“Theocracy” is not the issue

Russell Blackford has responded to my suggestion that multicultural recognition of ethno-religious groups might have a better claim to protect social peace in some circumstances. It’s a thoughtful reply, and it convinces me that I should better qualify some of my claims. Overall, however, I still disagree. I especially think that speaking of theocracy and religiously inspired laws for all is not to the point. Indeed, the way we immediately think of religious control as the alternative to secularism is, I think, symptomatic of how secular liberalism has become ossified.

But before I begin another long rant, I should say that this is exactly the sort of debate I enjoy. Blackford and I are, actually, quite close in our secularist politics as well as our unfavorable view of supernatural claims. It’s invigorating to step into an argument with someone who I am not just willing to concede may be right, but who I actually hope is right. Nonetheless, I remain unconvinced as yet, and I want to further explain why.

I don’t advocate nonsecular politics

First, by way of clarification: I’m not proposing that any political entity should move further in the direction of a multicultural, ethnoreligious group-oriented social order. My political preference is very much the opposite. I would, personally, consider a multicultural regime a dystopia. Where multiculturalism has made inroads—for example, in the US academic culture which is my working environment—I have plenty of occasion to complain about the cant and worse it inspires. If group-oriented politics were to impinge very seriously on my life, I would probably start thinking of emigrating.

My reasons for all of this, however, have almost everything to do with my particular interests and aspirations, and next to nothing to do with any claim that these are universal considerations applicable to all reasonable people. From where I stand, as a secular person with very weak community attachments, who has reflected on other options available to me, I’d like to see more secular liberalism, not less. But others more rooted in ethnic and religious communities may legitimately and reflectively prefer otherwise. In that case, our ways of life would be in competition. To at least some small degree, my political advantage is their disadvantage and vice versa.

Now, I certainly hope to get my way. But precisely because I identify with a secular tradition that values accuracy and criticism, I also prefer that I, and my close allies, would be more clear-minded about the genuine disadvantages and occasional suffering a secular liberal order inflicts on significant numbers of religious people.

If the classical liberal tradition could successfully appeal to “public reason” or otherwise make a case for its universal applicability, things would be different. But I don’t think that effort succeeds. Much in contemporary political philosophy takes it for granted that the liberal appeal to external reasons available to all does not go through. I agree.

Keeping the peace

Now, getting back to our disagreement about keeping the peace, I should clarify another thing. I am not arguing that secular liberalism is an inferior option for achieving social peace. In some circumstances, it may work very well. In ethnically more-or-less homogeneous, culturally secular parts of Western Europe, it may very well be the obviously best overall social order. If you live in a place where this is so, I can only say that you’re a lucky bastard and I envy you. Mind you, even there, Muslim immigration is putting some real strains on liberal secularism, but secularism still has some life in it.

Still, that’s a small part of the world. Not everyone even aspires to live like that. In other circumstances—big cities absorbing immigrants in Canada and the US, countries deeply divided between rival ethnoreligious groups, countries where secular elites are under pressure from devout populations gaining economic clout—multicultural rather than secularist politics are already more attractive. I expect that there are reasons for this, and that these reasons may well include a multicultural climate doing a better job enabling social harmony between competing groups by discouraging criticism and promoting a mushy intercommunal respect. I am not arguing that this is universally so. Neither am I arguing that keeping the peace is the only thing worth considering in our politics. But it is nothing to sneeze about. And I should add that whether a particular approach succeeds in keeping the peace is largely an empirical matter. When my social science and humanities colleagues drift in a multicultural direction, I suspect they may know something.

It’s not about theocracy

Now, let us say we are in one of those environments where a multicultural, group-recognizing politics has gained plausibility. And there, someone like Gary Bouma states that secularists disturb the peace, perhaps by contributing to a climate of disrespect. In that case, how can a secular liberal respond?

I would probably acknowledge that secularism can be a nuisance, but that’s still the direction I’d like to see us move in. Since my personal reasons will not impress too many nonsecularists, I’ll try to reach for broader reasons, hoping to achieve an overlapping consensus. I couldn’t be hugely optimistic about my prospects for success—secularisms ability to democratically persuade people has not been doing that well lately—but I would have to try.

