So you're standing near the water cooler, on a break at work, and your co-workers are discussing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
You hear someone comment: “The problem is not that the attackers were Muslim; many Muslims are peaceful and tolerant of others. The problem is that the terrorists are religious zealots. They think they know the truth about what is good and how to live—not just for them, but for everyone.
As long as there are religious people who claim they know the ‘truth’ in some universal sense, there will be people who want to impose their idea of the truth on others, even using violent means. That is the real source of terrorism.”
What do you say?
According to this fashionable line of thinking, in order to avoid terrorism, we should promote “tolerance.” The way to encourage tolerance is to raise doubts among those who have strongly held religious beliefs. The hope is that, as long as people acknowledge that they are uncertain about the universal validity of their religious beliefs, they will recognize that they shouldn't impose their opinions on others.
The result is a kind of radical individualism: Since we can never be certain about which religion or way of life is best, we must accept that there is no absolute truth or universal morality. Each person is left free to interpret life's meaning for himself in private; meanwhile, in public, one should be tolerant of all forms of “diversity.”
This kind of individualistic secular humanism has become virtually enshrined in many parts of American culture. Yet the Sept. 11 attacks show that there are deep deficiencies in this line of thinking.
As was evident in the national response to the terror, we need more than radical individualism as a public philosophy. In response to the violence of the attacks, there was a strong urge in people to come together in prayer and to join with others in works of mercy. Through countless choruses of “God Bless America,” we sang together, asking for help from the Lord.
I was struck in particular by the television special that aired nationally on Sept. 21. Some 60 million Americans watched as over $100 million was raised for the victims of the atrocity. The program ended with a wide array of celebrities singing “America the Beautiful.” Together, movie stars sang along, almost in prayer: “Confirm thy soul in self-control/Thy liberty in law.”
In this song, America gives its answer to why we are a freedom-loving and tolerant people. True liberty is not the freedom to do whatever one wants, but the ability to make self-determining choices in accord with the moral law—a universal law that is written upon every human heart.
The advocates of secular humanism are right about this much: We should treat people of differing faiths with the respect befitting every human being. But the supporters of individualism are wrong in their explanation of why we should treat every human being with respect.
Behind the account of many secular humanists is a fear of the 17th-century wars of religion. They think that if we turn to a deep, religious understanding of the good life, the inevitable result is war. Each religious group will claim with zeal that they are right, and the result will be a breakdown in civilization. To avoid violence, the secularists think that religion should be kept out of the public sphere.
However, in the aftermath of the attacks, we saw how religion in public promotes peace and civility. On Friday, Sept. 14 (which President Bush declared a national day of prayer), politicians joined religious leaders in a very public display of religion at the National Cathedral to pray for the victims and their families. In tragedy, it is good to pray together, to sing together, to join hands together promoting the common good.
The days following the attack confirmed that a free society needs more than individualism. The foundation of a free society is virtue, developed through habits of self-control exercised in community with others.
At the Second Vatican Council, the Church produced an important document, Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom). In that statement, the council fathers reasoned that all people of good will should be tolerant of various religions. Further, each government should protect freedom of religion for all of its citizens. The reason we should respect various religious faiths is not that we are uncertain that our faith is true, but because we have assurance that every human being should be treated in a manner that respects their inherent dignity.
“The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed Word of God and by reason itself” (Dignitatis Humanae 2).
In response to those who think that terror stems from those who think they know the truth about what is good and how to live, we should have a ready reply. The terrorists were wrong because they hardened their hearts to a truth written by God on every human heart: Each human being is a person.
Since every human being is created as a person, endowed with reason and free will—and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility—all human beings have an inherent dignity and a moral responsibility to seek the truth, especially religious truth.
The true source of genuine tolerance is not in subjective individualism. Rather, the source of authentic toleration and peace is in the objective truth about the dignity of the human person.
Gregory R. Beabout is a philosophy professor at St. Louis University and an adjunct scholar with the Center for Economic Personalism.