Olivier Roy — Holy Ignorance—Part I

I am so far behind in blogging that I am just getting to a book that I announced back in May that I would be discussing. The book is Olivier Roy, Holy Ignorance and if you read one new social science book on religion in 2011, then this is it. He deals with the rise of evangelicals, Islamists, and Haredim in the last quarter century. He pushes the field forward for the 21st century by writing from a post-Certeau and Bourdieu perspective.

This post has linked to the major popular reviews and a post later this week will deal with my opinions on him. I am not sure if I agree with everything he says but he is worth the read.

Roy offers a unique explanation of the rise of fundamentalism. He thinks that fundamentalism grew because of secularism. The more secularism grew and emptied civil society of common values then the more religion grew disenchanted with society. Once religion was not concerned with society, then there is no more a quest for synthesis or integration of religion and culture. The more that secular society can be portrayed as materialistic, hedonistic, licentious and pagan then the more people flee into the hands of religion, a religion that owes no allegiance to the culture at large.

In the past, there were three ways of treating the world of culture: (1) the profane -where it did not affect or impinge on the holy (2)the secular- where it can be combined with religion (3) the pagan, where it need to be kept out of our life’s. Roy’s point is that in the last few decades the world moved from the category of the secular to that of the pagan. Synthesis of Torah and secular has given was to a view that religion is a safeguard and savior from the secular.

The new faith of fundamentalism is outside of the former world of traditional texts, study, and religious cultural. Now it is an empty series of religious markers to show one has allegiance to the correct group. Hence, the title of the book Holy Ignorance, without culture then one is ignorant. The truth is direct from God, without knowledge, outside of theology, linguistics, or culture. Language conventionally brings culture, but in this rejection of profane culture, even religious knowledge is suspected.

At the same time, Roy thinks fundamentalist religion is all about the self since the decision to be pure as a salafi or baal teshuvah is autonomous self and not submission to a traditional culture. No one is concerned with the classic issues of a transcendent deity – the God of creation, reward, or revelation, or morals. People want the psychological feeling of absolute purity of doctrine.
Roy shows that with the lack of concern with culture, then the religion is a trans-national, age of globalization abstraction. The vision of the local clergy, the community, and the tradition are negated before an abstracted true religion. The new religious fervor claims the rights of multi-culturalism and freedom to impose fundamentalism as their post-moderns secular right. Religions have “reformatted” themselves as global faiths rather than expressions of national culture or as an outgrowth of a community.

The concepts of Jewish culture or Reform Judaism as well as cultural and political Muslims, and cultural Catholics has lead the faithful to exculturate- to leave culture or to leave it to these half-baked religious. Religion is now a small sect removing itself from the cultural versions of itself. For example, the halakhic observer of Hanukah is in many cases rarified away from the many cultural forms of Chunukah in NY. The cultural forms are no longer seen as religious. Mediating cultural and religion is now seen as secular before a pure halakhic faith.

A strong example of Roy’s perspective is that we have lost the medieval sense of the need for celibacy and chastity. Culture now has an anything goes attitude but religion rather than arguing to return to the medieval virtues is instead creating flashpoint wedge issues like gay marriage. The religious believers are not based on the original puritanical texts but instead are creating new and ungrounded ways to remove themselves from pagan culture. One fights sinful culture but does not seek to create a new religious theology of the body. “the Haredim of Jerusalem invent a kosher Internet even as they try to shut down the last movie theater in their neighborhood.” But no thoughtful approach to the internet.

Roy has much on conversion to faith, a category that for him includes those who chose to stay religious, those who are BT’s, and those creating new institutions to attract people to the new global faith. His entire conclusion to the book is to question how a returnee to faith can pass it to his children. “How can one be born from a born-again?”, Roy wonders. (This may get it’s own post.)

Alan Wolfe, an expert in Evangelicals, reviewed it favorably in the NYT.

Actually, as the brilliant French social scientist Olivier Roy points out in “Holy Ignorance,” it is those defending Christmas who are not being true to their traditions and teachings. There are no Christmas dinners in the Bible, which is why America’s Puritans, strict adherents of what that venerated text offers, never sat down by the raging fire awaiting St. Nick; indeed, they briefly banned Christmas in Massachusetts.

Yule as we celebrate it today owes more to Charles Dickens than to Thomas Aquinas. Our major solstice holiday is what Roy calls a “cultural construct” rather than a sectarian ceremony, which explains why Muslims buy halal turkeys and Jews transformed Hanukkah into a gift-giving occasion. Mistakenly believing that Christmas is sacred, those who defend it find themselves propping up the profane. The Christ they want in Christmas is a product not of Nazareth but of Madison Avenue.

