Democracy's Faith-Based Troubles

Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents by Ian Buruma, Princeton University Press, 144 pages, $19.95

Three years ago, Ian Buruma published Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerence, an analysis of the shocking public slaying by an Islamist extremist of a Dutch filmmaker who, working with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, self-declared atheist and fugitive from Islam, had provocatively attacked Muslim attitudes toward women. The book stirred more than a little controversy, partly because Buruma suggested that the truth about Muslim immigration to Europe and jihadi violence was more complicated than many people, on both the right and left, thought.

Those issues continue to loom in the background of Taming the Gods. But now Buruma has pulled back his camera and panned across three continents, centuries of history, and a wide range of questions about religion and democracy.

Few writers are better equipped to do this. Born in the Netherlands to a Dutch father and English mother, Buruma has lived in Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, Berlin, Washington, Budapest, Oxford, and since 2005, New York. His books, melding culture, politics, and history, have focused on China, Japan, Germany, and contemporary Europe.

Buruma's cosmopolitan and historical perspective and his sense of complexity distinguish Taming the Gods from much other writing on religion and politics.

Make no mistake, when it comes to jihadi violence, Buruma is perfectly uncomplicated: The "holy warriors," he writes, "must be taken seriously as a security threat. Their networks should be monitored, infiltrated, and crushed."

But from that specific danger what should follow about European receptiveness or resistance to Islam's growing presence? And what, to go further, is the role of religion generally in either supporting or undermining liberal democracy? Indeed, what does it take to hold such a democracy together, the question Buruma calls "the thread that runs through these inquiries"? Is a commitment to the rule of law self-sustaining or must it be nurtured or propped by something else, possibly including religion?

Nowhere does Buruma systematically set out his answers to this nest of questions, but they can be gleaned from the introduction and three essays that constitute this slim book. The first essay reproaches secular Europe for its patronizing attitudes toward American religiosity. In fact, Buruma finds, the gulf "is not as wide as might be presumed." On either side of the Atlantic, "similar fears haunt anxious minds."

The second essay begins with Westerners' idealization of the "secular" Confucian heritage in China's politics and with the pride Japanese have in their nation's current low-voltage, apparently apolitical religion. Buruma counters with vivid reminders of anti-Confucian strands in China, including the millenarian Taiping Rebellion that left 30 million dead in the mid-19th century, and of the rise and fall of state Shinto and emperor worship in 20th-century Japan.

The third essay examines the debate in Europe about the threat Islam poses to liberal democracy and Enlightenment values. Buruma focuses on the polarized reactions to three iconic figures in that debate: Hirsi Ali, Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, and Tariq Ramadan, a charismatic exponent of democratic engagement by European Muslims who is accused of surreptitiously promoting Islamic theocracy.

Buruma starts from a secular stance: "Not having had either the benefits -- or miseries -- of a religious upbringing ... I cannot write as a partisan of any faith," he says. "I am not a militant atheist but duck behind the safe screen of agnosticism when challenged." At the same time, he does not think that "religious faith, the desire for metaphysical answers to questions that cannot be rationally answered, the need for and delight in mystical ritual and spiritual speculation, will go away. Nor am I persuaded that they should."

His bottom line is that "religious authority and secular rule" must be kept apart, but he recognizes that this, like so much else, is complicated. In the name of freeing government from religious interference, rulers from Robespierre to Mao have frequently set up the state or themselves as quasi-religious powers.

Buruma has little sympathy for laicité, the French version of secularism that understands state neutrality as barring religious expression from public space, as in the law that prohibits Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in public schools. Nor does he think much of the French tradition of officially recognizing certain religious leaders as presumably moderate intermediaries between their faithful and the government: "A democratic state has no business being an arbiter in theological affairs."

