christians or the one written by Nahmanides, the publication of which led to his exile.

From these examples, we see not only that religious communities develop a language for arguing across their confessional boundaries, but also that the asymmetry of political power in Islamic and Christian lands(and others as well) meant that in practice these discourses were in constant danger of being subverted politically as discourses of domination.

In regions where political advantage was more randomly distributed, however, debating traditions led to more interesting results over time. In India, for instance, vada became a public discourse for defining defensible difference between competing groups able to survive public scrutiny. To say that political advantage was more randomly distributed, does not of course mean that political factors were absent from the Indian debating tradition or that debates were not a means of one local group gaining political advantage over another. This is especially true of court debates, where royal patronage and prejudice was often decisive to the outcome of the disputation. In a wonderful exchange in the Milindapanja, King Milinda asked the Buddhist pandit Nagasena if he would debate with him. Nagasena replied that he would debate with the king as scholars debate, but not as kings debate. How is it that scholars debate? “When scholars debate with one other, your Majesty, there is summing up and unraveling. There is also defeat and yet scholars do not lose their temper. Thus do scholars debate, your Majesty.” And how do kings debate? “When kings debate, your Majesty, they state a proposition, and if anyone differs with them, they order his punishment. ‘Away with him!’, they shout. Thus, your Majesty, do kings debate.”

Representatives of any philosophical perspective – Brahmanic or Buddhist or Jaina or even Carvaka – had free access to the forum of public debate, providing – that is – they were willing to have their school’s claims publicly challenged according to the rules of vada. Contestability,not neutrality, was the price of entry to the public arena in the Indian vada tradition. One could enter public space and participate in public reason without pretending to rise above difference or to abstract oneself from one’s entanglements with the communities of interest that make us who we are. Unlike classical European liberalism, the Indian debating tradition did not require one to give up own grounds in order to participate in public reason: public reason is open to all, but a share in “common ground” is not required; the reasons given in debate do not have to be reasons for everyone; but they must be contestable by anyone with requisite knowledge and an interest in the topic.

In any given debate, there was of course a winner and a loser. And opponents from different darsanas typically engaged in debate in order to defeat their opponents and to establish the superiority of their own perspective. Buddhist logicians nonetheless typically insisted that it is unworthy to enter into debate in order to win or defeat an opponent, that one should instead enter into the dialectic of debate to arrive at the truth. Assuming the conditions of defeat and victory were met, however, there would be a winner and there would be a loser. Egos were at risk, even – one suspects – in the case of Buddhists who theoretically had no ego to be threatened. To be defeated in an important debate involved loss of face and, depending on the wager, maybe more. Some groups, notably the Naiyayikas, had the reputation of being ready to use any means, fair or foul, to win debates.

However important winning was to most of those who engaged in public debate, the long-term effect of the debating tradition was not to arrive at an overall World Cup winning team or to achieve a general consensus on matters in dispute. Nor was it, as Adam Smith might have expected, for the rough edges of difference to be worn away as once strong positions became more moderate. The long-term effect was quite the opposite: not to diminish but to precisify difference; the lines separating the emerging darsanas were firmed up by a gradual sharpening of the points of difference that distinguished them.

Preparation for debate forced each competing darsana to reflect systematically on its own position and also on the opponent’s, since they would have to defeat the opponent on his own grounds. In the process, it became clear that their difference – their alterity – was not simply about this or that; it was systemic. Their difference was darsanic; it was perspectival. But the darsanas that survived this process gained credibility and earned thereby a place in the set of darsanas; they were regarded as worthy opponents in debate.

None of the darsanas was left unaffected by their extended process of polemic and debate. But each one was affected differently. At one time independent perspectives, Nyaya and Vaisesika moved toward each other until they finally merged, with the combined darsanaintegrating the logical and dialectical skills of the one with the realist ontological commitments of the other. And the Naiyayikas, once non-theistic, became forceful apologists for what might be called somewhat anachronistically “rational religion”. At one time subsidiary to Mimamsa, Vedanta came to have a separate existence from what then came to be Purva-Mimamsa. And, as Vedanta became conceptually more variegated within and eventually acquired political advantage without, it assumed an increasingly prominent place in accounts of the saddarsanas.

Not all perspectives survived having their basic claims contested in debate. Although evidently regarded at one time as equal in standing to Samkhya and Yoga, the Carvaka may have failed to clear the hurdle of public contestability, surviving not in its own right as a living darsana,but only as a stereotyped image in the polemical texts of other darsanas.Why then did it continue to be treated as a possible perspective even after it had ceased to be an active presence within Indian philosophy? The Carvaka represented a philosophical position that was not otherwise present among the darsanic systems. Only the Carvaka represented materialism in ontology; only they rejected inference as a pramana; only they denied the cycle of rebirth and the moral basis of world order. In short, without the Carvaka the construction of philosophical systems would have been left unfinished and the outer limit of credible philosophical reflection would have been left undefined.

