May 16, 2013 § 2 Comments
I have been in Brussels to attend a conference on the Radical Enlightenment, and to interview Jonathan Israel, the keynote speaker, for an essay I am writing about his work and argument. Israel has transformed our understanding of the Enlightenment with his superlative trilogy published over the past decade: Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested, and Democratic Enlightenment. At the heart of his argument is his insistence that there were two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know and which provides the public face of the Enlightenment. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.
The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream, Israel writes, ‘aspired to conquer ignorance and superstition, establish ideas and revolutionise ideas, education and attitudes by means of philosophy but in such a way as to preserve and safeguard what were judged as essential elements of the older structures, offering a viable synthesis of old and new, of reason and faith.’ By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment ‘rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely’.
The argument, as can be imagined, has created considerable controversy. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 18, 2013 § 36 Comments
The European Court of Human Rights ruling this week on four cases of conflict over religious rights, and the continuing controversy in Britain, France and elsewhere on proposals to legalize gay marriage, shows the ongoing battle over how we should define religious freedom. I wrote a long post on this question last year, trying to establish some fundamental ground rules from first principles. Here I want to address one issue that has become prominent in recent weeks: the claim by a growing number of believers, especially Catholics, that the legalization of gay marriage amounts in itself to an attack on religious freedom, even to the persecution of Christians. More than 1000 Catholics priests, bishops and abbots – almost a quarter of Catholic clerics in England and Wales – signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph suggesting that while ‘After centuries of persecution Catholics have, in recent times, been able to be members of the professions and participate fully in the life of this country’, legalizing same sex unions would return Britain to the days of persecution, ‘severely restricting the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship’. The journalist Cristina Odone, former editor of the Catholic Herald, agreed that ‘David Cameron’s persecution of Catholics makes him Henry VIII, mark II’. ‘Once gay marriage is a law’, she claimed, ‘Catholics will be barred from many professions — just as they were from the Reformation until the 19th Century’. There are, she adds, ‘many Christians willing to play Thomas More to David Cameron’s Henry VIII’.
Such claims, it seems to me, not only fundamentally misunderstand religious freedom, but, in their wild hysteria, serve also to undermine those very freedoms. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 15, 2012 § 31 Comments
Mehdi Hasan, political director of the Huffington Post UK, has an essay in the current issue of the New Statesman, of which he was until recently the political editor, arguing that the progressive stance on abortion is to oppose it. The article inevitably created a storm on Twitter and elsewhere on the web, a storm at which Hasan took umbrage. ‘Time to add abortion to the list of issues – Islam, Iran’s nuclear programme etc – that can’t be discussed on Twitter’, he tweeted. He added that he was ‘v disappointed that lefties have confirmed every rightwing prejudice today: we close down debate, we enforce orthodoxies etc’. I will return later to the response to Hasan’s argument, but first a few words on his pro-life argument: « Read the rest of this entry »
February 18, 2011 § 4 Comments
For the most part, liberals maintain that unless some speech is proven to cause demonstrable harm, the state must refrain from interfering in liberty of expression on pain of violating neutrality – that is, on pain of endorsing one set of views, values, or a conception of the good over others. This gives rise to an embarrassing tension for liberals who acknowledge that social inequalities like racism, sexism, and homophobia are in no small part due to the exercise of expressive liberties. For, how can a resolutely neutral state maintain a commitment to both equality and liberty? Levin’s primary thesis is that liberal egalitarians are mistaken to think that the state ought (and thus can) remain neutral with respect to certain kinds of speech. Indeed, she argues, the liberal egalitarian commitment to treating citizens with equal concern and respect entails that the state ought to use its power qua source of speech actively to combat hate speech and pornography.
For egalitarians, the question of free speech does indeed pose moral issues. It is not possible simply to argue for freedom of expression. As I suggested in my interview with Peter Molnar, those who campaign for free speech from a radical perspective impose upon themselves a moral obligation: « Read the rest of this entry »