bookmark_borderA question of authority

I like this cartoon, from the creationist organization Answers in Genesis. It expresses a conservative religious concern about the source and authority of morality very well.

If there is no external, transcendent, supernatural, absolute, objective, (insert any other hardening adjectives you like) source of rules, then people are just making the rules up. And if so, what stops someone from adopting self-serving, community-exploiting “rules”?

It’s a good question. Nonbelievers have to spill a lot of ink trying to answer it. I don’t think we do a bad job of it—certainly not compared to the authoritarian nonsense a cartoon like this is actually defending. But the secular, humanistic ways we figure out how to regulate our lives together are also complicated, ambiguous, imperfect. They’re hard to put in a cartoon. Compared to the visceral appeal of God-given rules this cartoon expresses, the secular version has to labor against a intuitive disadvantage.

bookmark_borderThose immoral atheists

A Christian philosopher, James S. Spiegel, has a new book out, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief.

It’s getting some press in Christian circles. I don’t imagine it’ll get much attention elsewhere; its thesis seems transparently ridiculous. Atheism, apparently, is a manifestation of moral rebellion, the psychology of having a weak father, and immorality-induced blindness to overwhelming evidence for the reality of God and the truth of the Bible. In other words, the book doesn’t look like research so much as a description of what the world should look like if conservative Christian doctrines were correct.

I’ll try to take a proper look at the book if I run into it in a used book store or something. Still, it’s too bad someone doesn’t write a real book on the subject. It would be interesting to find out more about psychological dispositions toward nonbelief. And much atheist literature does, in fact, overemphasize moral disgruntlement with religion or the notion of God. But a “Christian philosopher” is probably not the right person to say anything useful about such things.

bookmark_borderThe Purposes of God

Whether a theist says “God created all living things” or “God created the universe” or “God raised Jesus from the dead” the point is to give a personal explanation for some facts (or alleged facts) as opposed to a physical or scientific explanation. When giving a personal explanation for some fact, information about motivations or purposes is obviously relevant evidence.

If we know that just one person committed the murder of a rich man, and if we know that it was either the butler or the maid who killed him, a good question to investigate would be, “Who had a strong motive for killing the rich man?” If the butler had a strong motive but the maid did not, that would make the butler the primary suspect. That would make it more probable that the butler committed the murder than that the maid did, other things being equal.

In addition to motive, there are also considerations of means and opportunity. If the rich man was shot to death, we could ask some other relevant questions: “Did the gun used in the killing belong to the butler or to the maid or to someone else? Did the butler have access to that gun? Did the maid have access to the gun? Are there fingerprints on the gun? If so, do those fingerprints match the fingerprints of the butler or the maid?”

Such evidence, however, is not relevant in the case of God. If God were to kill someone, God would not need a gun, even to kill someone by “shooting them to death”. God can create speeding bullets out of thin air by simply willing them into existence. If God did choose to use a gun to kill someone, God would not leave her fingerprints.

If God did leave fingerprints, it would not be prints from her own fingers, since God is a bodiless spirit who has no hands and no fingers. God has access to all guns and can create a gun of any kind instantaneously, fire the gun, and then instantly make the gun cease to exist. So, when it comes to God, means are irrelevant. God needs no means or tools to do something, and if God chooses to use some means or tools to achieve some end, God can instantly create and instantly destroy any means or tools she wishes to use.

In the case of the butler and the maid, we should ask, “Was he/she in the vicinity of the victim about the time that the murder was committed?” If the butler was ten miles away picking up dry cleaned clothes at the time of the murder, then the butler is off the hook. Such questions of opportunity don’t apply to God. God is, by definition, all-knowing and all-powerful, so God is, in effect, present at all places and all events. God, unlike finite human beings, always has opportunity in all times and at all places. God can bring about any logically possible event at any time or place God chooses.

Therefore, since means and opportunity are irrelevant in determining whether or not God performed some action, motive is of great significance in questions about what God did or did not do.

Did God raise Jesus from the dead? There appears to be a big hurdle to jump before this question can be answered: Did Jesus rise from the dead? As Dianelos points out, there are good reasons to doubt claims about events that involve violation of the laws of nature. If Jesus did rise from the dead, that would rule out naturalism, or would at least be a good reason for doubting naturalism. One could reasonably claim that the probability of Jesus rising from the dead given naturalism is a fairly low probability.

But as my refinement of Dianelos’ formulation of the logic of theistic arguments shows, there is a comparison being made between the relative merits of theism and naturalism:

r: Jesus rose from the dead.
t: Theism is true.
n: Naturalism is true.

