Saturday 18 September 2010

The politics of secularism

Taming the Gods: religion and democracy on three continents, by Ian Buruma (Princeton University Press, 2010)

Ian Buruma’s short book is a kind of sequel to Death in Amsterdam, his book about the murder of Theo van Gogh and the limits of tolerance. It goes beneath the superficial counterpositions of today’s religion debates – religion versus secularism, multiculturalism versus intolerance – to identify some more interesting dynamics at work. Perhaps most usefully, Buruma shows that ideological disorientation within Western culture is at least as important as tensions between West and East, or even ‘secular liberalism’ and radical Islam.

Buruma begins, however, by challenging the popular notion that there is a geographical faultline within the West, between secular Europe and Christian America. Indeed, in formal terms, the USA is far more secular than the UK, its strict separation of church and state contrasting with Britain’s Established church. France of course has a strong tradition of secularism, or laïcité, almost tantamount to a religion in itself, while the various nations of Europe all have their own religious histories, coloured not least by the tension between Roman Catholicism and various forms of Protestantism, and by other political pressures. Secularism in Europe began not as a rejection of religion, but as a means of defusing religious conflict, and preventing it from being played out in the political sphere.

By way of example, Buruma explains how the Dutch statesman Abraham Kupyer (1837-1920), leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, pioneered a form of secularism which was explicitly based on religiosity rather than hostility to religion. ‘The solution [to the fact of religious diversity] was not to separate religious belief from political argument or ban religion from the public sphere but to divide the public sphere into autonomous “pillars”. This was designed to protect religion from the state’ (p40). While the Anti-Revolutionary Party did not survive the social changes of the 1960s, Dutch secularism continues to acknowledge a role for religion, most obviously in state-funded religious schools (as a Dutch citizen, Buruma knows there is more to the Netherlands than the pot-smoking, sexually promiscuous stereotypes so popular in Britain).

The question of how to accommodate diverse religions as well as godlessness in a modern society is common to both Europe and the USA, then. The third continent alluded to in Buruma’s subtitle is Asia, and he describes how even the much more homogeneous Japan also developed a form of separation between secular and religious authority under the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled into the nineteenth century (p71).

Buruma’s treatment of religion in the USA leans heavily on the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century French chronicler of the young American republic. Tocqueville saw that the separation of church and state had greatly benefitted the churches in America because it kept religion out of the hands of worldly politicians, freeing individuals to follow their consciences rather than allowing faith to become a matter of power and coercion. In contrast, Tocqueville noted, ‘Unbelievers in Europe attack Christians more as political than as religious enemies; they hate faith as the opinion of a party much more than as a mistaken belief, and they reject the clergy less because they are the representatives of God than because they are the friends of authority’ (pp21-22).

This is an important point to remember with reference to today’s New Atheist tendency to ridicule faith (and defer instead to the authority of science). While faith flourished in secular America, radical anti-clericalism in Europe was historically a reaction to its relative lack of secularisation, which is why it was always more pronounced in the strongly Roman Catholic countries of the south. It is ironic that ‘secularism’ (increasingly implying a suspicion of faith rather than mere neutrality concerning religion) has become a kind of official ideology of Europe’s ruling elite and intellectual class.

The current, strident, ‘liberal’ opposition to the Pope’s visit to the UK reflects not the political tyranny of the Vatican, but the marginalisation of religion, and incredulity among a certain milieu that anyone could uphold the weird ideas of Catholic doctrine. Millions of Europeans do believe, however, and moreover identify with various religious traditions even when they disagree with particular teachings. Controversy over the place of religion reveals a Culture War not so different from that associated with the US, where religion is often a focus of dispute between liberals and conservatives.

Buruma argues that Europe and the US face a similar crisis of liberalism, but he perhaps understands this too narrowly: ‘Anti-liberalism can be directed against the alleged threat of Islam or against secular liberals. What is feared in both cases is a loss of identity, of something to believe in, of common bonds, ethical, cultural, or religious, without which people are afraid of being cast out, alone, into the state of nature’ (p46). Both types of anti-liberalism are certainly familiar in the US and Europe alike, but there is surely more to the ‘crisis of liberalism’ than anti-liberalism. A more profound malaise is revealed in the debates over multiculturalism: a crippling uncertainty about what it even means to be ‘liberal’.

For the most part, the liberal left in the UK has embraced multiculturalism and the celebration of diversity, eschewing any suggestion that Western culture is superior in any way, and insisting on equal respect for all traditions. Buruma is no doubt right that mere good manners are reinforced here by postcolonial guilt, and points out that actively encouraging ethnic minorities to conserve their traditions is not necessarily as progressive as multiculturalists suppose. ‘Guilt, in this case, hides a peculiar irony, for this type of “multiculturalism”, much hated by conservatives, actually reflects the way much of the British Empire was governed, by dividing colonial subjects into communal groups, and ruling through their leaders’ (p6).

The problem underlying this paradox is the lack of a common set of beliefs that might be shared by those from all ethnic and religious traditions. A generation ago, the alternative to asserting Western superiority and demanding immigrants assimilate was to put forward a vision of the future based on a critique of Western society as it was. Marxists and others on the Left argued that people of all ethnic and religious traditions had a common interest in remaking society. The demise of Marxism, however, left the Left’s universalism on shaky ground. Lacking a coherent idea of how society might be transformed, the Left’s critique was often reduced to guilt about the privileged position of whites and the middle class, with the result that diversity came to be seen as an end in itself. With the ruling elite similarly disoriented by the transformed ideological climate, multiculturalism became institutionalised. And with neither the elite nor the Left offering a compelling worldview, it is unsurprising that many turned to religion.

