These two books examine the "culture wars" from two different perspectives, with somewhat different motivations. Armstrong would like to bridge the polarities between liberal culture and the fundamentalist movements, to find peace in the "culture wars." Rauch would like to defend liberal culture from both the fundamentalism of the right and the fundamentalism of the left; to protect the practice of critical inquiry from language police and thought police. I think that together they converge on both the root of the "culture wars," and the promise of, if not peace, then a more nonviolent conflict.

In the introduction to The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong says, 'As I have tried to show in these pages, for almost a century, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have been developing a militant form of piety whose objective is to drag God and religion from the sidelines, to which they have been relegated by modern secular culture, and bring them back to center stage. These "fundamentalists," as they are called, are convinced that they are fighting for the survival of their faith in a world that is inherently hostile to religion.'

Armstrong's book focuses on the fundamentalist movement in each of the three historically linked monotheisms. There are fundamentalist movements among other religions, however, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. I know that, as a Westerner with an academic and experiential background in Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism, to focus her study of fundamentalism on these religions was a natural choice for Armstrong. I believe, however, that a wider scope may have changed some of her conclusions.

Just as the rise of fundamentalism in monotheist, polytheist, and non-theist religions seems to me to call for finding a common element besides God, I also feel compelled to find a gain that an individual expects to get from fundamentalism. "Traditions," after all, do not feel threatened -- they are not living organisms with lives to lose. Ideas originate and are transmitted by human beings, biological organisms striving to survive and thrive, and in each generation new humans are born and meet the ideas of "tradition" for the first time. The individual must have some motivation for adopting and defending and promoting an idea; some reason for considering the idea to be true and of benefit to self, kin, group, and allies. Why do the absolutist ideologies of fundamentalist religions appeal to individuals; how do they seem to offer survival value? How do secular, rationalist, humanist ideas seem to endanger the survival of some individuals, and of what they value?

I would consider the "culture wars" not as a battle for God, but as a battle for the soul -- a struggle for truth and meaning, and for authority over what others regard as true and meaningful.

In Kindly Inquisitors, Jonathan Rauch asks, "What should be society's principle for raising and settling differences of opinion?" By what means do we decide who is right and who is wrong? Rauch analyzes five major historical methods:

  1. The Fundamentalist Principle: Those who know the truth should decide what is right
  2. The Simple Egalitarian Principle: All sincere persons' beliefs have equal claims to respect.
  3. The Radical Egalitarian Principle: Like the simple egalitarian principle, but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes get special consideration.
  4. The Humanitarian Principle: Any of the above, but with the condition that the first priority be to cause no hurt.
  5. The Liberal Principle: Checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide which is right.

From the wording of these principles, it may come as no surprise that Rauch considers the fifth, critical inquiry, to be the most valid.

Rauch argues that "there are not two great liberal social and political systems but three. One is democracy -- political liberalism -- by which we decide who is entitled to use force; another is capitalism -- economic liberalism -- by which we decide how to allocate resources. The third is liberal science, by which we decide who is right."

Rauch also deals with fundamentalism: "the inability to seriously entertain the possibility that one might be wrong." In contrast, "Liberalism holds that knowledge comes only from a public process of critical exchange, in which the wise and the unwise alike participate." But although we basically assume that we all live in one common reality that is what it is no matter how we each perceive and think of it, we also, realistically, acknowledge that we each do perceive and think of reality somewhat differently, some more differently than others. "How do you bring countless millions of subjective realities to some kind of convergence?" "Given that our experiences and conclusions will be different, what will be the test of truth?"

Rauch lists some decision-making strategies:

Armstrong, like many other social commentators, presents fundamentalism as a backlash against secular philosophy and liberal social change. In contrast, Rauch points out, "Skepticism typically flourishes in response to divisive and sometimes violent differences of opinion, as a way to short-circuit dangerous conflict." The extremity of skepticism is to say that we can know nothing, and abandon the search for knowledge. The skeptical ethic adopted by modern science, however, was that we can know, but we can never know for certain. We must always entertain the possibility that we may be wrong. We must always be willing to test, challenge, question anything. Knowledge is a growing thing, that will inevitably change, and this is good. No one has personal authority. No one has a privileged viewpoint. No one gets the final say. As the motto of the Royal Society of London declared, "No man's word shall be final."

Rational science accepts as knowledge only a statement that can be debunked, and only as long as it withstands efforts to debunk it. Modern science is a perpetual search for error, a culture of doubt; "a community of people looking for each other's errors." Moreover, the test of a claim must yield the same results no matter who made the claim, and no matter who applies the test. All claims and all check of claims, therefore, must be subject to observation and test in the material world, that which can be observed by anyone and by nobody in particular.

