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.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University