Michael Ig­nati­eff

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Michael Ig­nati­eff

Lib­er­al­ism’s Re­li­gion by Cé­cile Laborde

Sec­u­lar­ism: Pol­i­tics, Re­li­gion, and Free­dom by An­drew Cop­son

The Mean­ing of Be­lief: Re­li­gion from an Athe­ist’s Point of View by Tim Crane

Lib­er­al­ism’s Re­li­gion by Cé­cile Laborde. Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 337 pp., $35.00


Pol­i­tics, Re­li­gion, and Free­dom by An­drew Cop­son.

Ox­ford Univer­sity Press,

153 pp., $18.95

The Mean­ing of Be­lief: Re­li­gion from an Athe­ist’s Point of View by Tim Crane.

Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 207 pp., $24.95

The stan­dard story that lib­er­al­ism has told about re­li­gion since the En­light­en­ment is that they are sib­ling ri­vals—frères en­ne­mis—bat­tling each other for con­trol of the mod­ern world. In this view, lib­er­al­ism’s cen­tral ideas—the free­dom of the in­di­vid­ual, the sovereignty of con­science, and the need to cre­ate a space for sec­u­lar pol­i­tics—were all forged in the cru­cible of im­pla­ca­ble op­po­si­tion from re­li­gious faith. The re­li­gious have bat­tled to keep God in pol­i­tics while lib­er­als have fought to take Him out, con­vinced that re­li­gion makes cit­i­zens su­per­sti­tious and fa­nat­i­cal and that rel­e­gat­ing faith to the pri­vate sphere is the key to keep­ing pol­i­tics peace­ful. The faith­ful have never been happy with this so­lu­tion. Some de­nom­i­na­tions—in­clud­ing Epis­co­palian­ism and Re­form Ju­daism—have made peace with lib­eral sec­u­lar­ism, while oth­ers—con­ser­va­tive Catholi­cism and Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism, for ex­am­ple— do not want to be rel­e­gated to the pri­vate sphere and are re­luc­tant to sur­ren­der their po­si­tion as ar­biters of public ques­tions.

The stan­dard ac­count of lib­er­al­ism and re­li­gion as sib­ling ri­vals is not wrong, Cé­cile Laborde ar­gues in Lib­er­al­ism’s Re­li­gion, her im­por­tant and il­lu­mi­nat­ing though dif­fi­cult book, but it needs sub­stan­tial re­vi­sion. Laborde is a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal the­ory at Ox­ford, and what she means by her ti­tle is “the con­cep­tion of re­li­gion that lib­eral the­ory re­lies on.” Her book con­cen­trates mainly on the conceptual world of lib­eral po­lit­i­cal the­ory since John Rawls, while An­drew Cop­son’s Sec­u­lar­ism presents a con­cise and use­fully non­polem­i­cal sum­mary of the wide va­ri­ety of lib­eral sec­u­larisms around the world.

Both Laborde and Cop­son agree that lib­er­al­ism has never had a con­sis­tent re­la­tion to re­li­gion. There are lib­eral states that dis­es­tab­lish re­li­gion al­to­gether, oth­ers that al­low an es­tab­lished church, and some, like France, that en­force a Ja­cobin ver­sion of sec­u­lar­ism known as laïc­ité. Lib­er­al­ism and re­li­gion are ri­vals, but lib­eral states have de­fined their ac­com­mo­da­tion with re­li­gion in very dif­fer­ent ways. Some as­pire to neu­tral­ity, while oth­ers use public funds to sup­port a range of re­li­gions. In some democ­ra­cies, like Is­rael, the bat­tle be­tween sec­u­lar­ism and re­li­gion is con­stant, waged, for in­stance, over mar­riage laws and public hol­i­days. Within re­li­gions them­selves, most ev­i­dently within Is­lam, there are vi­o­lent dis­agree­ments about what ac­com­mo­da­tion to seek from lib­eral con­sti­tu­tions.

Laborde’s most in­ter­est­ing ar­gu­ment is that lib­er­als make a mis­take,

iron­i­cally, by ac­cord­ing re­li­gion too much re­spect. They view re­li­gion as shap­ing a per­son’s en­tire life and thus as a par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant test of the lib­eral be­lief that the po­lit­i­cal or­der ex­ists to shel­ter and pro­tect many dif­fer­ent, even op­posed ways of life. Laborde con­tends, against this view, that re­li­gious com­mit­ments are not in­trin­si­cally dif­fer­ent from sec­u­lar ones, like en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism or ve­g­an­ism, which like­wise di­rect a per­son’s at­ti­tudes and con­duct as a whole. A free so­ci­ety should re­spect all “in­tegri­typro­tect­ing com­mit­ments” in the same way, she ar­gues, rather than priv­i­lege re­li­gious ones as uniquely wor­thy of re­spect.

