About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A multi-cultural dystopia?

This is the second part of my response to the post by Taner Edis a couple of days ago, in which he takes me to task for defending classical liberal secularism of the kind proposed by John Locke in the 1680s - though much developed by other thinkers in the liberal tradition since that time. Unfortunately, there will now need to be a third part, since Edis has since had more to say in response to the first.

In the first part of my response, I developed the theme that any criticism of religion creates division only in the trivial sense that it creates (often healthy) disagreement. By contrast, real social division - social division with a vengeance - is caused when the theocratically inclined offer their controversial theological claims (or moral claims that are grounded in theological thinking) as a basis for coercive measures by the state.

For many reasons, it is better to avoid the concept of a Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish, or whatever it may be) state, in which political power is to be used to further God's eschatological plan and lead citizens to spiritual salvation. Rather, the state is best regarded as an institution, or set of institutions, that protects purely worldly things. Thus, the state provides a framework for public order, economic welfare, and the like. It establishes a scheme of property and commerce (which must be reasonably fair by ordinary secular standards, such as rewarding efforts and contributions), protects us from external violence, restrains us from using violence in social competition, and (increasingly) provides a social and economic safety net.

Once the state is regarded as a "secular", in the sense of "worldly", institution, the main source of conflict between rival theocrats is defused. Secular states will not have religious reasons to go to war against each other or to persecute their citizens, and they can concentrate on worldly issues where there is at least some prospect of success (including by way of political compromises). The various sects need not fear persecution with fire and sword (or with pistols and prison bars), and are likely to soften their attitudes in response.

If we argue that the state should be secular in this sense, we thereby argue that would-be theocrats are wrong - but not that their speech should be suppressed. We also attempt to create a norm of the political culture that the functions of the state (the worldly ones mentioned above) and those of the various churches and sects (spiritual salvation, rightness with God, etc.) will be kept separate. This functional separation of church and state also enhances the liberty of individual citizens: while we will be required by the secular law to act within certain constraints (not resorting to violence, honouring our formal contracts, paying taxes, taking care in situations where the welfare of others requires it and they are reasonable to rely on us), we are left with a potentially infinite range of choices and plans of life.

As Locke envisaged this regime, nothing would be illegal inside of a church unless it were also illegal outside. Thus, a church could not be singled out by hostile state officials by being forbidden to do something allowed to others. However, by itself, this might still allow some things to be made illegal (both in church and out) to the great inconvenience of a particular sect. Locke overcame this problem by emphasising a version of the harm principle, later developed in more detail (and more restrictively) by John Stuart Mill: the state should not ban anything except for a good secular reason relating to the protection of worldly things. That, of course, follows from his conception of the state's fundamental role.

Locke gave a good example: the state cannot forbid the religious sacrifice of cattle unless it also forbids killing cattle outside of church. And it cannot do that unless it has a good secular reason. However, a dramatic plague of some cattle disease may provide the state with a good secular reason to ban all killing of cattle for a time, while stocks replenish. In the latter case, the state is acting within its proper role and cannot be criticised.

Taner Edis observes, "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."

Well, perhaps. But as I said yesterday, "Ironically enough, Edis turns to a much more old-fashioned model for the operation of society than anything imagined by John Locke or John Stuart Mill."

I see that Lisa Bauer has now made this point for me in a thread over at RichardDawkins.net. Her views, which I generally endorse, are worth quoting at some length. Here is her impression of what Edis proposes (responding to discussion on the thread, to a contribution by Ophelia Benson that forms the thread's subject, and, if I'm following the twists and turns, to the further post by Edis that will force me to write Part III of all this):

That quote pretty much sums up the old Ottoman millet system, in which each religious community (Jews, Armenians, Orthodox Greeks, Syriac Orthodox, and so on) was allowed to govern their affairs according to their own religious law...under the umbrella of Muslim supremacy, admittedly, and non-Muslim communities suffered under a lot of legal disadvantages at least until the Tanzimat reforms in the 19th century when the empire was trying to modernize and more fully integrate all its citizens into the state (allowing non-Muslims to become soldiers, for instance, and granting them legal equality with Muslims).


This system was swept away with the Ottoman Empire back in the 1920s, so why somebody would think this is somehow less "outdated" than liberal democracy is beyond me. Traces of it still exist in places like Lebanon, where religious communities (Shi'ite, Sunni, Maronite, etc.) are still clearly marked and marriage is completely under the control of the religious authorities, and you know how well that has worked out! Israel and many other ex-Ottoman countries like Egypt and Jordan also divide up their religious communities along these lines, where each one has their own family law courts based on religious law and so on, and we might note how friendly most of them are to atheists and the nonreligious (not very!). And this autonomy certainly doesn't prevent the majority from treating minorities poorly, as Copts in Egypt or even Palestinian Muslims under Israeli rule might tell you.

