Postmodern peace-keeping

Russell Blackford, editor of 50 Voices of Disbelief (which I have contributed to), is a strong defender of secular liberalism. In his blog, which I like to follow, he regularly responds to critics of secularism and nonbelief.

In his latest, he rips into sociologist and priest Gary Bouma, who has recently attacked secularists and active atheists as divisive elements that threaten social harmony.

I’m as dyed-in-the-wool a secular liberal as they come. But I want to argue that here, Bouma is correct and Blackford is wrong. Secularism, particularly when it extends to public criticism of religion and policies that inconvenience religious communities, is a source of social division. Secularists keeping quiet is, in fact, in the interest of peace and public order in many present circumstances.

Note that, as often in the liberal tradition, the main pragmatic argument Blackford uses to promote a secular regime is that it helps keep the peace between rival sects. Government has no competence to intervene in theological disputes. When the social reality on the ground is one of theological pluralism, so that imposing ideological conformity on society would come with an unacceptably high cost, the best policy is to accept plurality, keep an equal distance to sects, and keep sectarian concerns out of public policy.

Such arguments tend to overlook how such reasoning is difficult to generalize beyond the context of Western European Christianity in the modern era. When one overwhelmingly dominant faith tradition is in the process of fragmenting, and many social forces are acting to promote social differentiation and erosion of community, all this makes some sense. Governmental bodies will find it practical to deal with individuals and their worldly interests, ignoring faith labels. They may even actively promote individualism and the submergence of intermediate communitarian institutions such as those rooted in religion.

But today’s multicultural urban environments are different. We have to deal with not one fragmenting religious tradition, but people thrown together from very different faiths, including various kinds of Muslims, Buddhists, African Christianities, indigenous traditions, etc. etc. Many of these have not adapted to individualism such as liberal Protestantism or New Age spirituality has. Indeed, it is hard to say that individualist tendencies are clearly dominant over desires to retain some measure of community identity and cohesion. Governmental bodies, unless driven by an explicit secularism in the French style, can effectively deal with representatives of religious communities as intermediaries. Keeping the peace often means ensuring that South Asian Shiites and Korean evangelicals and so forth do not feel disrespected and disadvantaged.

So, from the perspective of someone trying to keep public order, or someone devising a political philosophy that can smooth interactions between different groups, secular liberalism is hardly the only option. Keeping the peace requires that communities defined by religion and ethnicity have tolerably equal access to resources—not just economic opportunity but also public respect and the means to cultural reproduction. In this context, protection from insult becomes particularly important: whether others can get away with publicly disrespecting a group is an accurate, easily available public signal of the status of a group.

Now, in such a pluralistic environment where group identity retains its salience, a more “multicultural” rather than liberal individualistic politics will be attractive. And in multicultural circumstances, secular critics of religion are dangerous nuisances when they can command attention in the mass media. Moderate believers who are genuinely interested in peace and respectful relationships with others understandably will react to explicit, uncompromising criticisms of any religion with fear and loathing. Such criticism cannot avoid being perceived as an insult to a possibly vulnerable community, whether intended or not. It contributes to a climate of disrespect.

Note that it is not so much the criticisms uttered by the godless that is an object of concern. After all, outright nonbelievers are typically a small minority. More importantly, they do not form any coherent community. They could perhaps be ignored as a noisy but impotent elite. The real danger is Christians starting to feel free to denounce Islam, Jews expressing contempt for gentiles, Hindus coming out in public to say that their marriage laws should apply to every citizen. We can’t have anyone voicing disrespect for other beliefs, lest criticism become acceptable and lead to violent conflicts over public respect.

In a multicultural environment, you have to be careful where and with whom you voice criticism. Muslims will complain about the obsession with rules shown by Islamic religious scholars, but among themselves. They will believe that Jews discriminate in favor of fellow Jews and suspect that Christians are hell-bound, but if they know what’s good for them, they won’t regularly express these thoughts in a public sphere that belongs to all. Atheists will denounce the intellectual pathologies that support supernatural beliefs, but they will do it in academic circles or in small discussion groups. They won’t go to the mass media. That would be foolish, even dangerous.

Multicultural societies will also support blandly multicultural public ideologies (as opposed to what people express when within their own circles). We will get mush about how all religions lead to God, and how everyone respects each others’ beliefs. Social thinkers with a taste for concocting ideologies and acting as their clerisy will sanctify the pragmatism of avoiding offense by portraying criticism of religious beliefs as vulgar at best, and often even a threat to public peace. They will be technically wrong about all sorts of intellectual details. But the pragmatic reality that they try to sanctify will remain. Liberal secularism, whether in allowing unrestricted public criticism of religion, or in otherwise privileging direct individual interaction with the state over community intermediation, is more of a force for instability rather than a guarantor of peace.

