Let me start with a bold statement: I believe philosophy holds the key to defeat fundamentalism and to truly dismantle the logic of religiously motivated terrorism that afflicts our late-modern societies. I am fully aware that in an era where philosophy has become a professionalized academic affair seemingly detached from pressing concrete issues, the statement I just made seems laughable at best. But all of those who quickly dismiss my claim should be reminded that philosophy pulled the trick of defeating fundamentalism already once before: from the enlightenment through the declaration of human rights, philosophy played a central role in shaping the intellectual landscape that birthed the modern version of concepts such as religious toleration, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.

From the enlightenment through the declaration of human rights, philosophy played a central role in shaping the intellectual landscape that birthed the modern version of concepts such as religious toleration, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.

Back then, the revolutionary ideas of people like John Locke, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill helped us redefine our understanding of freedom, rationality and rights amongst many other concepts in a way that re-educated us away from our intolerant and bigoted past. It was thanks to their ideas that we managed to move on from the bloody wars of religion that followed the Reformation and that we succeeded in building sustainable institutional arrangements and peaceful civil societies in places previously afflicted by deadly sectarianism.

The tragedy of Charlie Hebdo is the latest episode in the saddening saga of the rise of fundamentalism in our globally interconnected society. It is palpable to all of us that fundamentalism is rising but it is extremely difficult to understand why it is so and what can be done about it amidst the cacophony of views and opinions populating the web. If there is anything clear to me is that philosophy should speak louder and lead this debate. Philosophy is an incredibly valuable resource to help us identify the conceptual deficiencies leading to our contentious situation and to propose bold new concepts and vocabularies that could once again rescue us from the grip of fundamentalism. The case study on how liberal philosophical ideas helped defeating religious intolerance is a good place to start. But we also need to recognize that the 300 year old solution we gave to the problem of religious fundamentalism in the West might not apply today and might even be backfiring in our novel interconnected circumstances.

The question on how a morally diverse yet interconnected world can establish a peaceful social organization that minimizes fundamentalism is without a doubt the most pressing question of our generation. This is above all a philosophical question and we should be throwing our best philosophical minds at the problem right now. One could argue that this is the question that the liberal tradition has been grappling with since the days of Locke but as I have tried to explain in several posts in this blog, the interconnected nature of the world that has emerged over the last 20 years changes everything and renders liberalism’s intellectual effort obsolete. The hazardous mismatch between the private and unaccountable ways in which we grew accustomed to form moral and religious beliefs and the immediacy and global-reaching ways in which these can now be trumpeted is the primary force behind our day and age fundamentalism.

Liberalism rescued us from fundamentalism once by privatizing morality and religious belief, but as the private world dissolves into global interconnection, deeply opposing worldviews find themselves again in direct confrontation. A prerequisite for the liberal solution to work against fundamentalism is that social actors accept that the rational thing to do is to keep morality out of politics. The very definition of ‘reasonable’ under liberalism is the capacity to grasp the coercive nature of trying to impose one’s moral beliefs on others hence voluntarily stepping them back into the private. This is the very heart of a sustainable secular society. Yet I am afraid that this solution will not work under our interconnected conditions.

Why would radicalized actors voluntarily step back into private pastures when they have the technological means to holler their views to a global audience?

Why would radicalized actors voluntarily step back into private pastures when they have the technological means to holler their views to a global audience? And even more worrisome, aren’t we all radicalized actors when it comes to discussing moral or religious beliefs? It is true that the vast majority of us are not recurring to physical violence to assert our beliefs but it is also true that we regard these beliefs as private matters and that when forced to discuss them in public we are at pains trying to keep our cool. That temperatures rise quickly when we discuss moral and religious beliefs is an evident symptom of the mismatch between the way in which we have acquired these beliefs and the way in which they are now being exposed and challenged.

So the solution to fundamentalism today is not harder-better-faster secularism. We need a deeper solution that re-conceptualizes the way in which we acquire moral and religious beliefs. We need bold ideas and concepts to convince each other that our moral and religious beliefs are not complete unless these have been constituted through ongoing open social conversation. Just as innovative philosophical concepts convinced us over 300 years that toleration and mutual respect were the key to liberty, we now need new and imaginative ways to convince each other that we are not free if our deepest beliefs remain unaccountable. We need to take our moralities out of the closet and learn to live with them in the open.

We need bold ideas and concepts to convince each other that our moral and religious beliefs are not complete unless these have been constituted through ongoing open social conversation.

If stepping back into the private is unfeasible in a globally interlinked reality we need philosophy to come up with ways in which the re-socialization of morality and religion we are now experiencing can proceed peacefully. This task will require a heavy conceptual enterprise of redefining the way in which we acquire beliefs, the way in which we define what is reasonable and the way in which we understand what it means to be free to name the most pressing issues. This is the task ahead for our generation of philosophers. Let us hope there are Lockes and Kants and Mills amongst us.

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