What I suspect does little but preach to the already secular choir is the standard approach that Russell Blackford illustrates. I find it significant that his contrast to secularism is theocracy, or at least letting religious concerns dictate laws and public policy. Those, after all, are the enemies our political tradition has been shaped in fighting: Catholic interference, formally and informally established religions. But when we continually bring up theocracy as the outcome to avoid, we secularists open ourselves to the accusation of a lack of imagination, or even worse: that we do not understand the multicultural alternative to secularism that is the probable background to remarks such as those made by Bouma.

I haven’t run into anyone who advocates a multicultural social order or insists on respecting various religions in a multicultural context who also defends theocracy. That would be imposing one communitys standards on another. For similar reasons, multiculturalists do not support universal application of sectarian laws. There are parts of the world where theocracy is a live political issue, such in those many Muslim countries where aspirations to living by Islamic law commands an overwhelming public consensus, often expressed democratically. But that’s not Bouma’s Australia, where social thinkers are more likely to be worried about keeping the peace in the absence of consensus about religious matters.

There is still a quasi-theocratic possibility to worry about: conservatives of many religions uniting in defense of a patriarchal, hierarchical social order. This is an important feature of politics in countries such as the United States. Conservative Catholics, for example, will both work from the top, through political elites, to gain privileges for their religion, and also ally with conservative evangelicals (and Jews and Muslims etc.) to promote a “family values” agenda. Such “theoconservatism” enjoys considerable success. It is also much more ecumenical and populist in character than secular liberals like to imagine.

But multiculturalists, though friendly to religion and community, are not theoconservatives. They are usually very supportive of identity groups such as homosexuals, and therefore are allied with secular liberals in supporting gay rights. I see nothing from their quarters that would favor any particular religion, or even the conservative factions of all traditional religions. Indeed, they can claim to be better than secularists in supporting a distinctly liberal ideal: preventing the state from favoring any religious group. Many secular liberals such as myself prefer a politics of sexual liberty. But why have governmental institutions, including marriage and so forth, support individualist ways of life? Why not favor traditional Abrahamic homophobia, which seems to be a vital component of an ideology bolstering a strong and successful patriarchal family model? A multicultural approach would, I expect, not try to pick either side, as it does not favor Christians over Muslims, for example, by insisting that only monogamous rather than polygynous marriage should be recognized.

How, then, would multicultural laws work? We do have proposals to this effect, and they come down to communities having a good deal of autonomy in regulating their own affairs. Not just multiculturalists but other kinds of conservatives (I consider multiculturalism a variety of conservatism) can praise this idea, as it contrasts with the liberal model of the all-interfering state which is the single authority people face. The state still takes charge of the realm of law necessary to regulate interactions between communities, and perhaps unattached individuals. It negotiates laws appropriate to property and commerce that affect all, and also deals with violence between members of different communities. But it leaves the internal affairs of communities alone. Particularly areas such as family law become the domain of quasi-autonomous communities. After all, if devout Muslims feel that the ability to communally follow sharia law is essential for them to live their religious commitments properly, well, why not? Why interfere? This is not theocracy—Christians, Buddhists, or even secularists can live according to their own law regulating their interactions within their own communities. You could never get a theocracy acceptable to all communities; multiculturalists (and most traditional Muslims, I should add) don’t propose to try.

Unlike liberals, multiculturalists recognize the communities that people tend to cluster in. But communities are fluid, with internal dissent and uncertain boundaries. But this is not the only fluid reality political regimes have to deal with, sometimes in a Procrustean manner. Groups are real, they shape and serve their members’ interests, and it is only practical to arrange state institutions to recognize this reality. Now, there are all sorts of practical questions that arise. How, for example, do we propose to keep communities from oppressing some of their members lower in their internal hierarchies? To some extent, this will happen, and there might not be much to do except shrug and say some oxes are always gored under any political order. Still, especially since massive oppression itself can threaten the peace, we would need institutional arrangements to help ease such problems. A multicultural society will need exit procedures, to handle situations such as a Muslim woman attempting to escape her community by converting to Christianity. But all of these, presumably, would be organically worked out through the give-and-take of politics, rather than liberal political philosophers handing down abstract concepts of rights and justice. We will end up with a multilayered structure of laws and coercive authorities, often in competition with one another, instead of the unencumbered individuals (or those coerced to act as individuals) imagined by secular liberalism interacting directly with a state apparatus.

Again, details can be interesting to discuss. But since this would largely involve conservatives of one stripe or another talking among themselves, it’s not my conversation. What I want to emphasize is that none of this is theocracy. None of this need even favor religion per se, except that religion happens to be one of the more prominent devices our species uses to handle community.