1. P(r//t) = x
2. P(r//n) = y
3. x > y
4. r is true.
5. P(t) > P(n) …other things being equal.

Premise (2) means: The probability that Jesus rose from the dead given that naturalism is true is equal to y.

It seems reasonable to believe that y is going to be a fairly low probability. Naturalism is not very compatible with resurrections.

But in order for this argument to work, we need to show that the probability of this event is greater on the assumption that theism is true. Premise (1) means: The probability that Jesus rose from the dead given that theism is true is equal to x. The theist needs to establish that x is significantly larger than y for this argument to carry some weight.

I don’t see how one could establish this apart from establishing some theory about the likely motivations and purposes of God. If we don’t know what God’s motivations and purposes are (or what they would be if there were a God), how can we have any confidence that raising Jesus from the dead is the sort of thing that God might do? The mere fact that God (if she exists) had the power to raise Jesus from the dead does not show it to be at all likely that God would do so. I have the power to burn my own feet off with a blow torch, but it is very unlikely that I will chose to do so.

If my thinking about the logic of resurrection is correct, then the next question to consider is whether the alleged motivations and purposes of God are similarly critical to design arguments that infer the activity of God based on the existence and nature of the universe.

bookmark_borderSon of even more on multicultural dystopias

Time to wrap up.

Russell Blackford has his third response to me up. Looking at that, and going back to look at how all this started, I have to make some concessions.

I overcooked my interpretation of the Bouma-Blackford dispute, pressing it into use for my own agenda. I didn’t, and still don’t, know exactly what Bouma was getting at, and I didn’t give too much thought to the wider context of why Blackford responded as he did. I still maintain that someone who considers secular criticism of religious communities to be liable to cause social division is not necessarily driven by an arbitrary anti-secular animus. But by putting my own spin on a concrete situation of which I have inadequate knowledge, I didn’t get off on the right foot.

Blackford suggests that I should write a book. Actually, a book project is part of my hidden agenda. It’s not a dive into pure political philosophy—that really isn’t my thing. It departs more from my daily concerns about science, science education, religion, and politics. I need a good deal of political philosophy to give me a context for what I’ll be getting at. So yes, I’ve been doing some reading and banging my head against some ideas for the last few years, particularly trying to get a sympathetic understanding of viewpoints I ordinarily disagree with and move on. My views, as is probably obvious, have been shifting and being thrown into confusion in some respects. I expect they will change further. In any case, there are a few more years before I will feel comfortable putting together a book that will heavily depend on taking a political stance—assuming all this works out at all. (That’ll also depend on how much of a brick wall some equations I’m also banging my head against turn out to be.)

bookmark_borderEven more on multicultural dystopias

Some things that are, again, too long for the comments.


Some commenters think they have a knockdown argument by bringing up possible atrocities under a multicultural order. Slavery seems to be a popular example. I think this is a very weak response. Let me explain why.

In the US, opponents of gay marriage and other homosexual rights often argue that if homosexuality is granted legal status, this opens the door to all sorts of behaviors traditionally thought of as sexual perversions. Bestiality is a popular example, as is necrophilia. (As an Oklahoma senator recently put it, “Sexual orientation is a very vague word that could be extended to extremes like necrophilia.”) Many with religious right political convictions treat this as a knockdown argument exposing the absurdity of an anything-goes legal regime regarding sexuality. Where does it stop?

They’re not being entirely delusional. By giving legal recognition to one kind of sexual behavior once considered unthinkable, you do, even if ever so slightly, open the door to legitimizing other sexual behaviors beyond the pale. Moreover, quite a few conservatives suspect that the liberal philosophy behind extending recognition to homosexual unions cannot sustain a barrier to, say, necrophilia. They can imagine a horror story of a future, perhaps a few decades hence, where necrophilia is accepted since it only involves one consenting person and there can be no possible harm done to a dead body, after all. And indeed, once “perversions” become a matter of political negotiation rather than a complete taboo, no one can guarantee where the political process will lead. If preventing necrophilia is a matter of overwhelming concern for someone, dominating over all other interests, they probably will want to keep traditional morality and laws intact.

I think the proper response to such a conservative is to point out that they are letting their imagination run away with them. None of the actual proposals under discussion have any connection to necrophilia. There is no constituency demanding necrophilic rights. And if they think that liberal political thought has no resources to discourage necrophilia, they are speaking from a position of ignorance. Liberal thought may not deliver as absolutely thundering a condemnation of necrophiliac behavior as traditional religious morality, but for practical, legal purposes, there is no reason to think sanctioned necrophilia should be on anyone’s list of concerns.