Laborde also con­tests the com­mon claim that lib­er­al­ism is a “sec­u­lar fun­da­men­tal­ism” or, as Carl Sch­mitt would have said, a po­lit­i­cal the­ol­ogy. Ac­cord­ing to such a view, lib­er­als only pre­tend to re­spect and de­fer to the plu­ral­ity of be­liefs within a lib­eral so­ci­ety when in fact they view their own in­sti­tu­tions and their doc­trine of free­dom as beyond ar­gu­ment. This at­tack has come at lib­er­al­ism from both ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. Back in the 1960s, Her­bert Mar­cuse ac­cused lib­eral Amer­ica of “re­pres­sive tol­er­ance.” To­day it is con­ser­va­tives who ac­cuse lib­er­al­ism of in­tol­er­ant dog­ma­tism when­ever stu­dents shout down a con­ser­va­tive speaker.

Against the con­cep­tion of lib­er­al­ism as “the sec­tar­ian, com­pre­hen­sive ide­ol­ogy of West­ern pro­gres­sives,” Laborde wants to re­frame its re­la­tion to doc­trines other than its own, es­pe­cially re­li­gious doc­trines, as a story of in­clu­sive ac­com­mo­da­tion. One wishes she had said more about the his­tory of lib­er­al­ism’s ac­com­mo­dat­ing at­ti­tude to­ward re­li­gion—which de­vel­oped in the 1960s as part of a broad ad­just­ment

to the newly mul­ti­eth­nic, mul­ti­cul­tural de­mog­ra­phy of mod­ern so­ci­ety. In­stead she con­cen­trates her philo­soph­i­cal acu­men ex­clu­sively on the sec­u­lar, cos­mopoli­tan lib­er­al­ism we have right now, one that seeks to turn eth­nic, re­li­gious, gen­der, and cul­tural dif­fer­ences from facts we ac­cept into val­ues we em­brace. De­spite chal­lenges from re­cent con­ser­va­tive, pop­ulist coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tions, lib­eral ac­com­mo­da­tion is still in­tact, be­cause it keeps the peace within to­day’s di­verse so­ci­eties.

Lib­eral states in search of civil peace, Laborde shows, are con­stantly mak­ing “rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tions” for the re­li­gious be­liefs of their cit­i­zens. She fol­lows the philoso­pher Charles Tay­lor in ar­gu­ing that lib­eral states ac­com­mo­date re­li­gious be­liefs not be­cause these be­liefs hap­pen to be true or be­cause there is some­thing in­trin­sic to re­li­gion that is en­ti­tled to re­spect, but be­cause lib­eral so­ci­ety wants to en­able in­di­vid­u­als to shape their moral lives as they choose. Re­li­gions of all kinds shape moral in­tegrity in a fun­da­men­tal way, and lib­eral so­ci­eties have a duty to pro­tect the “in­tegrity-pro­tect­ing com­mit­ments” of their mem­bers. Should a Sikh be able to claim an ex­emp­tion from health and safety rules that re­quire work­ers to wear a hel­met on a con­struc­tion site? Laborde says yes, be­cause wear­ing a tur­ban is “an in­tegrity-pro­tect­ing com­mit­ment.” It is so es­sen­tial to be­ing a Sikh that an ex­emp­tion is jus­ti­fied. The same Sikh should not be ex­empted from the obli­ga­tion to wear a hel­met when rid­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle, how­ever, be­cause rid­ing a bike is not in­te­gral to a Sikh life project, while hold­ing down a con­struc­tion job may be. So ex­emp­tions are jus­ti­fied when both re­li­gious in­tegrity and vi­tal life projects are on the line.