Controversy is not the issue

Now for some more specific matters.

Blackford points out that any controversy can be divisive, but it is also an unavoidable feature of any political process of negotiation, particularly one that calls itself democratic. True; I should have been clearer. The fact of controversy alone has very little to do with why I imagine that prominent criticism of religion in the mass media can be genuinely disruptive.

Multiculturalists, to my knowledge, do not particularly fear controversy and robust disagreement. But debate, if it is to be politically productive, cannot be a free-for-all. And it cannot ignore the social context. In a multicultural environment where it is important for groups to maintain respect as a precondition of being legitimate and effective political participants, speech that is perceived as disrespectful will be problematic. It would imply that a certain group is less competent to participate, directly challenging the interests of their members. Speech that seems a mere exercise of individual liberty to a liberal secularist can easily be seen as unhelpful as best, the equivalent of speech inciting violence at worst.

Still, focusing on the strongest extreme here will be misleading. I don’t see many multiculturalists calling for the thought police, even with some of the ridiculous campus speech codes. Discouragement of religious criticism can come in many forms, few of them as heavy-handed as outlawing it. Social ostracism, generally agreed-upon forms of etiquette, and informally restricting the venues for offensive views will mostly do the job. Think about the reception of Richard Dawkins in the mass media. Most of the responses he draws are insults, statements that the “new atheists” are obviously vulgar, boorish, and in bad taste. Substance is irrelevant here; the whole point is to reinforce a climate where disrespectful views are automatically discounted. In a more religion-friendly multicultural politics, secularist organizations would be considered to be composed of fringe cranks (as explicit nonbelievers’ groups already are, in the US). In universities, outspoken critics of religion would have to take the floor realizing that they would be going against the multicultural mission of the institution, and that they shouldn’t be expecting too many awards or good committee assignments.

And so on and so forth. The object is to disincentivize speech that is not respectful of religious communities. Passing laws are not necessarily the best tools to achieve such an objective.

Whig history

Secular liberals like to think that our preferred social order is supported by historical experience. So Blackford also gives some of the standard potted history. Thing is, the selective, airbrushed secularist version of history is not necessarily something that would impress too many professional historians.

Now, much of the standard secularist historical narrative about the evils of sectarian conflict are irrelevant in the context of multiculturalism. Multiculturalists are not theocrats. They’re not universalists; the general application of religiously inspired laws is not something they have to answer for.

I expect a multiculturalist might say that yes, perhaps Prohibition was a bad idea, as is the idiot War on Drugs. But they might also add that if a Muslim wants to ban alcohol, that is also fine. Let Muslims have the ability to stop liquor stores from appearing in their neighborhoods. Why interfere with their desire to achieve a local environment that helps them live according to their deepest commitments? It doesn’t stop Christians from serving wine at communion, or secularists from getting blind drunk at their own parties, in their own neighborhoods. Again, we should not envision a universal law expect in a stripped-down sense of regulating inter-communal interactions. Think of a social and legal environment fractured into semi-autonomous communities, who largely police their own affairs.

But again, the deeper problem here is the Whig history that excises secularist violence and coercion from history. I enjoy my secular way of life partly due to the violent break-up of the Catholic social order in England, anti-clerical state coercion in France, and an elite-imposed cultural revolution in Turkey. My Enlightenment rationalism has plenty of blood on its hands.

Even now, there is no shortage of conservative religious people who feel oppressed because a secular social order interferes with their ability to fully live their religious lives as a community rather than as part of an impotent private association. And pragmatic modern states act to minimize this sense of oppression. They accommodate communities. In the US, ethnic and religious communities are accommodated all the time, whether through the discretion of police authorities to not enforce laws in Chinatown or examples like explicitly allowing Amish children to leave school at an early age. One law for all is already something of a fiction. And yes, we should get used to the idea of Muslim immigrant communities being allowed to enforce Islamic law within their own domain.

 

This can go on longer, but I should pause. Russell Blackford has more to say, and I imagine I will as well.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17147041500935722468 Talismancer

    Sorry Taner, I only got as far as this: (and then read the rest)

    "the genuine disadvantages and occasional suffering a secular liberal order inflicts on significant numbers of religious people."

    You ask us to accept that different religious communities should be able to live under their own rules within their own communities. Unfortunately religions are not content with that. They will continue to conflict with each other until the others are fully wiped out and then force theocracy. Most refugees aim to flee their own societies toward those where the excesses of religion are curbed.

