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Thoughts on the Impossibility of Being both Deeply Religious and Cosmopolitan

We have leaders on the national stage who think they can respect, even encourage, fundamentalism, and still build a peaceful world where creeds and colors act hospitably toward one another. They have got it badly wrong.

Fundamentalism breeds resentment or disdain for other religions or simply different ways of being in the world. Think about Christian fundamentalists in this country or recall the Pope's recent visit to Spain to condemn the new freedoms given to gays there. Both forms of extreme orthodoxy are openly hostile toward gay men or women. Think about the jihadists, or the mullahs of Iran, and imagine the world they wish to create for those not of their creed.

Our problem is that we sent a technologically advanced army into their world, and we failed to understand that what they actually needed was their own army of Voltaires. That is, they need to imbibe the values of cosmopolitanism.

As I defined the phenomenon in my recent book, Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Origins of Early Modern Cosmopolitanism (Penn Press, 2006), being cosmopolitan in Europe during the early modern age meant then - as now - the ability to experience people of different nations, creeds and colors with pleasure, curiosity and interest, and not with suspicion, disdain, or simply a disinterest that could occasionally turn into loathing. This benign posture, whether toward foreigners or disbelievers in one's own religion, did not come about - then or now - automatically, or even easily.

Then and now, intense religiosity stood as one of the most powerful inhibitions working against a cosmopolitan stance in the world. The topic of the book suggested itself after a look through the eighteenth-century records of the Roman Catholic Inquisition in France. Yes, in one French place, Avignon, the Inquisition ruled supreme right up to 1790 when the French revolutionaries stormed the town. Up until then the religious authorities busied themselves not just with ferreting out Protestant heretics but also with making sure that Christians and Jews, as well as social inferiors and superiors, never mixed. The inquisitors in Avignon even took away children from their families if a Christian baby-sitter had managed surreptitiously to baptize the child. We know this because of court records showing the Inquisition trying to make the Jewish child's father pay for the Catholic orphanage to which it had been sent.

The Inquisition's records told about what France might have been like if this church court had possessed authority outside of Avignon. One adjective also best described all the myriad forms of social behavior that bothered the good fathers as they raided Jewish hotels, sought confessions from heretics, spied on the visiting king of England, arrested the socially transgressive, or raided the lodges of local freemasons: it was the cosmopolitan that they set out to ban.

But we would not want to think that historically only the Inquisition sought to repress behavior that opened out toward difference or strangeness. In mid-eighteenth century England a remarkable cloth merchant, living in Leeds, spent hours each week writing in his spiritual diary. Joseph Ryder left us over 12,000 pages in 41 volumes that detail his agonizing search for salvation amid the temptations of worldly success and his growing prosperity. No one could have been more pious, and neither could anyone have been less cosmopolitan.

Let me be clear about what I mean. Ryder details his many social and chapel experiences and he makes continuous mention of the who and why of those encounters. Always and self-consciously he wanted the company of only those pious like himself. The men and women of his chapel and denomination, fellow Presbyterians, were the only people with whom he would mingle, and who could, he believed, help him stay the course toward eternal salvation. I am suggesting that far from being an anomaly, Joseph Ryder's self-monitoring against cosmopolitan tendencies illustrates an uncomfortable truth about intense religiosity - then and now. And I do not mean here simple church-going or Friday evening prayers. I mean complete devotion to a creed, a life lived primarily for the fulfillment of its doctrines, to the exclusion of all distractions (an interest in literature, in science etc). That impulse to cling tenaciously to a set of beliefs and practices intended to promote spiritual well-being, or salvation, or purity in this world, or the coming of the millennium, inhibits border-crossings, the seeking out of people not in possession of those same, often exactly the same, values. By contrast the cosmopolite is a social risk taker, a habitue of places and people unfamiliar, different, strange, exotic, or even transgressive and bohemian.

The cosmopolitan now matters so much because it has become the only alternative, the only viable approach to living amid the extraordinary diversity of peoples who occupy most modern cities, whether it be Belfast or Baghdad, Rotterdam or Buenos Aires. Since 1945 vastly increased foreign migration to every country - the cities of the United States have also witnessed the same pattern - has meant that everywhere we turn we see ethnic, racial, religious and linguistic diversity. One theorist involved in the on-going discussion around cosmopolitanism describes large cities everywhere as now possessing"multicultural enclaves [that] are harbingers of new faces of citizenship... no longer based upon exclusive attachments to a particular land, history, and tradition."

We see the effects of this new identity in everyday social interactions, in the classrooms, or workplaces, or dinner tables of Los Angeles, to name but a few familiar settings to this author. And with horrified eyes we also now routinely see places where people have at best a tentative grip on a cosmopolitan acceptance of those with profoundly different beliefs and religious customs from their own. Intense religiosity (and like pornography we know it when we see it) is the enemy of civility and toleration, the hallmarks of a cosmopolitan stance in the world. This was true three centuries ago in the West; it is true today, at home and abroad. It is not accidental that contemporary theorists devote more and more attention to trying to define and refine the meaning of cosmopolitanism. Both historically and contemporaneously we know more and more about the dangers created by those who repudiate it as an ideal.

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