“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.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University