    The only "suffering" inflicted is on the rights of religious leaders to ignore human rights.

    You mistake the fact that we have spokespersons from 17thC societies proliferating in 21stC societies as inferring that the new society is somehow "unfashionable". Just stand at immigration for a while and ask if they think our society is less fashionable than the one they are leaving…

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

    Talismancer: "Unfortunately religions are not content with that. They will continue to conflict with each other until the others are fully wiped out and then force theocracy."

    Maybe.

    Have you ever run into religious people who accuse all nonbelievers of wanting to forcibly eradicate religion, to establish a world communist dictatorship (or whatever the current paranoia is)?

    If so, does it bother you?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01038312556912179499 DEEN

    "Have you ever run into religious people who accuse all nonbelievers of wanting to forcibly eradicate religion, to establish a world communist dictatorship (or whatever the current paranoia is)?

    If so, does it bother you?"

    The difference is that I can't think of any secular group who would advocate such a course of action. On the other hand, I know of many groups who openly advocate for establishing biblical law.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04125006513512601904 Greywizard

    You really must be joking….

    Theocracy is the issue. Religious "communities", as you call them, are not communities. They are highly diverse groups of people. Permit them to live under their "rules" (=laws) and you end up with the kind of situation you find in Malaysia, where Islamic law applies to Muslims generally, whether they agree or not, where women are caned for offences like drinking beer.

    And religious "communities" are not content to be impotent, as you call it. They want more. They always do. And they will want more even under the terms of your proposal. They want their "rules" to be laws for others. Roman Catholics, for example, are not content simply to live by the "rule" that forbids abortion for Catholics; they want a law which applies to everyone. You can't insulate "communities" from each other in the way that you suggest. And supposing that different "communities" – governed by their own laws – can live side by side without friction, serious friction, is a dream. And if you think that it is possible to isolate communities and their rules in this way from the flow of the society as a whole, then you have to explain how it's going to be done so that injustices are not done.

    Take the Amish kids for example. Sure, Yoder agreed to allow the Amish to withdraw their kids from school after Grade 8. This was badly decided. The kids have rights too, and they were ignored. Women have rights, whether their "communities" recognise them or not. Gay people have rights, whether their religious "communities" agree that that they do or not.

    And Muslim "communities" will not be content to see Sharia confined just to Muslims, not in the long run. The whole structure of Islam is based on the assumption that Mohammed was the last prophet with a general revelation for all mankind, and that he had spelled out God's last will for everyone, not just for Muslims. Sharia, confined to Muslims, will soon be extended to others, and even the rights of Muslims themselves will be abridged by any such establishment of Muslim law for Muslims. They could only escape the application of law by apostacising, and this is against Muslim law!

    It's all very nice to say that this is the kind of debate you enjoy, and that you hope that Russell Blackford is right. It's a completely different thing to propose ways in which the kind of social organisation that you suggest can be put in place without offending against human rights. When you have done that, showed that there is good reason to allow different laws to apply to different people in society based solely on their religious choices, then there will be a debate. Until you have done that all you are providng at the moment is an annoyance, at the same time that you pillory those who are very concerned about the gradual erosion of rights that is now taking place under the influence of religious claims in the public sphere. Get your ducks in order, and then we can have a debate. So far, you haven't given one good reason why we should not continue to operate so far as possible according to Mills' harm principle.

    One of your primary concerns seems to be that of civility, but it seems that you want to uphold that by abridging the right to free speech, and then no one will have debates. The society you are proposing would be a nightmare. Give us some reason to believe that your proposals could carried out in such a way as to preserve human rights for all, and then we'll have a debate. So far, what you have written is mainly noise, not acceptable as political theory.

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

    "How, then, would multicultural laws work? We do have proposals to this effect, and they come down to communities having a good deal of autonomy in regulating their own affairs."

    But there again, as I argue at my place – that treats 'communities' as if they were people. 'Communities' don't have affairs; people do, one at a time. The affairs of one person may be different from those of another person, and it just isn't safe to assume that 'communities' as such treat all their members equally. We know that some 'communities' don't treat all their members equally, and that that's why it's dangerous to give communities certain kinds of autonomy.

    "But [the state] leaves the internal affairs of communities alone. Particularly areas such as family law become the domain of quasi-autonomous communities. After all, if devout Muslims feel that the ability to communally follow sharia law is essential for them to live their religious commitments properly, well, why not? Why interfere?"