Old-fashioned secular liberals such as Blackford have, perhaps, not adequately adjusted to new political and social realities. There are good reasons that secular liberalism is out of fashion these days. One of these reasons is that secular liberals continually resort to the same old varieties of argument that are rooted in only one particular historical experience (early modern Western Europe and its settler societies), and which do not resonate with present multicultural circumstances. Another is that a broader historical experience has made the darker, coercive aspects of liberal politics more obvious. Postmodern multiculturalists legitimately ask why a liberal individualist model, with its violent, anti-communitarian aspects, should remain dominant in the legal realm. (Politically, it has already been considerably delegitimized.) Why not have a model that tries to make peace but not at the cost of disadvantaging natural human religiosity and community?

Now, I don’t particularly like all this. My particular interests drive me toward secular liberalism, even after repeated disenchantment. I dislike tight communities. Multicultural bullshit may be useful bullshit, but I still have an aesthetic dislike toward it that I cannot seem to overcome. But all of this is hardly a basis for public policy.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07190715223856189053 NewEnglandBob

    I am with Russell Blackford on this one.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17413954699764193488 Oldcola

    I'll second NewEnglandBob on the side of Russell Blackford.

    And I would like to add on "Governmental bodies, unless driven by an explicit secularism in the French style, can effectively deal with representatives of religious communities as intermediaries.".
    The French government always deal with representatives of religious communities, e.g. the consultations for the renewal of the bioethics laws; no atheists' representative there! That bring a theistic flavor to some laws.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17413954699764193488 Oldcola

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13562135000111792590 RBH

    The real danger is Christians starting to feel free to denounce Islam, Jews expressing contempt for gentiles, Hindus coming out in public to say that their marriage laws should apply to every citizen.

    Starting? Starting?? C'mon, Taner. When have those not been the case in the last three or four centuries, say, since Martin Luther? The exceptions are few and far between–portions of the Islamic empire (Islamic Spain in the Middle Ages), and a few others, but not very many.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    The French deal with bodies representative of religion because of pragmatic reasons, even though it goes against republican ideology. The social reality of communities is hard to ignore; the French try, at the price of some incoherence, to contain religion within a secular republican framework. You might say that experience shows that pure secularism is unworkable.

    As RBH says, religious groups often behave obnoxiously toward other religious groups. Well, that's why keeping the peace is such an important political matter. Many today claim that in today's multiethnic, multireligious societies, where no group has a prospect for a sectarian monopoly of power, that a multiculturalist solution is better than a liberal secular alternative. Medieval sectarian violence is no argument against such a perspective.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14491100539507505327 Alan

    I find this article somewhat at odds with those honoring the 45 year anniversary of the march on Selma Alabama. Social progress comes through dialog, debate and activism and sometimes that means discord. I don't accept that oppression and ignorance are the appropriate price for peace. I'm with Blackford also. I would add to that Natan Sharansky and others who have made the argument that democracy, freedom of speech and reason are our best bet in the long run for healthy and cohesive societies.

    If you look around and see progress please note that the progress came from those who where brave enough to speak out. When your goal is simply peace then you simply perpetuate the status quo.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Alan: "Social progress comes through dialog, debate and activism and sometimes that means discord."

    I don't disagree with any of this. I do want to point out that advocating political secularism, in many circumstances, is also to introduce discord, to propose that many people change how they live in important ways. If you argue for secularism, as liberals are wont to do, as a way of keeping the peace in a religiously pluralistic society, you also have the face alternative proposals to keep the peace. Some alternatives, such as multiculturalist approaches, can in fact work better in some circumstances.

    So, I think that if we want to argue for secularism, we're going have to do a lot more than say that it is a neutral way to keep the peace. It isn't neutral, and it isn't always the best way to have peace.

    I'd also like to see, in our arguments, some acknowledgement of why, to many smart people today, secularism seems like a bad, oppressive idea whose time has passed. Otherwise we are just talking among ourselves, reassuring each other that our repeated political defeats just go to show the irrationality of our opponents.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12802157835972797573 JonJ

    My religion — like many others in the past — advocates human sacrifice. Am I to be allowed to practice the divine instructions of my gods unfettered by blind secular misunderstanding, or is the state going to step in and explain that this is not permissible in a modern enlightened society? But if human scrifice is forbidden, then what about Sharia law? What about thugee? What about the million and one other things religions advocate which are demonstrably stupid and destructive? As soon as rationality steps in to bar one religous practice, there is no reason other than expediency for it not to ban all others too.

    One role of the state is to educate its people to live in the modern world. This includes attacking and attempting to eradicate superstitious notions which are divisive and dangerous.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08885813390779661738 Bruce

    I live in a country where one of the major religions includes amongst its beliefs that you can "get magic" by using human body parts and that such magic is strengthened by harvesting the parts while the human in question is still alive and struggling.

    Shove that muti up your "keeping quiet makes peace."

