A global examination of church and state
Taming the gods: religion and democracy on three continents, by Ian Buruma, Princeton University Press, 2010. $19.95, 132 pp.
In his new book Taming the Gods, British-Dutch writer Ian Buruma recalls the outrage and death threats that greeted the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The incident united British intellectuals, Buruma writes, leading “many multiculturalists, anti-racists, and pro-Third Worldists to join conservatives in their stand against Islam.” Since the 9/11 attacks, however, debates about Islam in Europe have been vigorous, and accusations of appeasement and xenophobia have flown back and forth.
Taming the Gods seeks to offer a reasoned discussion of the proper relationship between religion and politics. Buruma approaches this perennially vexing problem with a unique blend of political theory and history, spanning Europe, Asia, and North America. While the novelty of his approach yields fresh historical perspective and some insight on European Islam, it does not offer a truly unique contribution to the larger church-state debate. Instead, Buruma advances the standard liberal line that the passions of religion must be “tamed” and all citizens must follow the rules of democracy, without offering concrete solutions for applying this framework.
Buruma begins with a crash course on the Western problem of church-state relations. While his summary of classical thinkers like Hume, Spinoza, and Rousseau occasionally becomes textbook-like, he offers fascinating connections between those writers and the historical development of democracy. For example, he says that Tocqueville’s idea that “unbelievers attacked the Church more as a political rather than religious enemy” explains both the persecution of Catholics in revolutionary France and their marginalization in 19th century America.
Buruma argues counter-intuitively that modern-day Europe and America are not as different as American critics of godless Europe and European detractors of American zealotry hold. He finds that every European country has a distinctive way of balancing religion and secular government, and that the United States is a variation on, not a departure from, this theme. The religious-fundamentalist elements in America, he points out, historically have supported democracy more strongly than similar factions have in France or Germany.
Buruma then turns to the East and examines China and Japan, disputing “the notion that only monotheistic religions pose problems for secular politics.” Confucian thought, though it contains the oldest formulation of the right of rebellion against unjust authority, has strong themes of obedience that have been manipulated by leaders like Mao to thwart democratic movements.
In Japan, State Shinto suppressed secularizing trends in the 19th century. The divine authority of the emperor ruled out the possibility of democracy until after World War II. While Buruma shows that the issue of political and religious authority is not a uniquely Western problem, the lesson he draws is not particularly earth-shattering: government and religion often make a dangerous combination.
Buruma’s central argument is clearest when he criticizes those frequent warnings about how Islam is a threat to European society. He lines up with other liberals in that he condemns Islamophobia and argues that the emergence of a democratic European Islam is possible. But he also warns of the great danger posed by the refusal of Islamic fundamentalists to recognize the legitimacy of the secular European states in which they live. This problem creates the necessity of “taming the gods,” or reigning in religious extremism.
Distancing himself from conservatives, Buruma points out that this cause will be hindered, not helped, by xenophobic and exclusionary reactions against Muslims. He argues that liberal tolerance must extend even to illiberal doctrines and practices, as long as they are pursued peacefully. Liberalism for Buruma is not a way of life but a mediator between different ways of life, not all of which need to be perfectly liberal or modern.
Buruma’s recommendation for the future is simple, perhaps too simple. Maintaining a liberal society that includes illiberal citizens is more easily said than done. Buruma’s work admirably rejects the reprehensible extremes of theocracy and xenophobia. But his elegant writing hides a dearth of real proposals for some of the thorniest issues, such as how to assimilate Europe’s swelling Muslim population and how to incorporate religious viewpoints into public debate without violating the spirit of secularism. Ultimately, in spite of its vagueness when it comes to practical solutions, the strength of Buruma’s book lies in his call to tame not only religious extremism, but extremist reactions against extremism as well.
Casey Thomson ‘13 is a Staff Writer.
Photo Credit: Flickr (Fabbio)