    Because 'devout Muslims' aren't identical to one another, and because one cannot assume that putative 'Muslim communities' contain only 'devout Muslims,' and because even devout Muslims don't necessarily agree about what it means to 'communally follow sharia law.' Isn't this obvious? Consider a teenage daughter who wants to refuse a marriage for instance – the community's autonomy to regulate its own affairs is not in her interest!

    "This is not theocracy—Christians, Buddhists, or even secularists can live according to their own law regulating their interactions within their own communities."

    No they can't! What planet are you describing?

    "Groups are real, they shape and serve their members' interests, and it is only practical to arrange state institutions to recognize this reality. Now, there are all sorts of practical questions that arise. How, for example, do we propose to keep communities from oppressing some of their members lower in their internal hierarchies? To some extent, this will happen, and there might not be much to do except shrug and say some oxes are always gored under any political order."

    Uh…Forget that. I refuse to shrug.

    (I wrote this while Gray Wizard was posting – there's probably some overlap.)

    Ophelia Benson

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05693985638589020492 Mark

    Greywizard, maybe I'm misreading you, but you seem to be under the impression that Taner is actually advocating legal accomodationism for separate religious communities. He very explicitly denies this early on in his post: "I'm not proposing that any political entity should move further in the direction of a multicultural, ethnoreligious group-oriented social order." He's asking instead whether, contra the received wisdom of Western secularists, some form of multicultural accomodationism may be the optimal way to promote public happiness/harmony in some societies while still respecting the individual autonomy that liberals are so enamored of. This is not to ask whether such a system would be the most just way of arranging things. That's a different question which, for Taner, seems to have a different answer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00077569413983513298 mace

    Taner Edis,

    "…we should get used to the idea of Muslim immigrant communities being allowed to enforce the law in their own domain" How can Moslems or any religious/ethnic group have "domininion" over any part of a secular state or society,and what's the fate of infidels within this "domain"? Classical civilization dissolved through such a process.
    You seem to be advocating constant accommodation to petty tribal demands.The observation that there are anomalies in the principle of "one law for all" in modern democrarcies doesn't justify its gradual abandonment.

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

    Ophelia Benson: "'Communities' don't have affairs; people do, one at a time."

    I find it perfectly sensible to talk about the interests of a corporation, the affairs of a university, or the internal rules of a bridge club. And so with communities. There might be an interesting debate about whether all of this merely resolves into an aggregate of individual interests, but I don't think that matters much in this context.

    "The affairs of one person may be different from those of another person, and it just isn't safe to assume that 'communities' as such treat all their members equally. We know that some 'communities' don't treat all their members equally"

    Of course not. That sort of "equality" and an insistence on the rights of unencumbered persons is a liberal preoccupation. It cuts no ice with nonliberals. Tell me something that doesn't preach to the choir.

    While I'm at it, no social order treats everyone equally. They perhaps try to ignore morally irrelevant differences in their treatment of people, but that leaves a lot room for radical disagreements about what is morally relevant. A conservative Muslim way well think that, say, a woman's natural and God-given role obligates considerations like male guardianship. You and I will have no easier time convincing her that she is wrong about that than that her God is a fictional character.

    "Because 'devout Muslims' aren't identical to one another, and because one cannot assume that putative 'Muslim communities' contain only 'devout Muslims,' and because even devout Muslims don't necessarily agree about what it means to 'communally follow sharia law.' Isn't this obvious? Consider a teenage daughter who wants to refuse a marriage for instance – the community's autonomy to regulate its own affairs is not in her interest!."

    You're again arguing as if liberal, individualist assumptions are shared by everybody in the broader political debate.

    Even so, yes, community interests and individual interests can conflict. They often do. So do the interests of individuals, different groups, etc. etc. That's why we have politics. A liberal approach here just privileges certain types of interest over others. It isn't some neutral standpoint.

    While I'm at it, just because a liberal order where individual interests trump group interests is not the only one imaginable, does not mean the alternative is one where pre-established group interests trump individual aspirations. There's plenty of gray area we can explore here.

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

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07650180659001228746 Athena Andreadis

    "How, for example, do we propose to keep communities from oppressing some of their members lower in their internal hierarchies? To some extent, this will happen, and there might not be much to do except shrug and say some oxes are always gored under any political order."