Indeed, I think we can pretty clearly see that what the religious right politicians are doing here is moral posturing. I’m probably being too charitable even by trying to explore why they’re not being entirely delusional. Maybe US conservatives do have a case to make against recognizing homosexual partnerships. But worries about bestiality or necrophilia are not part of any case that deserves to be taken seriously.

I think that bringing up slavery when discussing multicultural proposals actually in play is similarly mistaken. Slavery is not on the table here. There is no slippery slope. Even religious traditions that have historically sanctioned slavery are now part of a consensus that slavery is not acceptable. (Let’s not blow a few Saudi clerics out of proportion.) They have, in fact, developed internal, theological reasons for their stand. Anyone who says that giving ethnic and religious communities recognition opens the door to slavery should take a deep breath, take a closer look at what the actual political debate is all about, and try to come back with something more substantial.


Many liberals seem quite convinced that their favored regime of individual rights approximately maximizes freedom, or at least does a clearly better job of providing freedom than its rivals.

Things are not so clear cut as that. Almost everyone agrees that freedom is a good thing, so it might seem that considerations of freedom are a promising basis for a universally acceptable political order. Why freedom should be the only consideration, or at least the overwhelmingly dominant consideration, is a good question. But let me go along with that modern assumption.

Even then, the problem is that what people mean by freedom can be quite different. There are different sorts of freedom. Some may be incommensurable. Some conflict. Speaking of increasing or maximizing freedom seems uncomfortably similar to talking about maximizing utility. Putting all “utilities” together and adding them on a common scale turns out to be unworkable. And so, perhaps, with freedom.

Even within the liberal tradition, we have competing notions of how to handle freedom. For example, libertarians emphasize self-ownership and freedom of contract. Any interference in market exchanges becomes coercion: a violation of freedom. But other liberals, who I am considerably more sympathetic to, take an approach where they try to improve everyone’s capabilities to make choices. This version of liberalism is in direct, and I think irreconcilable, conflict with a libertarian or neoliberal vision. There are other ideas about how to realize “freedom,” going further left in the liberal tradition. Putting all these together with right-wing libertarian concepts, it’s easy to think that even within the liberal tradition, there no single coherent, commanding idea of freedom.

And then, we can step outside liberal thought. For example, in many philosophical and religious traditions, there is the idea that freedom is not the same thing as power to do what you want. You can be as technically free as you like under just about every liberal version of freedom, but you’re not truly free as long as you’re the slave of your passions. Freedom comes through self-discipline and the cultivation of virtue, including the ability to discern what is good and freely act in accordance with the good.

Religious traditions have most commonly been home to this sort of conception of freedom. It leads to notions that seem very odd to a liberal, for example, that freedom consists in submitting to the will of God. But from a religious point of view, this makes good sense. Those devout people who say that they experience a deep freedom in submission are not being confused. Monastic life, following the dictates of the Church, discipleship in a Sufi order, and any one of a large array of practices that are available to ordinary believers as well as religious overachievers, does seem to produce a sense of freedom in many. I am not prepared to say that this is obviously self-delusion, false consciousness, or what-have-you. Religious people who say that their religious freedom is restricted due to the roadblocks to community thrown up by a liberal order are not talking nonsense, particularly if it’s this sense of freedom lurking in the background.

So, in negotiating a political order, we are also inevitably privileging some forms of freedom over others. It’s comparatively easy to agree on what constitutes obvious forms of unfreedom. Someone locked in a cell, continually subjected to sleep deprivation and loud music at random intervals, forced to beg for her food—everyone agrees that this is about as unfree as it gets. But once obvious deprivations are removed, liberty is not a single thing that can be increased and measured on a common scale.

Freedom as submission holds no attraction for me, and trying to achieve some coherence is as far as I can go in preventing slavery to my passions. You will only pry my chocolate away from my cold, dead hands. When a religious leader says that everyone should find freedom in submission as they understand it, I get pissed off. But that’s who I am, and the sort of people I tend to befriend. Others are different. As a political actor, I have to figure out ways to live together with difference.

bookmark_borderMore on multicultural dystopias

I was putting in a comment in reply to YamaZaru, but it ended up exceeding the character limit. So I’ll have to post this as a separate entry.

“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.”

Liberal language about “choice” and “force” is very misleading here.

