Meeting the Challenge of Deep Differences Part 3: Real Difference

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Part three of a series of posts by Cameron McAllister examining the contemporary responses to deep differences. In part 2, Cameron explored the stark reality of living in a post-9/11 world. Today in part three, he argues that the ostensible celebration of diversity explored in part one amounts to a covert form of cultural assimilation, one that prioritizes Western individualism over any kind of wholehearted religious devotion.

September 11, 2001, showcased, among other things, just how catastrophic the confluence of deep ideological differences can be. In this regard, the philosopher John Gray has remarked, “The lesson of 11 September is that the go-go years of globalization were an interregnum, a time of transition between two epochs of conflict. The task in front of us is to forge terms of peace among people separated by divergent histories, beliefs, and values.”[3] Stated even more explicitly, the challenge is “to work out terms of civilized coexistence among cultures and regimes that will always be different.”[4] Real difference remains the greatest obstacle to unity in the modern world.

Ironically, this real difference is also one of the greatest liabilities in a pluralist society. It is one thing to extol the virtues of diversity (whether these are promoted under the banner of pluralism, multiculturalism, tolerance, or some other cosmopolitan neologism) with celebrations of language, ethnic customs, food, and attire, or bumper stickers advertising the word tolerance in a pastiche of religious insignia. It is quite another to see the consequences of real difference unfolding on the Six O’clock news, as armed authorities comb the streets of Manchester and Jakarta. Clearly, the uncompromising convictions of these militant coalitions represent an immanent threat to pluralistic culture. Part of what makes these attacks so effective is the manner in which they disrupt the social cohesion of these diverse cultures, provoking people to abandon their ideological neutrality in favor of a firmer position. This abrupt shift in mindset, it is hoped, will serve as a pretext for war. The word tolerance begins to look somewhat trivial in the face of asymmetric warfare, which resolutely refuses to countenance any species of lukewarm thinking.

The recent onslaught of global terrorism at the hands of radical Islamists[5] in both the United States and Europe has also met with a revealing level of political ineptitude. The reason for this is as simple as it is confounding: Secular institutions have no mechanisms for dealing with explicitly theological and religious disputes. The thought that these disputes frequently involve much more than private convictions is even more remote. Consider the recent attack that took place at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. After declaring his allegiance to ISIS, Omar Matteen murdered fifty people, and injured numerous others. In his response, then-President Obama labeled this incident “an act of hate.”[6] Though understandable, this line of thinking is emblematic of the overall failure on the part of politicians to grasp the real nature of the challenge.

Like 9/11, this was more than an “act of hate.” It was a carefully coordinated attack with clear political and theological motivations. R.R. Reno argues that to speak of “hate” in these instances is misleading because it “distracts us from the fact that our enemy has formulated a rational, political judgment—namely that humanity is better [with] an Islamic form of government …” This “political judgment” did not arise in a vacuum, but traces its lineage to a highly articulate critic of Western liberal democracy: “Radical Islam’s political judgment—that America is the world’s preeminent source of moral and spiritual corruption—was articulated once by Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who was executed in 1966.” Scott Atran’s fulsome description of the vision underlying this assumption is worth quoting at length:

This is the purposeful plan of violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-anointed Caliph, outlined in his call for ‘volcanoes of jihad’: to create a globe-spanning jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world and create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner. A key tactic in this strategy is to inspire sympathizers abroad to violence: do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible.

It hardly needs to be stated that this “purposeful plan of violence” goes well beyond mere global domination to embrace a vision of eschatological dimensions. Here, two sobering facts emerge: 1) Though extreme, these kinds of attacks are becoming much more prevalent, a kind of horrifying “new normal” 2) To date, the response from our leading secular institutions is a marvel of incomprehension and political impotence; there is simply no secular grammar that can accommodate this kind of thinking.

In North America, for instance, such comprehensive moral visions have been replaced by “expressive individualism,” a largely tacit (and rarely consistent) philosophical outlook that prioritizes a benign form of personal autonomy.[7] This view maintains that virtually any form of behavior is acceptable so long as it does no harm or injury to others. As with most popular philosophies, expressive individualism captured the public imagination with the help of a brilliant artist. The American poet Walt Whitman remains the most eloquent exponent of expressive individualism: “Freedom to Whitman was above all the freedom to express oneself, against all constraints and conventions…”[8] David Bentley Hart has recently emerged as the most unsparing exponent of this outlook: “We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom.”[9] Obviously, this breezy attitude toward personal choice comports well with free market capitalism. In fact, this assumption is the engine driving the entertainment and advertising industries—two mammoth forces in North American culture.

Since Whitman’s publication of The Leaves of Grass, this view has become deeply entrenched, and is thus integral to the North American mindset. It follows that anything that places limits or restrictions on self-expression is to be rejected out of hand. Religion may play a part in this scheme, so long as it compliments one’s individual pursuits. As soon as it threatens those pursuits, however, its adherents are free to modify or reject it on general principle. Here, the growing impasse between most Westerners and devout members of faith communities becomes all too clear. If these cultural assumptions represent “[Western liberal] behavior in its corporate aspect,” we can readily see that it excludes any worldviews that prioritize some form of divinity over individual human pursuits.[10] This accounts for the large-scale incomprehension greeting most religious extremism. How do we translate the aspirations of ISIS to people who only know how to sing the “Song of Myself”?

Cameron McAllister is an itinerant speaker and writer with RZIM and host of RZIM’s weekly podcast Vital Signs.

[3] John Gray, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (London: Granta Books, 2004), 91.

[4] Ibid., 89 (my italics).

[5] It is possible—some would argue necessary—to recognize the Islamic underpinnings of organizations like al Quaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram without conflating their actions with those of all Muslims, most of whom are upstanding citizens. For a helpful delineation, see Sam Harris, Maajid Nawaz, “We Need to Talk About Islam’s Jihadism Problem,” The Daily Beast, September 15, 2015, accessed February 28, 2017.

[6] R.R. Reno, “Terrorism Is Not Hate,” First Things Magazine, June 14, 2016, accessed February 27, 2017,

[7] See Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, The Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 2008), 32-35.

[8] Bellah et al., 34.

[9] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 21.

[10] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989), 188.

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