    I wrote an essay about someone else on a related issue, but it fits here very well. Below is an excerpt and the link:

    "This, friends, is the epitome of swallowing camels and dissecting gnats. // Perhaps Dr. [X]’s olympian armchair philosophizing would benefit if he lived for a month or two in Afghanistan — in a burqa."

    Camels, Gnats and Shallow Graves

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

    While I'm at it, just because a liberal order where individual interests trump group interests is not the only one imaginable, does not mean the alternative is one where pre-established group interests trump individual aspirations. There's plenty of gray area we can explore here.

    OK, here's the scenario:

    A female member of a community — married to another member of that community — is raped. According to the community's mores, she should be stoned to death as punishment for allowing such a thing. Since the rape was committed against her will, she disagrees that she has done anything that she should be punished for.

    Where's the gray area?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15769134131308964105 rjw

    This is a fairly insane set of claims.

    The description of multiculturalism you give is indistinguishable from a set of cohabiting theocracies, with an improbably powerful secular governent limiting them.

    In this system, how does an individual leave their mini dictatorship? Do they have the right to do so? When? Can they leave at the point they have been caught drinking a beer? Does an individual have any rights once the "state" has assigned them to a feudal overlord?

    How does this lovely state actually maintain power? This seems like a teetering power structure just waiting to collapse. How on earth does the state maintain its existence in the teeth of the largest mini theocracy (or a coalition of like minded ones)?

    Could you please refrain from answering this with something along the lines of :
    "Well, of course, all of us clever liberal secularists can see that, but that cuts no mustard with those idiotic multiculturalists/non liberals/religionists! Therefore, its an invalid argument". Giving up the ability to even use reason or basic principles such as the rights of the individual as a means of argument at the beginning of a discussion gets us absolutely nowhere.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04875049769507596353 Emily

    You're right, Taner, liberalism isn't "neutral." That's part of what is good about it. Why be neutral on issues of injustice? Just because some people have twisted ideas of justice due to religious brainwashing, doesn't mean we should sit back and say "Sure, OK, whatever floats your boat." My liberalism is combative, and I have no problem with that.

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

    "That sort of "equality" and an insistence on the rights of unencumbered persons is a liberal preoccupation. It cuts no ice with nonliberals. Tell me something that doesn't preach to the choir."

    Why? I prefer the choir to the anti-choir – and I can cite reasons. Yes they are liberal reasons, and I think those reasons are better.

    One has to pick some choir, after all, and I pick that one.

    Ophelia Benson

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17421420520561905420 YamaZaru

    Liberal, individualist ethics may well not be shared by everyone in the debate. By the same token the communitarian ethics you are advocating, one which doesn't even have any provisions for making sure that members of a community have any input on their fate, is not shared by everyone. You don't want liberal ways “forced” upon anyone, but instead are consigning many of the members of these subgroups to having ways they didn't choose “forced” upon them.

    Actually, not “many” but MOST of your proposed pomo multicultural society will fall into the category of those whose lifechoices will be imposed upon them without their input, since judging by the history and epistemological nature of religion these religious subgroups won't exactly be participatory democracies!

    Besides, it's under social liberalism that people already have the right to form voluntary communities, in which they can have decisions made for them by some religious leader. All that is being argued against there is the right to impose one's ways arbitrarily on others and I don't think this is something that you would really be willing to argue for, is it?? Can you really be advocating that slavery and oppression should be allowed within separate enclaves?? If you want anything worked out “in the organic give and take of politics” then you'd have to advocate full radical democratic participation within these subgroups, otherwise your “organic” process is just concealing powerful rulers within each community institutionally enshrining their own benefits.

    On disincentivizing speech that offends the religious, I think you're wrong to somehow put the burden of responsibility on the side of the outspoken atheist. If criticizing a religion is “dangerous” or “the equivalent of speech inciting violence” that is the fault of the religious themselves- to say otherwise paralyzes any ability to have meaningful public discussions. This would be an unavoidable problem even in the pomo multicult society: when member of religious subgroup X advocates social policy Y on the basis that his holy writ says that it must be so, how are the other subgroups (or any members of society not already members of his religion) to possibly evaluate or address his claim?? To do so honestly would be to “offend” the member, yet this questioning is essential to find out if his claims have any force. This problem might even be worse under your scenario since group representatives would no longer be used to having to give logical or evidence based argument in favor of the policies they advocate, having had free rule to impose religious-based rules within their little fiefdoms.