The crucial thing is simply that citizens observe the law and "the basic rules of democratic society" -- free speech and expression, free elections, independent judiciaries. Buruma disagrees with those conservatives insisting that this social commitment to the rules of democracy will collapse without a renewed sense of the continent's religious heritage -- and also with their counterparts on the left calling for a cultural immersion in one form or another of "Enlightenment values." (Buruma is mischievous enough to remind readers that "the Enlightenment consisted of many things," the Marquis de Sade as well as Spinoza.)

Nor is he moved by those in China and Japan who look to the state to remedy a "spiritual vacuum" created by recent prosperity: "It is not the task of a liberal democratic state to provide answers to the deeper questions about life, let alone impose metaphysical beliefs on its citizens." Religious communities, whether of Muslims, Christians, Jews, or any other believers, should be able to "assert their own norms and beliefs in public," but they cannot be buffered from criticism by laws against blasphemy or any limits on speech not deliberately meant to incite violence or discrimination.

So far, so good. Buruma's minimalist approach is certainly more likely to serve democracy than panicked proposals for state-enforced conformity. But Taming the Gods does not really answer all its author's questions.

Buruma is surely right in claiming that religion "is not the only moral glue available to hold a society together," but does it follow that "shared values are not essential for a democracy to function, as long as citizens abide by the laws"? What if they obey the law and play by his barebones rules of the liberal democratic game only out of convenience or as an unavoidable evil? No, "there has to be a common view that those rules are not only just but worth defending." (To his procedural rules of free speech, free elections, and so on, many of us would add substantive rights to privacy, basic education, and equal treatment, among other things.) When he urges respect for religious sensibilities without recourse to the law, he appeals to the natural restraint of "people in civilized societies." Isn't he looking to something culturally "thicker" than merely obeying the law and following democratic procedures?

Likewise, despite his sound injunction against states ambitiously trying to answer the deeper questions of life or impose metaphysical beliefs, one of the inescapable dilemmas that liberal democracies face is deciding profound moral questions without imposing the tenets of one religion on all of society. When, if ever, is killing -- or torture -- justified to save lives or preserve society? Are all members of the species equally deserving of protection even at great burden to others? The disabled? The comatose? The unborn? At how great a burden to others? What sacrifices can be required of our children for the good of our great-great-grandchildren? For the good of nonhuman species? If these questions are not metaphysical, they are something very much like it.

Buruma's inattention to this dilemma reveals the major point at which his secular stance ill serves his sense of complexity. Throughout his book, he simply assumes a sharp dichotomy between religion (and the metaphysical) and the rational (and secular). On one side are divinely revealed mandates that admit of no interpretation, no complexity, no degrees of adherence, no correlation with other knowledge -- just absolute claim, however brutal or mystical, take it or leave it.

On the other, rational or secular, side are ... what? Buruma takes the terms for granted. It is hard to imagine that he equates them with what can be demonstrated mathematically or by scientific testing. That would exclude not only religion and metaphysics but some foundational principles of liberal democracy.

There are useful distinctions to be made between faith and reason, the religious and the secular, but Buruma's overly sharp dichotomy and loose wording does not do justice to the historical reality of either religion or reasoning. Moreover, it discourages rational debate about religion, not as an enterprise for the liberal democratic state (which Buruma wisely rejects) but as an undertaking by liberal democratic citizens, whether believers or nonbelievers. Will the gods really be tamed by being ignored or quarantined?

Of course, Taming the Gods is not a tightly wrought exercise in political philosophy or legal, let alone theological, analysis. Anyone searching for formulas to settle whether religious lobbies for or against federal abortion coverage are out of order, whether Switzerland's or Denmark's restrictive policies toward Muslims are justified, or even what France should finally do about headscarves, will be disappointed. Buruma's sensitivity to different cultures and histories militates against one-size-fits-all solutions.

Whatever Buruma's essays lack in system or precision of language they more than make up in concrete detail, historical perspective, and practical wisdom. His major target turns out not to be the irrationality of religion but the irrationality of the political and social debate, especially in Europe, surrounding religion. The word that sums up his concern in his concluding essay is "hysteria" -- not a god or goddess but more than anything else what his book is attempting to tame.