The Common Reason Initiative (CRI) is non-partisan, non-ideological forum for secular and religious thinkers to discuss the ideas that shape the public discourse and the actions of peoples, cultures, and nations. This discussion by its nature ought to be unencumbered, even though the subject matter – the tension between faith and reason – is necessarily controversial for millions of people. CRI is a public forum for scholars, scientists, religious leaders, activists, and the next generation of leaders to discuss fundamental ideas.
The West and the Middle East have largely lost the capacity to communicate effectively about their respective beliefs and values. Where intellectual and cultural engagement defined philosophical discourse between Muslim, Jewish, and Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages, this engagement has dissipated in recent centuries. In its place, two forms of fundamentalism emerged: secular materialism in the West and fideism in the Middle East. The secular materialist has forgotten his debt to Middle Eastern thought, which helped Europe from the Dark Ages and ushered in an era of material progress. In contrast, the fideist believes he is returning to the purity of the past, while in reality he is engaged in a more closely resembles modern ideology.
The bridge between West and Middle East was once common reason – philosophical and rational understandings of reality, as experienced and understood by civilizations spanning from the Middle East, Mediterranean and into northern Europe. This bridge has been destroyed by ideology, fideism, and by an inability to forge common platforms for encountering and understanding the philosophical and cultural foundations of the other. Secular materialism and fideism are two examples of the same phenomenon: the abandonment of a common understanding of reason, which could otherwise act as a check on these ideological movements. These ideologies, like all ideologies, offer comprehensive solutions but fail to grasp reality. It was not always thus.
Ideologies are a modern construct. Ideology, in this sense, simply did not exist in the Middle Ages. Thus Jewish, Muslim, and Christian philosophers were able to communicate, often critically, within the intellectual framework of the other. The study of epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, and politics (political philosophy) was at the heart of the multicultural encounter of the Middle Ages, from Paris to Cordoba to Cairo. Modernity and ideology were followed by reaction and fundamentalism, until the common reason of the Middle Ages all but disappeared – and with it, the most effective means for communication and common understanding.
Fideism errs by regarding reason not as something bestowed by providence on humanity to bolster human knowledge and wisdom but as a threat – a rival power to be suppressed. Thus with fideism, revealed faith is not checked by independent reason, and faith and reason are not in balance. Secular materialists err by regarding faith as inherently irrational: religious belief of any kind is by definition problematic, lacking any rational basis. Both of these ideologies pit believers and secularists against one another and preclude understanding the other. This divide, between believers and secularists, Middle Easterners and Westerners, has been widening for centuries.
This intellectual estrangement has fed alienation, reaction, and ideological extremism. Human freedom is everywhere compromised by ideology, which by its nature constrains reason.
To return to reasoned discourse and a meaningful exchange of ideas between seemingly distant worlds, we must revisit the thought of epochs in which reasoned discourse and philosophical exchanges between thinkers assumed the exercise reason in the quest for truth. Such exchanges necessarily assume both an open mind and broad freedom of inquiry.
The solution begins with bringing Western and Middle Eastern minds together to encounter one another, to examine the animating ideas that informed the intellectual traditions of the two worlds and, in turn culture, politics, and persons. Through this examination and encounter with the authentic multiculturalism of Medieval Cordoba, Paris, and Cairo – of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian thinkers – we seek to replace ideology and reaction, secular and fideist fundamentalism, with reasoned discourse, rooted in common bases for understanding reality.
The purpose of the Common Reason Initiative is to use philosophy and reason as a basis for understanding the common heritage in which reason was not regarded as hostile to either faith or the quest for truth; for a critique of modernity and post-modernity from both Western and Middle Eastern perspectives; for curbing alienation and building bridges of common reason, values, and greater freedom.
Philosophy emerged in the Classical and Medieval worlds as a source of knowledge common to Jewish, Muslim, and Christian thinkers. From this philosophy came free intellectual inquiry, science, and various political systems rooted in ordered liberty and equality. However, narrow ideologies have destroyed those bridges, severing encounters between Middle Eastern and Western intellectual movements. Rebuilding these bridges through common reason today can facilitate greater understanding not only between adherents of the Abrahamic faiths but also between believers and secularists and the cultures of exclusivity that have arisen through religious and secular fundamentalisms.
The Common Reason Initiative recognizes that, at heart, violent extremism is a symptom of deeper issues. The cause is the absence of common reason, which can be a means for understanding reality. Democracy cannot bring about stability, prosperity, and freedom in pluralistic societies without a developed sense of the common good. The common good must be preceded by and predicated upon common reason. Common reason consists of knowledge that can be ascertained through rational inquiry, observation, and human experience – in a word, philosophy.
Where common reason pervades, civilizations form and societies prosper; where it is absent, violence and fanaticism descend. Common reason builds societies; its absence creates a void that is often filled by ideology. Contrary to the popular narrative, we believe that religion, in tandem with reason, can supplant ideologies and pathologies of religion, while also providing an alternative to a secularism lacking dimension. Even more, the tension of the Western and Middle Eastern encounter may best be relieved through a return to common reason as the basis for well-ordered, flourishing, and free civil societies.
Who will participate? Whether one is of a religious or a secular disposition, he must understand that which animates the other. CRI therefore will engage the next generation of scholars and statesmen, diplomats and philosophers and theologians, journalists, lawyers and businessmen – all who shape their cultures, in a world growing smaller by the day. From this encounter, one hopes what will emerge is greater understanding of the other and greater appreciation for the possibilities of human reason and possibilities for human freedom.