Rea­son­able ac­com­mo­da­tions can also be granted when a lib­eral state is able to re­spect re­li­gious tra­di­tions with­out sac­ri­fic­ing its in­ter­ests. “It would be un­fair,” Laborde ar­gues, “to com­pel Or­tho­dox Jews to en­dure an in­va­sive post­mortem au­topsy in case of non­sus­pi­cious death, if they con­sider this a des­e­cra­tion of the body.” Ac­cord­ing to Laborde, if no foul play is sus­pected, the coro­ner should leave the body of an Or­tho­dox Jew alone and es­tab­lish cause of death by non­in­va­sive means like an MRI scan. If the case in­volved a homi­cide, how­ever, the state in­ter­est in solv­ing a crime might pre­vail over re­spect for Or­tho­dox be­lief. Lib­eral so­ci­eties al­low Catholic doc­tors to refuse to per­form law­ful abor­tions and tol­er­ate Mus­lim women who refuse to shake hands with men; some al­low Mus­lim women to wear a full burqa in public, while oth­ers do not. Ac­com­mo­da­tion has its lim­its. Many lib­eral so­ci­eties do not al­low Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses to deny blood trans­fu­sions to their chil­dren if the child’s life is at stake. Some mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties erect a Christ­mas crèche, while oth­ers do not out of re­spect for re­li­gious plu­ral­ism.

Laborde is less con­vinc­ing about why all in­tegrity-pro­tect­ing com­mit­ments de­serve a pre­sump­tion of good faith. Con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim or evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian fathers of­ten in­voke their faith to deny their daugh­ters the right to marry whom they choose or to pur­sue a ca­reer. Why should lib­eral so­ci­ety as­sume that this pro­ceeds from the fa­ther’s claims of re­li­gious in­tegrity and not just a de­sire to per­pet­u­ate his pa­ter­nal dom­i­na­tion? And why should re­li­giously grounded misog­yny, just be­cause it is an in­tegrity-based com­mit­ment, be more ac­cept­able than non­re­li­gious misog­yny? It is as if re­li­gion has backed lib­er­al­ism into a cor­ner: once lib­er­als be­lieve, as they must, in the value of a life lived ac­cord­ing to au­then­tic moral com­mit­ments ar­tic­u­lated in the ver­nac­u­lar of faith, then they are com­pelled to ac­cept any claim made in

such terms. But doesn’t this give in­tegrity and au­then­tic­ity a trump card they don’t de­serve? As Tim Crane points out in The Mean­ing of Be­lief, a lu­cid cri­tique of the many ways in which athe­ists have mis­un­der­stood re­li­gion, re­li­gious opin­ions or be­liefs are not en­ti­tled to re­spect just be­cause they are re­li­gious. “What is closer to the truth,” Crane writes, “is that all peo­ple, rather than their opin­ions, are wor­thy of re­spect.”

Laborde’s dis­cus­sion of re­li­gion as an in­tegrity-pro­tect­ing com­mit­ment also fails to take ac­count of re­li­gion as a sys­tem of le­gal com­mands. In­clu­sive­ness meets its lim­its when a re­li­gion claims to be a form of law. Where sharia law is con­cerned, for in­stance, most West­ern lib­eral so­ci­eties as­sert the supremacy of their law and deny ju­ris­dic­tion to sharia, while in Is­lamic democ­ra­cies, sharia’s writ is con­fined to fam­ily and re­li­gious mat­ters. Even if we ac­cept Laborde’s the­sis that lib­eral so­ci­eties ought to ac­com­mo­date re­li­gious com­mit­ments, it will still be nec­es­sary for them to push back against re­li­gion as law, on the rea­son­able sup­po­si­tion that there has to be one set of laws for ev­ery­one.

A sec­ond in­stance when lib­eral push­back might be jus­ti­fied—not dis­cussed in Laborde’s book—oc­curs when those raised in a fun­da­men­tal­ist faith are pre­vented from leav­ing it. A woman who chooses to wear a veil or full-body cov­er­ing in public should be able to do so, no mat­ter how much this of­fends West­ern fem­i­nist sen­si­bil­i­ties, pro­vided that this “in­tegrity-pro­tect­ing com­mit­ment” is cho­sen or as­sented to, but not if it’s en­forced or im­posed by guardians of the faith, brothers, or hus­bands. It’s al­ways hard to know, even from the in­side, whether a re­li­gious life is freely cho­sen or not. A lib­eral so­ci­ety ought to pro­tect the right to exit a re­li­gious way of life, but equally it ought to let the believer make the choice, rather than pre­sume, as some fem­i­nists have done, that no women could ever freely choose con­fin­ing re­li­gious com­mit­ments.

Public au­thor­i­ties should not try to de­ter­mine whether pri­vate re­li­gious be­liefs are freely cho­sen, but they do have the right to de­ter­mine what chil­dren should be taught at public ex­pense. Public schools should be able to teach evo­lu­tion, what­ever cre­ation­ists may say, and even pri­vate con­fes­sional schools that do teach cre­ation­ism should also teach enough Dar­win to en­able their stu­dents to pass state ex­ams. Teach­ing Dar­win, Laborde ar­gues, does not dis­par­age cre­ation­ist myths; it ex­poses chil­dren to things they need to know. “The prob­lem with teach­ing cre­ation­ism,” she writes, “is not a dis­par­age­ment prob­lem: it is not that it de­means non­be­liev­ers, but rather that it teaches bad sci­ence.” A lib­eral so­ci­ety can re­spect re­li­gious be­lief with­out al­low­ing its chil­dren to be in­cul­cated with “in­cor­rect fac­tual be­liefs.”