Buruma cites humanist writer Kenan Malik’s story of meeting an old friend from the Left, Hassan, a fellow Asian who had become disillusioned with ‘the white Left’ and rediscovered his identity by embracing Islam. Buruma says Malik ‘followed the other path, of leftists who joined the Kulturkampf against multiculturalism’, but this isn’t quite fair. Malik’s criticisms of official multiculturalism are robust, but not shrill, and not distorted by the existential angst shared by both Islamists and their fiercest opponents. As Buruma says of former leftists like the American Norman Podhoretz, who in the 1960s turned on the Black Power activists as well as the white liberals who ‘pandered’ to them, ‘They, too, like Hassan, though for different reasons, had had it with the white Left’ (p103).

Certainly there is now an unholy alliance of traditionalist conservatives and former leftists who blame multiculturalism for giving succour to ‘Islamofascism’, and who seek to reassert ‘Western values’ in opposition to the moral relativism of the ‘appeasers’ (p94). Significantly, though, the rhetoric can either be anti-religious, often invoking the Enlightenment, or in fact pro-religious. Buruma emphasises the similarity between those Culture Warriors like Melanie Phillips, who believe Christianity should be restored as Britain’s ‘cultural spine’, and those like French republican Pascal Bruckner, who favour a ‘civic religion’ of secularism (p111). In both cases there is a call for retrenchment, an appeal to a core identity or set of values to which all citizens must subscribe. In its own way, this echoes the explicit anti-liberalism of Islamists themselves - not least in its failure to stand up to intellectual scrutiny.

Just as critics of Islam tend to exhibit the very desire for a sense of belonging that drives others to embrace Islam, Islamism is in fact as deracinated and rootless as any other contemporary ideology. Buruma quotes Islam scholar Olivier Roy to explain how fundamentalism, whether Islamic or Christian, is an aspect of Western modernity rather than a rejection of it; young radicals are ‘perfectly “Westernized”’: ‘Among the born-again and the converts (numerous young women who want to wear the veil belong to these categories), Islam is seen not as a cultural relic but as a religion that is universal and global and reaches beyond specific cultures, just like evangelism or Pentecostalism’ (p89).

Of course, the universalism of Christianity once lent a spiritual dimension to the expansion of European empires. At various times and places, religion has served important ideological functions, and the disarray evident in today’s debates about religion no doubt reflects the wider ideological confusion in contemporary Western societies.

In his discussion of Christianity in America, Buruma refers to Tocqueville’s suggestion that a crucial difference between Catholicism and Protestantism was that while the former involved a greater deference to authority, it also entailed a greater sense of social solidarity. In contrast, evangelical Protestantism, ‘in general orients men much less toward equality than toward independence’. Buruma throws in a little bit of politics here: ‘A Marxist would say, with some justification, that this is precisely why capitalists have a reason to promote that faith’ (p24). A more observant Marxist might note that this is only true of flourishing capitalists (an increasingly hypothetical breed). More beleaguered capitalists and their political representatives prefer to remind us that we’re all in it together. Pope Benedict’s apparent endorsement of David Cameron’s Big Society is salutary here, but the ideas to be scrutinised are political, and cannot simply be dismissed as irrational or ‘faith-based’.

Things are different in China, of course, where capitalism is faring rather better under the authoritarian rule of the godless Communist Party. Given the ideological confusion inevitable in such a rapidly changing society, however, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Chinese authorities have lately been flirting with once-disparaged Confucian ideas, in a bid to consolidate a modern but distinctly Chinese identity*. In his treatment of religion in Asia, Buruma draws on the work of Sinologist Simon Leys to argue that Confucianism emphasised the cultivation of virtue rather than law, or naked political power. For Buruma, this is in keeping with the preferences of Western thinkers such as Montesquieu, for whom excessive law-making was a sign of civilisation breaking down, and Tocqueville, who believed democracy worked in America because Christianity gave people a common sense of morality (p53). Precisely because it is implicitly rather than explicitly ideological, religion can play an important part in binding a society together.

Unlike America, of course, China is not a free or democratic country, but no state can rule for long by force alone. Moreover, Buruma argues, ‘The fact that Chinese people are not able to participate in politics, except in a very limited way in village elections, has made religion all the more popular. It is their only escape from pure materialism’ (p67). This last point raises questions for the West too. If secular liberalism had all the answers, it would not be in crisis. This is not to suggest religion is necessary as a sort of spiritual supplement to secular life and politics, as some argue. Instead, we might note that popular participation in politics in the West is also ‘very limited’, not because we lack democratic institutions, but because they lack real meaning.

Those who seek solace in religion, and those who uphold secularism as an ideology, both effectively reconcile themselves to the world as it is precisely by failing to engage with it. Real democracy must involve real human beings as they actually are, in all their unworldliness. Sometimes that’s the best thing about them.


*See A superficial balance, by Bill Durodie, Culture Wars, 20 June 2008


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