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 »
February 13, 2013 § 3 Comments
In an essay this week in New York Times, the philosopher Justin Smith tells the story of Anton Wilhelm Amo, a West African student and former slave who defended a philosophy dissertation at the University of Halle in Saxony, written in Latin and entitled On the Impassivity of the Human Mind. A dedicatory letter was attached to the dissertation from the rector of the University of Wittenberg, Johannes Gottfried Kraus, who, Smith observes, ‘praised the “natural genius” of Africa, its “appreciation for learning”, and its “inestimable contribution to the knowledge of human affairs” and of “divine things”. Kraus placed Amo in a lineage that includes many North African Latin authors of antiquity, such as Terence, Tertullian and St. Augustine.’
Smith contrasts Kraus’ attitude with that of the Scottish philosopher David Hume who in 1742 would write:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.
Hume’s attitude expresses what Smith calls ‘the Enlightenment’s race problem’:
Scholars have been aware for a long time of the curious paradox of Enlightenment thought, that the supposedly universal aspiration to liberty, equality and fraternity in fact only operated within a very circumscribed universe. Equality was only ever conceived as equality among people presumed in advance to be equal, and if some person or group fell by definition outside of the circle of equality, then it was no failure to live up to this political ideal to treat them as unequal. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
Jacques Berlinerblau has responded to my review of his book How to Be Secular. He thinks that, unlike his conservative Christian critics, I have not ‘take[n] the time to understand what [his] arguments actually are’ and have made instead a series of ‘misleading claims’ about them. I disagree with most of Berlinerblau’s list of what he regards as my misleading claims. I don’t want to go line by line through that list refuting each and every claim. I do, however, want to take up two issues, which I regard as the most important in the debate that we are having: the question of democracy and that of how to build a constituency for secularism.
There are, in How to be Secular, two parts to Berlinerblau’s argument about democracy. The first is a political claim about how to build a coalition to promote secularism. The second is a more fundamental claim about the relationship between secularism and the democratic will. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 27, 2012 § 8 Comments
Back at the beginning of the US Presidential campaign Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of launching ‘a war on religion’ and of wanting ‘to establish a religion in America known as secularism’. The irony is that Obama himself, even before entering the White House, had made clear his own disdain for secularism. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama had chided fellow Democrats for equating ‘tolerance with secularism’. In embracing secularism, he wrote, Democrats ‘forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with larger meaning’.
Secularism is clearly a toxic word in US politics. But why? And how can we detoxify it? Those are the two questions at the heart of sociologist Jacques Berlinerblau’s new book How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. Berlinerblau is Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. The key problem in the current debate about secularism is, he argues, the association of secularism with atheism. Studies have shown atheists to be America’s least trusted group. For most Americans, one study concluded, an atheist symbolizes some one ‘who rejects the basis for moral solidarity’. Atheists, in other words, cannot be ‘one of us’. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 17, 2012 § 19 Comments
Given the degree of fractious debate recently over ‘religious freedom’ – from questions of blasphemy and ‘defamation’ to the storm over gay marriage, from the controversy over the banning of the burqa to the hostility directed at the ‘Obamacare’ plan to include contraception in health insurance cover – I have been rethinking the question of freedom of religion. These notes are a starting point for debate, not a fully-fleshed out argument.
Religious freedom occupies a special place in contemporary political discussions. It should not. This is not because religious freedom is not important but because it is no more and no less important than other forms of freedom of conscience, belief and practice.
Many believers point out that faith plays a unique role in their lives. That is often true. Those atheists who dismiss belief in God as no more credible than belief in Santa Claus or in fairies miss the point. Religion is more than an intellectual exercise or a matter of logic; it often has, for believers, a vital social and spiritual function. But acknowledging the vital and unique role of faith in the lives of believers does not commit us to providing it with a privileged position in society.
The reason that religious freedom has a special place in contemporary political debate is historical. Ideas of tolerance and of freedom of expression developed in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards primarily within a religious framework. Questions of toleration and expression were at heart questions of how, and how far, the state, and the established church, should accommodate religious dissent. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 2, 2012 § 18 Comments
‘I have definitely become a free speech fundamentalist,’ says Flemming Rose. Perhaps that should not be surprising. It was, after all, Rose who, as culture editor of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, helped launch the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005. He had picked up on a story about the difficulties that children’s author Kåre Bluitgen had faced in finding an illustrator for a book he was writing on Islam. Every illustrator that Bluitgen had contacted had been worried that he would end up like Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker ritually murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by a Muslim incensed by his anti-Islamic films. Rose wanted, he said, to see ‘how deep this self-censorship lies in the Danish public’. So he set a challenge to Danish cartoonists: draw a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed and we will publish a selection in Jyllands-Posten.
Rose approached 42 cartoonists, 12 of whom accepted the challenge. Their caricatures, including Kurt Westergaard’s infamous image of the prophet wearing a turban in the form of a bomb, were published in Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005. ‘The modern secular society,’ Rose wrote in a commentary, ‘is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule.’
To Rose’s critics, the very act of publishing the cartoons, and of provoking Muslims into a response, was irresponsible, even racist, particularly against the background of Denmark’s growing hostility to immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, and even more so given Jyllands-Posten’s role in feeding such hostility. In the eyes of his critics, Rose has always been a ‘free speech fundamentalist’, and not in a good way. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 22, 2012 § 3 Comments
I have written an essay for the upcoming 40th anniversary issue of Index on Censorship that explores the changing character of the free speech debate in recent decades. It includes an interview with Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, whose challenge to cartoonists to depict the Prophet Muhammad helped launch the Danish cartoon controversy. I will publish the essay in full when the new issue of Index comes out in March. But here is a short extract that probes the question of double standards in Jyllands-Posten’s publication of the cartoons and in the broader campaign for free speech.
For the critics of Jyllands-Posten the cartoon controversy had little to do with free speech. It was simply about targeting Muslims. It is true that Jyllands-Posten is, as the critics suggest, a conservative paper, often hostile to immigration and obsessed by the threat of Islam. But that is an argument against its political stance, not against its right to publish cartoons that some may see as offensive or blasphemous. After all, it is not just those with nice liberal views who have the right to free speech; though increasingly many have come to believe that it should be.
More pertinent, perhaps, is the charge that, far from being a defender of free speech, Jyllands-Posten betrays double standards. A few years before the Mohammed controversy, the newspaper had refused to publish cartoons about Jesus by the caricaturist Christoffer Zieler. ‘I don’t think Jyllands-Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings,’ the editor Carsten Juste wrote to Zieler. ‘As a matter of fact, I think they will provoke an outcry.’ « Read the rest of this entry »