Us­ing ex­am­ples like this, Laborde in­sists that lib­eral states need not be neu­tral in ad­ju­di­cat­ing be­tween sci­en­tific and re­li­gious claims. Any­one who en­ters public de­bate, in­clud­ing the re­li­gious, has the right to make ar­gu­ments, but a lib­eral state can only cre­ate and en­force laws on the ba­sis of what lib­eral the­o­rists call public rea­sons, which are public in the sense that they are in­tel­li­gi­ble and ac­ces­si­ble to fel­low cit­i­zens. The re­li­gious claim that abor­tion is an of­fense against God’s law has ev­ery right to be heard in public de­bate, but it fails Laborde’s test of be­ing ac­ces­si­ble, be­cause such an ar­gu­ment can­not be proved: What ev­i­dence could be ad­duced to con­vince some­one of dif­fer­ent con­vic­tions?

And yet, as Laborde con­cedes, it is an il­lu­sion to sup­pose that sec­u­lar ar­gu­ments are al­ways more ac­ces­si­ble, and there­fore more fit to serve as public rea­sons, than re­li­gious ones. There are plenty of peo­ple in the abor­tion de­bate, for ex­am­ple, who make the strictly sec­u­lar ar­gu­ment that a fe­tus is a per­son and that abor­tion is mur­der. Their ar­gu­ments meet the test of public rea­son. They are ac­ces­si­ble and in­tel­li­gi­ble. Both sides in the de­bate meet on the same public ground, and yet the ar­gu­ment is ir­re­solv­able.

Go­ing still fur­ther, sec­u­lar peo­ple may also dis­agree as to whether the state ought to have sovereign au­thor­ity over a per­sonal moral ques­tion like abor­tion at all. We are back where we started—as we should be—in the rue­ful recog­ni­tion that the best lib­eral so­ci­eties can do is man­age dis­agree­ments like this through free in­sti­tu­tions: leg­is­la­tures, courts, me­dia, where de­ci­sions are never fi­nal but al­ways con­tested, re­vis­ited, and some­times re­voked. On mat­ters re­lat­ing to in­tegri­typro­tect­ing com­mit­ments, there may be no ev­i­dence or ar­gu­ment that ends dis­pute or pro­duces any­thing bet­ter than re­luc­tant mu­tual ac­qui­es­cence for the sake of civil peace. Laborde wants her book to clar­ify the right re­la­tion­ship be­tween sec­u­lar prin­ci­ples of jus­tice and re­li­gious com­mit­ments, but re­li­gious and sec­u­lar cit­i­zens co­ex­ist not on the ba­sis of any ar­gu­ment about who de­serves to pre­vail or be re­spected, but in­stead on the ba­sis of a shared de­sire to avoid con­flict. They both re­al­ize they need clo­sure—the im­per­fect agree­ments en­acted by lib­eral in­sti­tu­tions—more than they need vic­tory. The fron­tier of re­luc­tant mu­tual ac­com­mo­da­tion is al­ways shift­ing. If lib­eral states are con­stantly ad­just­ing to iden­tity claims based in re­li­gion, re­li­gions too are con­stantly ad­just­ing to the de­mands and pres­sures of lib­eral so­ci­ety. Im­mi­grants ac­cus­tomed to sharia law in their home coun­tries have ad­justed to the re­al­ity that sharia has no fi­nal le­gal au­thor­ity in West­ern so­ci­eties. Some mem­bers of lib­eral faiths like Re­form Ju­daism or Angli­can­ism have be­come more ac­com­mo­dat­ing to so­ci­ety’s ex­pand­ing plu­ral­ity of moral choices (the le­gal­iza­tion of gay mar­riage, for ex­am­ple); these re­li­gions them­selves may grad­u­ally be­come less dog­matic and judg­men­tal as lib­eral so­ci­eties be­come more ac­cept­ing. Mem­bers of other faiths, how­ever— evan­gel­i­cals, con­ser­va­tive Catholics, Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ists—have de­fined them­selves by their pas­sion­ate re­pu­di­a­tion of what they con­sider the he­do­nist, in­di­vid­u­al­ist lib­eral or­der. This ought to make lib­er­als re­think some of their his­tor­i­cal as­sump­tions. Since the En­light­en­ment, lib­er­al­ism has be­lieved in its in­evitable vic­tory over faith— that sec­u­lar ar­gu­ments, since they are based on sci­ence, ev­i­dence, and facts, are bound to pre­vail over re­li­gious claims, which, over time, will be con­fined to an ever-smaller pri­vate sphere. This story of sec­u­lar­iza­tion may be one of the most en­dur­ing and in­flu­en­tial of all our his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives, but it is less and less con­vinc­ing. Lib­eral so­ci­eties them­selves have re­treated from grand self-jus­ti­fy­ing nar­ra­tives claim­ing that his­tory, in Benedetto Croce’s words, is the story of lib­erty, or, in Voltaire’s words, the story of the slow de­feat of su­per­sti­tion. These sto­ries don’t line up with re­al­ity any­more. Lib­eral so­ci­eties are not run­ning on iron rails to­ward lib­erty: they can jump the tracks.