No one chooses who they are. Our choices take place in a context of unchosen circumstances, and unchosen but organically acquired loyalties. Particularly conservative religious people (a pretty large chunk of the human species) are very much embedded in unchosen traditions and communities. It’s not so much that they are forced into anything as that belonging to a community is an integral part of who they are.

“since judging by the history and epistemological nature of religion these religious subgroups won’t exactly be participatory democracies!”

A good number of secularists seem to have a model of religion as an authoritarian, top-down imposition. Devout religious people who perceive themselves as freely living their faith do not see things the same way. Not because they are brainwashed, but because they routinely experience their community as a place full of negotiation and give-and-take.

Religious people are agents. They are shaped by their traditions, but they shape their traditions in turn.

“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.”

Again, many secularists seem to picture the role of religious leaders in a community as a kind of scaled-down dictatorship. People on the inside don’t usually see things that way. And even from the outside, it’s not difficult to observe how religious tradition serves to constrain leadership and channel it in a more consultative direction.

For example, traditionally, a Muslim religious scholar enjoys his authority in the community because of his perception in the community of piety, moral uprightness, and wisdom, along with expertise in the law acknowledged as divine. He is not appointed by the government. And if he pisses off the community there are ways to get rid of him.

Yes, communities can be oppressive places. But that’s largely because everybody is collaborating in making you toe the line. It’s not a matter of sheep passively obeying externally-imposed authority.

(That, for someone like me, makes tight-knit communities even worse. But my perspective is not the only one that counts.)

“Can you really be advocating that slavery and oppression should be allowed within separate enclaves?”

Why is it that to so many liberals, community autonomy immediately suggests atrocities?

I haven’t run into anyone suggesting complete independence for communities. Some autonomy and recognition of communities as the context in which many people make sense of their lives does not have to mean that anything goes.

Take, for example, liberal individualism. Yes, there are libertarians who want perfect inviolability for persons and their property, and who take free market exchanges to be the model for all acceptable social interactions. But that extreme is not the only, nor the most popular, form of liberalism. We are not islands, not anything goes, and many forms of interference with individual choices are perfectly acceptable.

Why not grant communitarians the same flexibility? Just because someone favors communities, and approaches the prospect of interfering in the internal affairs of a community with some reluctance, does not mean that they thereby think that anything goes, that communities should be completely immune to intervention.

Indeed, given the much fuzzier boundaries between communities than persons, I would expect any sane communitarian view should make plenty of allowances for interference. Slavery, for example, may well be a point where enough is enough. How you draw these lines would be an interesting political exercise, and would effectively be a full-employment act for lawyers and political philosophers. It would be difficult, I imagine. I’m not about to jump to the conclusion that it would be impossible.

“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?”

A multicultural approach would accept that religion-based ideas would dominate the internal affairs of many (not all) communities. But that is very different than having religious public policy in the sense of being applicable to all communities. That would often violate the basic requirement of respect between communities.

Multiculturalists are trying to achieve a social order that keeps the peace while recognizing communities. This is far from a advocating a kind of community-based anarchy where anything goes. Communities have to play nice with each other. And it will, I expect, be obvious to all that proposals for public policy that make one holy writ apply to all communities have no prospects of success.

“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.”

That’s not what the history of multiethnic, multireligious empires suggests. Sometimes the imperial forces have to stamp out intercommunal conflict, yes. But most of the time, people are practical, have a healthy respect for other communities, and get along. They get along even though they regularly interact with the infidels in the neighboring village, and only encounter imperial officials when they come by to levy taxes or draft soldiers.

“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.”

Under a multicultural regime, atheists would be at a disadvantage. The notion that we would then be rounded up and killed is, well, overheated. Let’s give some credit to the decency of religious people.

bookmark_borderA revived millet system?

Russell Blackford, in the second part of his response to me, brings up the Ottoman millet system as an example of a political arrangement based on accommodating different ethno-religious communities—an example of what not to do.

As it happens, I was born and raised in the old Ottoman capital. I might be able to say a few things about the millet system.

I’m not going to praise it. For someone like me, it has few attractions. And this is not, by the way, because of discrimination against the unorthodox, corruption, the constant interfering of religious leaders with daily life, and so forth. There was plenty of all this, and more. (Though I should add that the state developing an effective police apparatus that kept tabs on people came quite late in the empire, as a product of modernization.) The worst aspect for someone like me would be the community. It’s not the mullahs or the rabbis that you really had to worry about, as much as your neighbors. People had warm and close relationships within their community, which meant that the moral police was everyone and everywhere.

