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 »
November 2, 2012 § 4 Comments
The Canadian government is in the process of setting up an Office of Religious Freedom. Religious freedom is about the right of people to hold certain beliefs, and to act upon them, so long as in so doing they do not harm others or discriminate against them in the public sphere. It is the right to be free from interference from other faiths and from the state. For a government to set up an official body to oversee religious freedom is precisely to interfere in matters of faith. The state setting up an Office of Religious Freedom is a bit like a fox setting itself up as protector of the hen coop.
The state promotion of religious freedom, the political scientist Elizabeth Hurd has pointed out, ‘may add fuel to the fire of the very sectarian conflict that religious freedom claims to be so uniquely equipped to transcend’:
The top-down promotion of religious freedom creates a world in which religious difference becomes more real and more politicized. It draws lines between communities, horizontally and hierarchically. It presses dissenters, doubters and families with multiple religious affiliations to choose a side. It compels them to define their identities in religious terms: “Are you this or that?”
This is unhealthy for democracy, and for religion… Religious freedom needs to be reimagined as a site of resistance against powerful authorities, rather than a form of discipline imposed by them, funneling people into predefined religious boxes and politicizing their differences. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 29, 2012 § 2 Comments
Jacques Berlinerblau, whoses book How to be Secular I reviewed in my last post, took umbrage on Twitter at my characterisation of his argument as anti-democratic. Twitter is not the best medium to have nuanced debate on these kinds of issues, but it was an interesting discussion (the heart of which was a debate not so much about secularism as about democracy) so I have curated the tweets via Storify (slightly reordered to make better sense of the discussion), with some comments thrown in. I hope, however that Jacques Berlinerblau takes up my offer to publish on Pandaemonium any lengthy response he wishes to write. In the meantime here is the Storified Twitter exchange.
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 »
October 4, 2012 § 7 Comments
My essay on ‘The Myths of Muslim Rage’ sparked a debate about the relationship between religion and politics. Many challenged the idea that the conflicts over The Satanic Verses two decades ago, and over the Innocence of Muslims now, find their roots as much in political conflict as in religious belief. ‘Regardless of who may have been “pulling the strings” and for what reasons’, as one critic put it in commenting on the essay, ‘the fact that those strings can even be pulled in the first place has become a tragically predictable aspect of modern Islam. I would contend that religious sensibilities are firmly at the center of this situation.’
There are, I think, two problems with the insistence that these are primarily religious confrontations. The first is what I see as a literal reading of the clashes: that because religion is the language in which a particular conflict takes place, so that conflict must necessarily be religious in content as well as in form. I have observed before how those who are most hostile to religion often ‘take as literal a view of religion as the fundamentalists themselves’.
The second problem is the failure of many to recognise that the very character of religion has changed in recent decades. There is a tendency to view the contemporary resurgence of religion as a throwback to the past, as simply the return of old-fashioned faith. In fact contemporary forms of religion are often very different from, and hostile to, traditional varieties. What we are witnessing is not so much the return of religion as its remaking. This was the theme of a talk I gave three years ago at a conference provocatively titled ‘The Return of Religion and Other Myths’ organized in the Netherlands by the Utrecht art centre BAK , as a part of an ongoing project on ‘post-secularism’. So, I am publishing here an edited version of the first part of that talk.
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 »
May 8, 2012 § 3 Comments
I am giving the Milton K Wong Lecture in Vancouver in June. Entitled ‘What’s Wrong with Multiculturalism? A European Perspective’, it will try to explain to a Canadian audience, for whom multiculturalism has a very different meaning than it does to a European one, the contours of the European debate, as well as my disagreements with both sides. In particular I want to show why both multiculturalists and many of their critics (particularly their rightwing critics) buy into the same set of myths about the history of immigration into Europe, these three in particular: « Read the rest of this entry »