This gives us a clue to the way that the set of philosophical darsanas achieved definitive shape. Each surviving darsan are presented a possible point of view, without which the “set” would have been incomplete.

Collectively, they possess a kind of coherence based not on their being built on “common ground” but on together constituting the sum total of defensible possibilities that could be conceived within the Indian imaginaire. Sa-Skya Pandita, the eminent 13th-century Tibetan scholastic philosopher, insisted that the traditional Indian darsanas exhaust the possibilities philosophically. A worthy opponent stands in one of the four main Buddhist lineages or belongs to one of the recognized non-Buddhist sects. There are these and no others. Anyone who holds a coherent point of view holds one of these positions, whether or not they realize it. If there is any merit in this remark, then one product of the practice of vada could be said to have been a determinate set of recognized darsanas. In my language, the process produced a clarification of publicly defensible difference.

Earlier, I suggested that the notion of public reason in classical liberal theory is not able to cope with the kind of radical religious diversity that confronts us today, whether we consider the situation locally, regionally or globally. Latterly, I have been suggesting that attending to the strategies religious communities themselves have developed to accommodate the other in their midst may offer an alternate way of conceiving public reason, one in which reason lies open to all, to be sure, but does not require abandonment of group-specific reasons as the price of entry to the public arena. In the medieval Indo-Tibetan tradition of public debate between different perspectives, for instance, we encountered a conception of public reason that allowed public debate in which tradition-specific reasons might be offered and which resulted not in general consensus but in the clarification of publicly defensible difference.

I now want to suggest that what we found there is in fact nearer to the actual operations of public reason in modernity than is the idealized account of rationality found in most classical and much recent liberal theory. To make my point, I want to refer to selected aspects of the contemporary global debate about human rights.

Just as academics may have worried too much about religious diversity as a cause of violence and may have attended too little to ways that religious communities might contribute to a better understanding of the positive role of diversity in public reason, so academics may have concentrated too much on the violation of human rights in traditional religious communities and may have looked too little at what traditional religious communities might contribute to a richer understanding of human flourishing than has historically been the case within the modern secular discourse of rights.

One reason why the positive role religions might play in defining and enforcing human rights has tended to be ignored in international discussions on human rights must surely be sought in the popular presumption that the public discourse of rights is universal in scope and ideologically neutral in respect to underlying principles. The private discourses of religious communities are perceived in contrast as parochial or local in scope and as being grounded in group-specific commitments. The moral discourses of the disparate religious communities carry conviction for some people at some time and in some place, but they cannot be expected to carry conviction for all people at all times or in all places. At most, they express the tradition-constituted values of a limited community of interest and thereby fail to achieve the generality of the moral discourse required for the recognition and implementation of human rights. For human rights-entitlements all persons are supposed to possess simply in virtue of being persons – would seem by definition to be rights whose authority cannot be contingent upon limiting circumstances, historical or cultural. Human rights are presumed to trump group – specific privileges and duties.

The diverse moral discourses of religious groups more typically spell out duties which are specific to the members of their own communities and which often could not even in principle be reasonably extended as requirements for persons beyond their borders. And legitimation of group-specific duties derives ultimately from some authority that is accepted as authority by that group alone. Such discourses can be said to express group-specific norms, but not universal maxims.

Any talk of “human rights” and “religious values” must, therefore, deal with the dilemma of universal and local in at least these two interrelated aspects: first, how group-specific duties relate to human rights and, second, how human rights are legitimated. In regard to legitimation, the issue is whether human rights claims must always be backed by reasons that can be reasons for everyone, or if they might also be backed by reasons that are accepted as such only by participants in some localized community of interest.

This dilemma faces anyone engaged in discussion of human rights, but it is made more acute by the extravagant claims religious groups often make for their moral code and its unique authority. Of course, all religious codes are in a weak sense unique, in that each is the code of one religious community and not another. But some religious groups claim for themselves uniqueness in a strong sense: namely, their code exclusively provides a reliable guide to the good life in virtue of its authority as revealed law. Their code is claimed to have universal validity, even if its authority is not acknowledged beyond the community’s edge. But when a religious group claims universal validity for their own code, its authority is in practice still restricted to the group that acknowledges its laws as binding. However sweeping the claim on the code’s behalf, its authority remains localized to the group for whom it is acknowledged as revealed law. For such religious groups, therefore, the tension persists between the universal entitlement to human rights and more localized group-defined duties and liberties.