But especially in Turkish conservative circles, there is still plenty of nostalgia for Ottoman days. And it starts with the neighborhoods. What I would consider oppressive and stifling, they see as an environment where you could enjoy true human relationships rather than the superficial bureaucratic and commercial interactions that dominate modern life. The moral self-policing of a neighborhood is its glory: exactly what you need to be able to live your religious convictions properly and cultivate an environment that encourages virtue and discourages vice.

For people with my sort of temperament, modern life is perfectly fine. We thrive in its freedom, love the way that the world can open up in front of us beyond any community. But to a very significant number of others, the environment that sustains secular liberalism is one of anomie, rootlessness, and moral rudderlessness. They would thrive in the old neighborhoods.

For most people, I imagine, it’s not purely one thing or another. Modernity breeds ambivalence. It’s nice to have more material conveniences than your grandparents, and maybe to go out for a drink once in a while. It’s not so nice to live in apartment blocks where you rarely know more than a name about your neighbors, to drain yourself at work and come back to unwind with trash on TV. Some people will, on balance, prefer modernity, including a secular political order. Others will not.

I should put my emphasis on the words on balance. The Ottoman public order was not hell on Earth. For the kind of audience likely to read this, it probably was quite negative on balance. If my audience consisted of historically-informed Muslim conservative intellectuals, they would likely think differently.

Now, the sort of conservative intellectuals I run into in Turkey are not idiots. I dislike their Ottoman nostalgia, and we are competitors politically. But they’re not idiots. Especially the more thoughtful among them disavow any interest in reviving the millet system as it once was. But there is nothing wrong with learning from history. They want to restore some of the human warmth of the old neighborhoods, and to put religion back into the center of communal life. The millet system is an example to learn from, good and bad.

The sort of Turkish conservative I’d be willing to take seriously might list the pros and cons of the millet system in something along these lines:

  • It kept the peace. Yes, this meant occasional imperial terror and continual economic exploitation. But you did not have people from different communities slitting each others’ throats all the time. Compare the times when the Ottomans were strong to the last 150 years in the Balkans, say. Was it really such an improvement to substitute autonomous communities with ethnic-cleansing nationalisms? (And historically, liberalism and nationalism are closely related. Liberal countries just did their ethnic cleansing earlier and more thoroughly.)
  • People were free of heavy-handed government interference. The Ottoman state was weak. People primarily interacted with local, religiously and therefore morally legitimized authorities, not lawyers and faceless bureaucrats.
  • The imperial nature of the system was problematic. It exploited communities and acted as a protection racket, rather than being a system of dynamic equilibrium between different religious communities that respect one another’s autonomy.
  • Favoring one religion over all others—Islam for the Ottomans, Catholicism for the Habsburgs, and so forth—is not acceptable. We cannot have persecution of heterodox sects, classical dhimmitude, or other gross interference with community life. Any community that institutionalizes respect for others and will play nice in a society based on different communities must be able to enjoy its autonomy.

Some Turkish conservatives and fans of “postmodern democracy” continue to toss around such ideas. Interestingly, they would grant secular liberals the status of having their own community. This would be odd in the Ottoman millet system, built on imperial minimal interference with existing Abrahamic religious communities, and no other. It may even be an improvement over policies in countries today that retain a relic of the old millet system, where only a narrow set of authorized and specifically religious communities get recognition.

So, what is wrong with this? That is, what can we say if we were to address an audience who were not already secular liberals, who did not start with assumptions about facilitating the freedom of choice of unencumbered individuals being the object of a political order? I’m not sure there is much. This variety of conservative can take most of the modern emphasis on democracy on board. They adopt a live-and-let-live attitude: we let you live as secular people, let us live as religious communities.

The question is important, because liberal political philosophy generally makes the (sensible enough) assumption that you cannot expect people to change whatever comprehensive ideas for a good life that they might have. We then have to settle on a public order that does not privilege any particular religion or moral philosophy. So you have to seek public reasons that can convince people without requiring them to abandon their theology. All well and good, but I don’t think we are entitled to demand everyone make the same assumptions about unencumbered individuals exercising pure practical reason either.

So, what it is that we can say that might make some headway with a nonliberal, religious, community-oriented person? If many of the comments I have received are any indication, what we secular liberals do when challenged to do this is fulminate and traffic in stereotypes about uncivilized religious fanatics.

bookmark_border“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 uni
versal 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.

bookmark_borderPostmodern 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.