In fact, it's quite medieval -- European Jews had a not dissimilar relation with medieval European governments, in which the Jewish community had the same kind of quasi-autonomous status within itself, and the elders and rabbis controlled the affairs of the community. If you fell foul of the authorities, like Baruch/Benedict Spinoza did, you fell under the cherem ban, which meant you were totally excommunicated from the Jewish community, and during the period being cut off from a community meant you were basically defenseless and at the mercy of the cruel world. This is another matter that comes up in all such communitarian schemes -- what of the individual who does NOT fit into one or another group?

This setup was stifling to many Jews, who broke free from the ghetto and shtetl with their stultifying Jewish religious law codes (halakha) during the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, in the 19th century, and it's no coincidence that Jews were often at the forefront of efforts to convince governments to adopt liberal human rights. (This is where studying the history of Judaism can be helpful, I must say!) Jewish liberation in the late 18th and 19th centuries in Western European nations like France was predicated on granting rights to Jews as individuals, the same as everybody else, but not to the Jewish community as an autonomous entity, and I doubt that Jews in Western nations outside of Orthodox or Haredi enclaves would be pleased at the prospect of returning to live under rabbinical authority.

The biggest problem with all of this should be pretty obvious -- why should all members of a religion be bound by their religious law, usually as conceived by the most traditionalist, conservative clerics? Keep in mind who fought the hardest AGAINST shari'ah courts for family law in Canada -- liberal Muslim women who knew just what kind of injustices that would lead to! Many misguided whites were under the illusion that Muslims as a group "wanted" shari'ah law, since this is what the male "community leaders" might have led them to believe, but this turned out to be far from the truth. WHO would be the leaders of these religious communities, and how would this NOT ride roughshod over the rights of minorities within the group, such as women, gays, liberals, apostates, etc.?

So...why is it that so many notions of multiculturalism turn out to look an awful lot like medieval ways of organizing societies? Give me individualism any day!

Just so. I may be an "old-fashioned secular liberal", but that is not a reason for me to transform into an even more old-fashioned supporter of the Ottoman millet system or some post-modernist variant. Someone who adopts the picture of the universe developed by Copernicus and Galileo might also be old-fahioned, but Copernicus and Galileo were on the right track. Better to update their thinking than to adopt a super-sophisticated version of the Ptolemaic system, even if it has all sorts of lovely computer-generated epicycles to pretty it up.

Since the 1680s, many things have happened to put the classical liberal model of secularism under pressure, but that does not mean it was on the wrong track. Most notably, modern governments have developed functions going far beyond those imagined by Locke or even by the US founding fathers a century later.

Since about the 1870s, Western governments have been extremely active in carving out new functions in response to the success of industrial capitalism ... and its harshness if it is not regulated. Thus, we see the state doing many things that still bear close relationships to this-worldly goods, but also have scope to cut across the spiritual aims of the churches. This is seen no more strongly than in the area of public education, which was not merely a response to the worldly need for knowledge and the ability of the state to provide a safety net for the poor. It was also intended to provide a common moral grounding for growing citizens, who would be expected to play an active political role in democratic societies on reaching adulthood. That concept, of course, has the potential to cut across religious notions of morality, and even across theological doctrine.

A case in point was the introduction of moral education, based on supposedly non-sectarian Bible reading, in the first wave of public schools in the US. This was unacceptable to Catholics, who saw it (with much justification) as an imposition of the Protestant practice of individual reading and interpretation of the holy book. Catholic theology insisted that the priesthood must mediate between the Bible, as God's word, and individual religious adherents. In effect, the state was imposing Protestantism, admittedly of a generic kind, on its Catholic citizens.

I am not so naive as to be unaware that many complex problems of this kind have developed as the state - often with the best of secular intentions, but also with its share of biases - has turned into an octopus with tentacles in many areas of everyday life. For that reason, I have never claimed that there is no room at all for religious voices in politics. I have, however, insisted that those voices should become marginalised to the extent that they are theocratic. I make no apology for that. Sure, our political philosophy needs to be updated to reflect modern developments, such as the changing role of the state in response to the harshness of nineteenth-century laissez faire. Nonetheless, I see nothing divisive, except in a trivial sense, in defending the functional separation of church and state, while of course acknowledging the grey areas and practical difficulties.