    Some people like to whinge about the issues with religion and the dangers of secularism in your oh so superior manner but they never, ever actually deal with it.

    Instead of actual engagement, which includes standing up to the bits you disagree with, they masturbate about how their refusal to have a spine actually makes them better than everyone else.

    It just makes them cowards, and frankly doesn't win them the friends they think it would. People can tell when they are being humoured with a sneer.

    A push for greater secularism is one of the things that makes it even vaguely possible to deal fairly because dealing fairly doesn't mean fellating someone who thinks the age of consent should be nine, it means taking individual human rights as being the important issue.

    It means standing up for that nine year old. When you show you actually have standards it wins a lot more respect than faux sympathy.

    Which means secularism. The religion is irrelevant, the people aren't.

    And as to this whole "Western" bullshit, where Eastern somehow always equals Islam – two of the foremost countries where secularism has been shown to work are Japan and South Korea. Those aren't the West.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02583426948016664961 robzrob

    A recipe for disaster.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    Taner, I agree with you regarding the reality that secular liberalism is out of fashion these days. .. and, like you, I'm not particularly happy about it. If there's one "tradition" that has an emotional pull over me, it is Enlightenment secular liberalism — which, as you say, is deeply rooted to Europeanized Christian societies but isn't so adaptable to other societies, including today's multicultural America and UK. I suppose society as a whole will figure out a solution, I'm just not sure it'll be a solution that'll make this secular humanist too happy about it. . .

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02583426948016664961 robzrob

    He talks as if no other society or group or religious 'community' has ever changed, that they've always been what they are now. Anybody, from anywhere, taken back to what 'their' group or community was doing 500 years ago would be like a fish out of water. The greatest insult to anybody is to assume that they must be treated as if they're incapable of thinking and responding to criticism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08000353980872079468 OB

    Hi Taner

    I did a post on this, respectfully disagreeing.

    http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/notesarchive.php?id=3119

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07663505945922022288 Daniel

    Now, in such a pluralistic environment where group identity retains its salience, a more "multicultural" rather than liberal individualistic politics will be attractive.

    I don't see how liberal individualistic politics precludes group identity. American civil rights guarantees — based on the secular enlightenment reasoning you find "old fashioned" explicitly includes provisions that allow the construction of group identities — in fact, that was the main point behind the bill of rights.

    And in multicultural circumstances, secular critics of religion are dangerous nuisances when they can command attention in the mass media. Moderate believers who are genuinely interested in peace and respectful relationships with others understandably will react to explicit, uncompromising criticisms of any religion with fear and loathing.

    So religious critics of secularism are…NOT dangerous nuisances? Simply less dangerous than their secular critic counterparts? At any rate, religious critics of secularism command a lot more attention in the mass media than secular critics of religion.

    I would expect so-called moderate believers to react to criticism of religion with reasoned responses, commitments to examine some of the problems cited, or — heaven forbid — Christian forbearance. I certainly would not EXPECT fear and loathing. In other words, I don't think religious people are actually so emotionally and intellectually stunted that they can't respond rationally to criticism of their beliefs. In this way, the accomodationists really seem to me to have less respect for the religious than myself.

    Such criticism cannot avoid being perceived as an insult to a possibly vulnerable community, whether intended or not. It contributes to a climate of disrespect.

    If a criticism like, "there's no reason to believe in God," CANNOT AVOID being perceived as an insult, how should I as an atheist take, "you're not a whole person," or "you're going to hell," both of which I've had directed towards me at least a few times? Why are atheists and other secularists expected to be the grown ups while everyone who's found God is allowed to throw a temper tantrum?

    Also, what reason do I have to believe this assertion? Why must a criticism of religion be perceived as an insult by the religious? You certainly haven't demonstrated, or even effectively argued for such a conclusion.

    Note that it is not so much the criticisms uttered by the godless that is an object of concern. After all, outright nonbelievers are typically a small minority. More importantly, they do not form any coherent community. They could perhaps be ignored as a noisy but impotent elite.

    See, to me, this says that there is really no threat to the religious, the threat is to atheists. All the more reason to allow and defend criticisms of religion — the most likely to be marginalized are the purely secular in the first place.

    The real danger is Christians starting to feel free to denounce Islam, Jews expressing contempt for gentiles, Hindus coming out in public to say that their marriage laws should apply to every citizen. We can't have anyone voicing disrespect for other beliefs, lest criticism become acceptable and lead to violent conflicts over public respect.

    That's a little ahistorical. There are ancient traditions of each major religion expressing contempt for each other; it's only been in eras in which the state stayed out of such debates that these traditions have subsided and allowed prosperous secular societies.

    I expected there to be a little more here since Blackford spilled so much ink responding to it, but I wouldn't even call this a "weak case." Perhaps you could try to justify some of your conclusions here at greater length?


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