    And rest assured these sorts of problem would arise; only an iron-handed government ruling over and above the subgroups would be able to keep these policy disagreements between subgroups from arising since most religions have explicit doctrinal commitments to spread their faith/stamp out “evil” practices etc. Besides, the demands of modern, globalized capitalism would force all these issues to the surface; the way goods are produced/traded across the world is too ingrained and widespread to allow communities to slide back into the isolation required to keep conflict from arising.

    Even at best we'd end up with various religious grouplet leaders agreeing not to criticize each other, share power amongst each other and kill any atheists that upset their power-sharing applecart. All the disadvantages of Locke's early tolerance liberalism and none of the benefits.

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

    Ophelia Benson: "One has to pick some choir, after all, and I pick that one."

    In pluralistic societies, you might find it useful to reach beyond the choir. You might, for example, explore if you can find areas of agreement that draws on reasons internal to other points of view, such as theological traditions. Sometimes it works.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04125006513512601904 Greywizard

    In response to Ophelia, Taner, you say: "In pluralistic societies, you might find it useful to reach beyond the choir. You might, for example, explore if you can find areas of agreement that draws on reasons internal to other points of view, such as theological traditions. Sometimes it works."

    Sure, we might, but why? What reason would there be to seek agreement from, say, theological traditions? So, we find some overlap between some theological traditions, and what the least harm principle would dictate. So, now what? We could use this, perhaps, to encourage those of that tradition to observe that particular requirement or prohibition, but since theological traditions are, by their very nature, ungrounded – you prove to me that anything prescribed by a religion has an adequate epistemic ground – the only thing this would accomplish is to help followers of that tradition in this particular case, to follow the least harm principle. But religious traditions require much more than this, and they will go on making their demands on their own followers as well as on others, whether or not we can find this kind of overlap. Just watch it happening now in the US over women's reproductive rights. This is simply bizarre reasoning. What you are effectively prescribing is Hobbes' state of nature. As I say, come up with a reasonable proposal, and then see. But until then, this is just noise.

    And notice, this has nothing to do with 'pluralistic' societies. A pluralistic society is one in which what counts is individuals and their diversity, not groups. In a society that privileges groups, we no longer have a pluralistic society, we have a divided one, in which individual rights come dead last.

    In response to Mark, who says: "Taner is [not] actually advocating legal accomodationism for separate religious communities," and then goes on to say that "He's asking instead whether, contra the received wisdom of Western secularists, some form of multicultural accomodationism may be the optimal way to promote public happiness/harmony in some societies while still respecting the individual autonomy that liberals are so enamored of." Liberals are enamoured of individual autonomy, because this is the only known way to recognise and protect individual rights from the encroachment of cultural hegemony, and aside from vague and apparently contradictory proposals – put your two statements side by side – Taner has yet to provide some description of the kind of thing he would like to see. Since religious and religious/cultural traditions are totalising, accommodation with them is to give them a say in the lives of individuals based upon theological prescriptions. There's already too much interference by religious entities in the way we organise our common life. I want to see this reduced, not increased, which is simply a recipe for disaster. If Taner wants to be Dhimmi, or some equivalent in relation to some other religious entity, that's fine, but count me out.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08552459555883204060 WCG

    I wish you'd been more specific about the "genuine disadvantages and occasional suffering a secular liberal order inflicts on significant numbers of religious people."

    It inflicts "suffering" to leave religion up to each individual conscience? Just the reverse, in fact. Unless "suffering" just means knowing that not everyone agrees with you.

    Furthermore, you're just going to "shrug and say some oxes are always gored under any political order" when communities oppress their own members? How can you possibly justify that?

    You blithely say that societies would need "exit procedures" in the event of "massive oppression." That's kind of you, but I suspect that would be a lot harder than you expect. And what's wrong with just… individual freedom? Not just for you and me, but even for Muslims and Christians and everyone else?

    Note that no one will be forced to exercise that individual freedom. If you want to obey a leader, if you're willing to do everything you're told, that's always up to you. It's just that you can't be forced into it. Membership in any ethno-religious group must be strictly voluntary.

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

    In pluralistic societies, you might find it useful to reach beyond the choir. You might, for example, explore if you can find areas of agreement that draws on reasons internal to other points of view, such as theological traditions.

    Why "such as theological traditions"? Why not "such as moral intuitions" instead? Those too are "internal to other points of view," and they have the advantage of not having to refer or defer to imagined deities – they have the advantage of being genuinely (potentially) universalizable.