My original post, which Edis objected to, criticised Gary Bouma for his attack on secularists who, supposedly, "want to drive religious voices out of the public policy area". But most of us do not seek to do anything that can be described so simplistically as that, and what we actually do is completely defensible. We seek to reinforce a political norm against state power being used to impose theologically-based requirements on those who do not believe. I am not repentant about defending that political norm, or about criticising Bouma's misplaced objection to it. Whatever the complexities - and I'm sure some more of them will emerge in the comments and in my next post - we have every reason to struggle against the contrary model of a Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish, or Hindu, etc.) state.

And amidst the undoubted complexities, we have no reason to aspire to a stifling multi-cultural dystopia where freedom of speech is suppressed and people are trapped in authoritarian communities. Better an updated liberal secularism than what Taner Edis seems to recommend.


Mark Jones said...

I find Taner's post unfathomable, frankly! He says:

"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."

This is entirely self-defeating, surely? These cultures are often antithetical to each other, so their very doctrines are disrespectful of other cultures, necessarily.

But does Taner thinks it's non-believers *only* who say disrespectful things? How so?

"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."

So theists must be quiet too?

NewEnglandBob said...

Thank you Russell, Lisa and Ophelia. You have put modern liberal secularism into clear definition. You have made it easier to support. Taner Edis is off-base on this

יאיר רזק said...

As an atheistic humanist of Jewish descent, living in the state of Israel, I live under religious Orthodox Jewish courts when it comes to marriage and divorce, and some other issues. I can attest from personal experience that this is not respectful of my rights as an individual - I was forced to marry abroad so as to avoid a religious marriage ceremony, which was the only other option to get (legally) married. I'm also not allowed to do other things, like work on a Sabbath, based on this group affiliation. I don't want to belong to that group, to be under that group's laws. The multicultural system is a system of oppression - in this case, religious oppression.

Neil Schipper said...

This conversation is a welcome tiptoe towards the kind of conversation "new" atheists are generally not inclined to have. For that, I compliment Tanir Edis.

However, even after allowing for the limitations of the blog format (brevity and rapid turnaround), core issues remain at a very safe distance.

A proper conversation would not spend much time on Locke & Mill. It would try to bring neuropsych & behavioural economics to bear on the emergent disenchantment with secular humanistic liberalism. It would talk about death-anxiety and social isolation and depression and open-ended moral systems. It would talk about social capital and trust networks, fitness displays, risk-aversion and prestige seeking and shaming.

It would talk about neural development, parenting norms, and what public education is failing to achieve in rich countries. It would talk about professional scientists and how the need for daily bread, butter and cappuccino limits free thought to fashionable compartments.

It would not make jokes about herding cats!

It would talk about the inspiration-starvation, thin-skin, and self-righteous bickering of the vocal atheists and humanists of the present moment, the degree to which so many are deeply embedded in their own entertainment-oriented (escapist, novelty-seeking) cultures.

It would talk about broad swaths of atheists in various socio-economic strata (including the simultaneously brilliant, rich and beautiful) who call zero attention to themselves as atheists, and for whom the problems of secularism are other people's problems.

It would talk about ipods and video games; about porn, hook-up culture and slutty 8 year olds at beauty pageants.

It would talk about 50 million pairs of eyeballs glued to late night talk shows, guffawing along to jokes attending to the "stupidity" of politicians.

It would talk about key civilizational patterns: empire, the exuberance of expansion emerging from discovery of resources & exploitation techniques, and advances in military technology. It would talk about dominance & hierarchy, bureaucratic expansion and self-propagation, decadence, and resource wars (Jared Diamond stuff).

It would explore the relationship between human rights (i.e., aspirations) and privileges necessarily earned at some cost.

It would not shy away from certain features of the Stalin/Mao question. Or feminism. Or racial egalitarianism.

Or the tension between the urge to be compassionate and the urge to survive.

The discussion would not hide from questions about population control, nor group differences in rates of reproduction, crucial features of the natural world (which we pronounce we are part of almost daily in battle with creationists, but then whose implications we deny).

Eugenics does not equal killing fields and gas chambers! Genetic screening, IVF, even choosing a neighborhood to live in and positioning your kid for certain universities and such are selective breeding strategies, a component of eugenics.

I may have left some things out but in any event I don't see there would be a lot of political philosophy in there. Both Tanir Edis and Russell Blackford might consider sabbaticals of immersion in subjects that matter much more than philosophy.

It ought to be at least plausible that if intellectuals who purport to be anti-fascist never talk about these unpleasant things, a vulnerability is created allowing the ascent of very thick-skinned people, people who will be eager to face these problems, and who won't be very Lincoln-like.

Lisa Bauer: My compliments for an interesting historically-grounded post (although I think you're wrong about some very important matters).

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