Over the past few years, a number of theories have been offered about the rise of fundamentalism. Roy proposes the most original — and the most persuasive. Fundamentalism, in his view, is a symptom of, rather than a reaction against, the increasing secularization of society. Whether it takes the form of the Christian right in the United States or Salafist purity in the Muslim world, fundamentalism is not about restoring a more authentic and deeply spiritual religious experience. It is instead a manifestation of holy ignorance, Roy’s biting term meant to characterize the worldview of those who, having lost both their theology and their roots, subscribe to ideas as incoherent as they are ultimately futile. The most important thing to know about those urging the restoration of a lost religious authenticity is that they are sustained by the very forces they denounce.

It is true, he concedes, that conservative religion is growing. But any talk of a religious revival is “an optical illusion.” Religion, he writes, “is both more visible and at the same time frequently in decline.” It cedes so much to the secular world that it can no longer offer a transcendental alternative to it.

If religion is in decline in the modern world, Roy argues, so is culture. On the one hand, we have multiculturalism, celebrations of diversity that somehow wind up making all cultures look and feel alike. More important, we face globalization, today’s true universal faith, which subjects all local customs to the laws of the market. Under the influence of both, religion loses whatever affinities it may once have had with the cultures that sustained it.

With the rise of Pentecostalism, one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, followers are encouraged to speak in tongues, which requires no language at all. Meanwhile television and the Internet contribute to fundamentalism’s appeal; both make it possible for Egyptian imams (preaching no doubt in “globish,” the pidgin form of English that emerges wherever globalization takes root) to reach their followers in Europe. One does not know whether to be in awe of faith’s capacity to adapt or distraught by the hodgepodge that enables it to do so. “The Holy Spirit,” Roy writes, “is anywhere and everywhere. There is no need to have a real rock on which to build the Church.”

(In subsequent work, Roy argues, I believe convincingly, that the ideology currently governing Iran or motivating Hamas has more to do with nationalism than with religion.)

UK Times discusses Roy’s distinction between Catholics and Protestants in the new era. Catholics still try for incultuation and synthesis, but the more successful Evangelicals see belief as entirely above culture in any sense.

But as Olivier Roy argues in Holy Ignorance, religious fundamentalism and secularising modernity are much more closely linked than is often appreciated. In fact, it is not just that “secularization has not eradicated religion”, he argues, but that secularisation has worked as “we are witnessing … the militant reformulation of religion in a secularized space that has given religion its autonomy”.

The contrast between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism is particularly instructive for Roy. Catholicism has historically made concerted attempts to respond to new cultures, as in the development of syncretic practices through South American and African missionary work. This has not been a uniform process but the general tendency has been in the direction of “inculturation”, creating a very close connection between, for example, Brazilian culture and Catholicism. In contrast, Protestantism has tended to emphasise a universalist kind of missionary activity, creating a much more uniform practice.

Holy Ignorance does not rely on an essentialist view of particular religions, but on a wider argument about the place of religion in a secularising modernity.

As religion breaks free from its local manifestations, it becomes more easily transplanted to other locations. Fundamentalist forms of religion do this most successfully. Unanchored in the constraints of tradition and local culture, fundamentalism recognises no limitation and hence comes to view everything outside itself as pagan and impure. This is the “holy ignorance” that Roy identifies and warns us of.
But, if nothing else, this extraordinary book’s disturbing message – that secularism may be religious fundamentalism’s best friend – is worth taking very seriously.

Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways
By John L. Murphy 18 March 2011

Roy sums up the challenge: “Either religion is reduced to culture, or it has to separate itself from culture (in any case from Western culture) to assert its universality.”

Cultural diversity, therefore, competes against religious claims to lift a message (as in Islam or Christianity) above its origins to save all men and women. Judaism and Hinduism mingle the ethnic and religious identities, so an atheist Jew may not be surprising, but if an atheist Muslim wishes to declare himself such, as at least one author listed here has, the fact of his Tunisian birth may be the reason that he has proclaimed his status only after moving to France. In turn, that nation, Roy reminds us, has 70 percent of its citizens claiming Catholicism, but only five percent practice the faith traditionally associated with its dominant culture for over 1,500 years.

Four reactions define historic and current responses by religion as it seeks to survive within its milieu. First, deculturation occurs when Christians try to wipe out indigenous faiths, or when orthodox Islam dominates the Indian subcontinent. Acculturation happens when the Jews of the Enlightenment adapt mainstream European values, or as India’s natives integrate Christian or Islamic influences. Inculturation places liberation theology at the center of Latin American’s indigenous ideologies. Finally, exculturation marks the Catholic or evangelical reactions we witness, as these powers fight a rearguard action against a worldly set of values that are now on the ascendant.

