May 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
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 »
March 21, 2013 § 4 Comments
I have just taken part in an exchange of letters with Nada Shabout, director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies at the University of North Texas, which focused on the question: ‘Should religious or cultural sensibilities ever limit free speech?’ These first four letters are published in the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine. There was no room to take the debate further in print, but we are continuing the discussion. The new exchanges will be published on the Index website, and also here.
I regard free speech as a fundamental good, the fullest extension of which is necessary for democratic life and for the development of other liberties. Others view speech as a luxury rather than as a necessity, or at least as merely one right among others, and not a particularly important one. Speech from this perspective needs to be restrained not as an exception but as the norm.
The answer to whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression depends in large part upon which of these ways we think of free speech. For those, like me, who look upon free speech as a fundamental good, no degree of cultural or religious discomfort can be reason for censorship. There is no free speech without the ability to offend religious and cultural sensibilities. For those for whom free speech is more a luxury than a necessity, censorship is a vital tool in maintaining social peace and order. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 10, 2013 § 13 Comments
I am still closeted away, finishing my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought. So, here is another of my old book reviews, this one on Tariq Ramadan’s The Quest for Meaning. It was first published in the Independent in August 2010.
In an age in which public intellectuals are often highly divisive figures – think of the storms surrounding Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins or Bernard-Henri Lévy – few generate more controversy than Tariq Ramadan. Political activist, Muslim scholar, and professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, he is to some the ‘Muslim Martin Luther’, a courageous reformer who helps bridge the chasm between Islamic orthodoxy and secular democracy. To his critics, Ramadan is a ‘slippery’, ‘double-faced’ religious bigot, a covert member of the Muslim Brotherhood whose aim is to undermine Western liberalism. When, in 2004, Ramadan was appointed professor of religion by Notre Dame, America’s leading Catholic University, the US State Department revoked his visa for supposedly endorsing terrorist activity.
The debate about Ramadan was re-ignited earlier this year with the publication of The Flight of the Intellectuals, American writer Paul Berman’s savage attack on European thinkers such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for what he regards as their appeasement of Ramadan. The Quest for Meaning, Ramadan’s first book aimed at a wider Western audience, arrives therefore at a timely moment. It is, he writes, ‘a journey and an initiation’ into the world’s faiths to discover the universal truths they hold in common and to set out ‘the contours of a philosophy of pluralism.’ Unfortunately it will do little to settle the argument about the nature of Ramadan’s beliefs. There is a willfull shallowness about this work, a refusal to think deeply or to pose difficult questions, that is truly shocking. Insofar as it is provocative, The Quest for Meaning seeks to provoke not through the excess of its rhetoric but through the banality of its reasoning. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 3, 2013 Comments Off
This is a video of a conversation I had with the sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor on ‘Why I am an atheist’. It was one in a ‘daisy chain’ of discussions on belief organized by 5×15 at the Wellcome Collection in London in December. The daisy chain featured, as well as Laurie Taylor and myself, Laurie’s son Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA (and a fellow-panelist of mine on The Moral Maze), Nick Spencer, director of research at the religious think tank Theos, and Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, each interviewing the next daisy in the chain, as it were. My conversation with Laurie Taylor is at the top. Videos of the other conversations are below. « Read the rest of this entry »
January 22, 2013 § 5 Comments
Those who have followed the excerpts I have been publishing from my ‘Book in progress’ on the history of moral thought will know that there were several gaps in the chapters. That was because I left till the end a series of chapters on the Indian and Chinese traditions. These are now almost complete, and I will publish, as before, monthly extracts from each remaining chapter. Some of the chapters have been renumbered as you can see from the complete set of extracts.
This extract is from chapter 5 which explores the ancient Indian traditions, primarily Hinduism and Buddhism.
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 »
December 4, 2012 Comments Off
I am taking part tomorrow in a ‘daisy chain’ of discussions about faith at the Wellcome Collection in London. The daisy chain features five people in conversation one with another. The first daisy in the chain is Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA (and a fellow-panelist of mine on The Moral Maze) who will speak to his father, the sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor, presenter of BBC Radio 4′s Thinking Allowed and vice-president of the British Humanist Association. Laurie Taylor in turn will interview me, and I will then be in conversation with Nick Spencer, director of research at the religious think tank Theos. He will in turn talk to Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. To complete the circle of five conversations, Linda will interview Matthew Taylor. The Wellcome Collection blurb tells us to ‘Expect an evening of wit, insight and investigation’. Come along to find out if it turns out so.