    Ophelia Benson

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

    YamaZaru:

    http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2010/03/more-on-multicultural-dystopias.html

    And if I'm ignoring other comments, I'm sorry. I also have some equations that need my attention.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05693985638589020492 Mark

    Taner has yet to provide some description of the kind of thing he would like to see.

    Once again, he didn't say he wanted to see any accommodation (going so far as to label such a thing dystopian). But I imagine it would have to look something like a series of legal exceptions designed around enabling religious groups to maintain their shared identity in the face of withering cultural and demographic forces, and to prevent resentment borne by collective disenfranchisement from setting in. For example, Chinese Muslims and certain other Chinese minorities are exempt from the one-child policy. If this weren't the case, these groups would feel the Han majority was threatening them with total erasure. That could very well exacerbate some of the already dire tensions (witness the conflicts in Xinjiang) beyond all control. We could argue about whether this system is unjust, but it doesn't involve any flagrant human rights violations à la letting religious minorities execute apostates. (That kind of legal exception would be anathema even to the multiculturalist.) And maybe the injustice, if there indeed is any, is worth the cost of social harmony.

    It's also important to remember where this hypothetical multiculturalist is supposed to be coming from. He feels disillusioned with past liberal attempts to prove that their conception of justice is the One True Conception from first principles. Instead, society presents him with a farrago of competing and inconsistent conceptions of justice, none of which has any more objective license than any other. Therefore, politics is less about realizing the objectively best system of rights and more about making compromises in order to bring about shared values like peace. Perhaps one of the reasons Taner is less unimpressed by the multiculturalist than you is that he already agrees in part with this relativity thesis. Since you apparently don't, some of your disagreement with each other probably falls outside the bounds of this specific discussion.

    But of course the point of this stuff isn't to argue that the multiculturalist is actually right about his conclusions. Quite the opposite. It's to set ourselves (we liberals who don't favor accommodationism) up against our proper opponents rather than pretending the only alternative proposal on the table is unilateral theocracy.

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

    Once again, he didn't say he wanted to see any accommodation (going so far as to label such a thing dystopian).

    But he also said

    How, then, would multicultural laws work? We do have proposals to this effect, and they come down to communities having a good deal of autonomy in regulating their own affairs.

    It's certainly not obvious that he's ruled out 'any accommodation.'

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05693985638589020492 Mark

    Huh? All he said there was that there are existing models for multicultural systems. Not that he approves of those systems or wants to see them reproduced to solve problems X or Y.

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

    Ophelia Benson: "Why "such as theological traditions"? Why not "such as moral intuitions" instead? Those too are "internal to other points of view," and they have the advantage of not having to refer or defer to imagined deities – they have the advantage of being genuinely (potentially) universalizable."

    Well, we are talking about those religious believers who refuse to separate theology and morality. They might come to agree with you and me on certain matters of common interest, but their reasons will be explicitly theological reasons. They won't arrive there by bracketing off their supernatural commitments and adopting a secular moral language. They can't do this any more than you and I would feel comfortable using God-talk.

    Say you're negotiating with conservative, community-embedded Muslims over freedom of conscience. I don't expect you'd get far by asking them to leave God out of it. But you might find some common ground with those Muslims who emphasize those parts of their theological tradition that insist that faith and moral behavior has true merit only if a person is freely convinced of the truth of Revelation. They may then agree that for a meritorious choice to be made, the temptations of non-Islamic options should genuinely be available.

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

    Ophelia Benson: "It's certainly not obvious that he's ruled out 'any accommodation.'

    I'm of two minds about this.

    Often, I react to proposals of accommodating communities as a dangerous erosion of liberal principles I am generally happy with. (Where does it end?)

    But I'm also tempted to say to hell with it, it's not worth fighting over this, if the devout want so much to do their own thing, who am I to stop them?

    My intuitions are, in other words, a complicated mess. Which is one reason that I'd like to do better than just an intuition-consulting enterprise.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07650180659001228746 Athena Andreadis

    Taner Edis:

    "But I'm also tempted to say to hell with it, it's not worth fighting over this, if the devout want so much to do their own thing, who am I to stop them?"

    So widow burnings, foot binding and genital mutilations are ok with you, I take it. To say nothing of honor killings, with the recent example of Edine Memi buried alive for "talking with boys" against the comfort zone of her community.


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