Roy intersperses case studies from across the world, mostly in the Eurasian realms, to show the situations that illustrate these changes. Christmas as celebrated with a Yule log by the hearth was not the old custom, but a new one invented in the wake of Dickens, and this “traditional” festival replaced the churchgoing that drew worshipers out into the cold air to walk down to their local church. Central Asians may demand to become Christians within an Islamic society; African-Americans may adopt Arab names while Arab immigrants may shed theirs when settling into America. Outcries over priestly celibacy and pedophilia and homosexuality and abortion command so much attention now because the core values that Catholicism proclaimed had, until recently, pushed opposing views on sexuality, individual freedom, and fidelity to the margins. In the heartlands of Islam, as Roy documents, similar protests remain marginalized, and therefore weaker.

Religious defenders react in three ways. First, they may regard the competing culture as “profane”, and look down upon it. The ultra-orthodox Jewish man may speak to God in Hebrew and to his family in Yiddish; the religious signifier separates from the everyday means of communication. Next, the religious movement may see the state as “secular”, and regard it as parallel in function, as in the model of the First Amendment’s separation of powers. The third approach treats the secular society as did the early Christians that of Rome: as the “pagan” enemy.

Nowadays, these “pagans” may enact, as in Western Europe, Canada, or the United States, laws that tolerate but supervise religions as to be accommodated without state favoritism. Religious adherents, from their dissenting perspective, get treated by secular, non-discriminatory laws as a sub-culture, perhaps relegated alongside other “minorities”, such as the gays or feminists whom they often oppose.

This social downsizing spurs religious proponents into an assault on “materialism, pornography, and selfish pleasure” as the new idols. The reaction to California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage in 2008, or the trials of gays in Cairo in 2001, marks as deviant those authorities or subversives trying to impose secular, ‘godless’, and so-called ‘sinful’ practices upon the community of believers. While such breaks from tradition tend to be perceived as sudden, Roy locates them in earlier disconnections between the majority in a culture who in fact lose interest in the dominant religion well before the exculturation process erupts into a radical-reactionary counter-movement. Reform Jews, mainstream Protestants, and assimilating Catholics, for instance, had already been lapsing from strict doctrinal interpretation decades before Prop. 8 galvanized conservatives to rally within those denominations.

Puritanical sects resent the dominant culture. Early Protestants sought separation, as this represented first a fall from Eden into the world, and second the taint of an imaginative Catholic sensibility that had piled up non-Biblical accretions that shoved an individual away from an encounter with Scripture. Roy notes how the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, as it was not sanctioned in Holy Writ. Their spiritual heirs now flocking to evangelical storefront churches in the barrios or to suburban megachurches share a wish to separate from the immoral majority. Salafi Muslims long to revive the community as it was with the Prophet, before even theology arrived to dilute Islam. The Taliban ban television and videos; the Haredim of Jerusalem invent a kosher Internet even as they try to shut down the last movie theater in their neighborhood.

How does the title of this book align with Roy’s viewpoint? “Holy ignorance” recalls the Pentecostal “speaking in tongues”, as this obliterates the language and favors the unmediated, untranslatable Word. The Word inhabits the believer, and its truth transmits directly from God to penitent, without knowledge, outside of theology, linguistics, or culture. Language conventionally brings culture, but in this rejection of profane culture, even religious knowledge is suspected of interference with the primary need for an individual’s salvation.

3 responses to “Olivier Roy — Holy Ignorance—Part I

  1. Alan,

    As always thanks for calling attention to a provocative and thoughtful book. That said, after having read significant portions of the book I feel that Roy’s expertise as an Islamicist with a personal and intellectual background in early modern Christianity are clear, whereas his grasp of contemporary Judaism is severely limited. Although his concept of de-territorialisation in offers an interesting framework for addressing Chabad’s world-wide growth, it doesn’t appreciate the fact that no matter where you stand on the Jewish religious spectrum the return to territoriality via Israel represents a key underpinning to numerous initiatives and reactions that have emerged in the last few decades. Moreover, territoriality accounts for a lot of what distinguishes Israeli religion – and foremost some of its fundamentalist elements – from Judaism in the Diaspora. The radical Eretz Yisrael movement is an obvious example. More nuanced, however, are the ways living in a Jewish welfare state has given non-Zionist groups the license to develop and behave in ways that they would never dream of if they were not in a sovereign environment.

    All the best,

    • Adam,

      I was thinking of diaspora Jewish applications, as I will post. I am glad you are reading so please give me your comments on the follow-up post.

  2. Interesting and thanks for the post. His new’ish book sounds like an extrapolation of his thesis in the 2007 (English translation of his 2005) “Secularism Confronts Islam” which was a thought-provoking read.

    I look forward to your opinions post…

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