Max Weber’s pes­simistic ver­sion— that his­tory rep­re­sents the slow but in­ex­orable “disen­chant­ment of the world” and the grad­ual con­sol­i­da­tion of the “iron cage” of West­ern sci­ence and rea­son—is far­ing no bet­ter. The We­be­rian story over­states the ir­re­versibil­ity of sec­u­lar nar­ra­tives and un­der­states the ir­ra­tional­ity of lib­eral so­ci­ety. For these so­ci­eties have proved to be just as plagued by myths, fake news, en­thu­si­asm, and the mad­ness of crowds as more re­li­gious and sup­pos­edly more cred­u­lous regimes of the past. Fur­ther­more, glob­al­iza­tion is not mak­ing the world more sec­u­lar. In Sec­u­lar­ism, his clear and use­ful sur­vey, An­drew Cop­son points out “the pre­car­i­ous na­ture of sec­u­lar­ism as a mean­ing­ful cat­e­gory in to­day’s world,” ob­serv­ing that while some so­ci­eties are mov­ing in a more sec­u­lar di­rec­tion, many more are mov­ing to­ward state sup­port for re­li­gion. As long as they cling to the myth that his­tory is—or ought to be—a story of the in­ex­orable rise of sec­u­lar free­dom, lib­er­als risk be­ing per­pet­u­ally sur­prised and dis­il­lu­sioned by the times they live in. Fi­nally, a car­di­nal fact about lib­eral so­ci­ety is that it dis­ap­points. It of­fers no ra­di­ant to­mor­rows, no re­demp­tion, no sal­va­tion. The most that the so­cial demo­cratic vari­ants of lib­er­al­ism have promised is a wel­fare state that seeks the slow re­duc­tion of un­mer­ited suf­fer­ing, the grad­ual diminu­tion of in­jus­tice, and the in­crease of pros­per­ity and in­di­vid­ual flour­ish­ing. These public goals are what West­ern lib­er­al­ism at its best has had to of­fer since Franklin Roo­sevelt, but they leave many peo­ple yearn­ing for deeper col­lec­tive be­long­ing and stronger ties to tra­di­tion and com­mu­nity. This dis­sat­is­fac­tion leaves a void, which is con­stantly be­ing filled by non­lib­eral doc­trines.

In­stead of see­ing re­li­gion as a ves­ti­gial tra­di­tion in­ex­orably fated to fade away, it makes more sense to see it as an eter­nally vi­tal re­sponse to the prob­lems of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. Since some of these prob­lems—suf­fer­ing and death, for ex­am­ple—can­not be cured by pol­i­tics, we all stand in need of con­so­la­tion, and here re­li­gion finds its on­go­ing role in pro­vid­ing believ­ers with words and rit­u­als that ad­dress these ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions. In Crane’s words, “faith is not cer­tainty but some­thing more like a com­mit­ted strug­gle to un­der­stand in the face of the pal­pa­ble mys­tery of the world.” Lib­er­al­ism thought it had won the po­lit­i­cal bat­tle by forc­ing re­li­gion out of the public sphere and rel­e­gat­ing ques­tions about the mean­ing and mys­tery of life to the pri­vate sphere; but while this may have paci­fied pol­i­tics, it has left a hunger for shared public con­cep­tions about the pur­pose of life. For this re­li­gion of­fers a con­so­la­tion that even some lib­er­als find them­selves turn­ing back to as they stare into the end­lessly re­ced­ing hori­zon of lib­eral democ­racy.

James En­sor: The Vile Vivi­sec­tors, 1925

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