The way this tension has been stated assumes that secular rights discourse is in some strong sense universal and objective, whereas the competing moral discourses of determinate religions are local and partisan, being confined to the communities of interest that embrace them. Yet the secular discourse of rights (including human rights) is itself a construction of a specific historical and cultural circumstance, as is the concept of the autonomous self as rights-bearer. And the idea of rights encoded in such discourse is also tied to the place in which it is formed or gains endorsement. Human rights are historical constructions, not natural kinds. For instance, John Locke, a major architect of the modern formation of rights discourse, could without violating his understanding of rights defend in his Second Treatise of Government the institution of slavery. A later upholder of the Lockean tradition of human rights may have been ambivalent in his attitude toward the institution of slavery, but Thomas Jefferson cannot have had foremost in mind his own slaves when he extolled in one of the most eloquent documents of his age the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Surely none could claim that Locke’s or Jefferson’s understanding of rights was “universal”, whether in the sense of being an equal entitlement to everyone or in the sense of gaining general endorsement by everyone. Nor could one reasonably think that its underpinning was ideologically neutral. Human slavery may not have been eradicated in the world (indeed, it may be more widespread today than it has been at any time in human history),but it no longer has morally earnest defenders. What has changed since Locke’s or Jefferson’s time to make slavery indefensible, however, is not just that a further item or two has been added to the short-list of so-called “core rights”. What has occurred, more crucially, is a transformation of our vision of what constitutes a human right and of what entitles someone to be a rights-bearer.

Every understanding of “rights” is bound to a time and place. This holds for our own notion of human rights as much as it does for that of Locke or Jefferson. Over time, the concept of rights may develop or be stretched or be altered to fit some new circumstance or it may be finally abandoned as outmoded. But it does not stay fixed. The discourse of human rights is itself temporal and not eternal, local and not universal. And this applies to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no less than it does to the American Declaration of Independence or the French Dèclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, the datedness of which may be more readily evident. The 1948 Universal Declaration was a historic document. It is rightly regarded as a key moment in shaping the post-war world. In the meantime, however, it has become also a historical document. It can now be seen to mirror the concerns of that time and to embody its asymmetry of political power. The understanding of what count as human rights presumed by it has now been altered and stretched and developed by ensuing Charters, Conventions, Declarations and Protocols. The discourse of rights has continued by this means to construct itself anew. And rival conceptions of human rights compete for wider endorsement within an increasingly global culture of rights.

This feature of the modern discourse of rights ironically brings it nearer to the competing moral discourses of sectarian religious groups which, according to the idealized Enlightenment self-image, the tradition-neutral language of rights was itself supposed to supersede. The dilemma of universal and local seems, therefore, to end in a proliferation of localized norms, vying with one another in the world’s market place.

Does this not leave us awash in a sea of relativism?

There is another way of explaining what is going on – a way that brings together the argument of this paper. More significant than the perceived threat of relativism in matters moral is the simple fact that the discourse of rights has become in modern times, and pre-eminently since World War II, the shared public language in which to differentiate the defensible from the indefensible in our behavior toward others. It has effectively become the most widely accepted global currency in which to negotiate differing views about what weighting attaches to competing entitlements due to persons as persons. In this fact, rather than in pseudo-intellectual shilly-shallying over problems of incommensurability and relativism (problems which are themselves functions of an unimaginative and flat-footed theory of public reason), is to be found the key to undo the deadlock between local and universal in regard to religious values and human rights, religious diversity and public rationality.

This is not to say there is a consensus about the rights we have or the values that underpin them. Nor is it to ignore the fact that the spread of the language of rights from West to East and from North to South was both enabled and tainted by colonialism, whether political or economic or cultural. The discourse of rights has nonetheless established itself as the language in which competing values are publicly justified and, in the face of opposition, publicly contested. The language of rights provides a public frame within which disparate communities of interest – religious and non-religious alike – can test the soundness of the other’s position and have their own position contested in return. The outcome of the process is unlikely to be moral consensus; but we may reasonably hope for an emerging sense of the credible limits of what is and what is not defensible human behavior toward others.

Such debates do not occur in some neutral space. Nor are they generated by value-free reasoning. There is no place that is not someplace in particular, and there are no reasons that are not reasons for someone. Such debates cannot be expected to lead to global consensus on “core rights” or on prioritization in the hierarchy of rights. But such debates can still be conducted within a public discourse of rights. The price of gaining access to that language is not an agreement to set aside all attachments and commitments in order to achieve universality and neutrality. The price of entering into that realm of discourse is no more than a willingness to be a reasonable partisan, that is, to abide by the rules of engagement. Testing and being contested – by this means the discourse of rights constructs itself anew and the hierarchy of rights is subjected to public scrutiny. By this means, from different motives and disparate grounds, specific limited goals may be tactically agreed by culturally diverse groups who share no common historical narrative and occupy no “common ground” save only the fragile and threatened planet that fate has destined as our shared home.

We must of course learn to be good neighbors. But the New England poet Robert Frost reminded us years ago that neighborliness can also be shown in mending walls that mark off boundaries: it is not so much common ground as good fences that make good neighbors. In a similar spirit, I want to suggest that clarifying defensible difference may help build up a sense of community and encourage a variety of liberal virtues, including civility toward the stranger and toleration of otherness. It may also contribute to the recognition of cultural and religious diversity as a positive good.