"Interchangeability of persons (we all play by the same rules) is a hallmark of liberal social philosophy. Kant declared that an action can be right for one person only if it is right for any and all, and so codified the liberal standard of justice. The empiricists declared that a statement can be true for one person only if it is true for any and all, and so codified the liberal standard for knowledge."

Rauch describes the most current view of the philosophers of science as "evolutionary epistemology": "hypotheses and ideas evolve as they compete under pressure from criticism, with intellectual diversity providing the raw material for change." "Liberalism's great contribution to civilization is the way it handles conflict. Bertrand Russell once said that "order without authority" might be taken as the motto both of political liberalism and of science. If you had to pick a three-word motto to define the liberal idea, "order without authority" would be pretty good. The liberal innovation was to set up society so as to mimic the greatest liberal system of all, the evolution of life. Like evolutionary ecologies, liberal systems are centerless and self-regulating and allow no higher appeal than that of each to each in an open-ended, competitive public process (a game). This, a market game is an open-ended, decentralized process for allocating resources and legitimizing possession, democracy is an open-ended, decentralized public process for legitimizing the use of force, and a science game is an open-ended, decentralized public process for legitimizing belief."

Modern science does accept that all individual scientists are biased: it simply pits bias against bias in the arena of public criticisms. All opinions may be stated, even the most opinionated; but no opinion may be stated without challenge.

This process does inevitably marginalize purely subjective, personal experience and belief, spiritual revelation included. All individuals are free to hold personal, subjective, uncheckable belief -- but the public realm is reserved to what can be publicly observed, checked by anyone and by nobody in particular. This is the culture developed to avoid the bloody conflicts of uncheckable claims to authority; this is the culture that subjective claims to authoritative truth rebel against, in turn, because it pushes them to the margins and denies their authority. The struggle is over who decides truth.

Between Rauch and Armstrong, it is clear that both liberalism and fundamentalism are faiths with a strong ethic. Liberalism trusts that critical inquiry among diverse opinions will discover truth; the ethic of liberalism demands that no opinion be silenced, and simultaneously that no opinion go unchallenged. Liberalism is inclusive and expansive; it continually draws in more diversity and explores for new ideas. Fundamentalism trusts that traditional authority will be a safe guide to survival and good. The ethic of fundamentalism is to uphold the authoritative tradition unchanged. Because fundamentalists submit to cross-check only by those who mainly agree with them already, and have no means of reconciling conflict except by appeal to authority, they tend to exclusiveness and schism.

Accurate knowledge is a survival need. Our survival and well-being depends not only on the accuracy of the knowledge on which we base our own decisions, but the accuracy of the knowledge on which the people around us base theirs. The question of "Who shall decide truth?" is therefore a survival question for the individual, while the question of "Who shall resolve conflicts between different truth claims?" is also a survival question for all individuals in a society who do not care for constant open war. To be human, moreover, is to want more than simple physical survival; we long for a sense of meaning and purpose, and if we have found a sense of meaning and purpose and someone else questions or mocks that, we may fight for it as fiercely as for physical survival, because the meaning of our life feels as important as life itself.

The "culture wars" over "who shall define truth" are made passionate both because the accuracy of our knowledge is essential to our physical survival, and because the security of our sense of meaning is essential to our emotional survival.

In Armstrong's opinion, and in mine, liberals have worsened the "culture wars" by a century or more of acting as if we didnít have to pay attention to the opinions of fundamentalists. We have ignored them and waited for them to go away, to, as we expected, inevitably fade into the mists of history. They have not -- the unsettling nature of constant change in a liberal society has only heightened the emotional need of some for certainty.

As Armstrong says at the end of The Battle for God, "If fundamentalists must evolve a more compassionate assessment of their enemies in order to be true to their religious traditions, secularists must also be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance, and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its best and address themselves more emphatically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbors experience but which no society can safely ignore." And at the end of an interview in the postscript of the book, Armstrong says, "Instead of dismissing fundamentalists as a bunch of loons and crazies, we must listen to what they have to say."

It may be impossible for fundamentalism to expand to include liberalism. But liberalism can, and I think must, expand to include fundamentalists, if not fundamentalism. I am not saying that we should teach "creation science" side by side with evolution in our schools. The schools of a liberal society must teach liberal science, both in methodology, and in the best in current knowledge as so far tested. But we must, as Armstrong says, practice more of the inclusiveness that is liberal public debate -- allow all to make their claims, do not dismiss any, simply insist that all are equally subject to critical question. This can only improve our common quest for truth.

We should also, I think, be looking more to common values, common ground. Whatever our intellectual disagreements, we all live in the same world, the same society; we all have common needs. We may disagree on what is good for our children, but we all agree that we want what is good for our children.

Fundamentalists may refuse to seek common ground with liberals. But liberals, if we truly consider ourselves to be rational and compassionate, must extend ourselves to seek common ground with fundamentalists.

"He drew a circle to shut me out,
Heretic, Rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in."
 ~ Edwin Markham