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What is a Religion?

There was a time not long ago when the finest minds of the Western world confidently predicted that religion was well on the road to extinction. Generations of social scientists and political theorists asserted that the belief in God was an archaic holdover from an earlier era of human development, and before long it would dissolve in the acids of modern skepticism and social pluralism, giving rise to a thoroughly secular society based exclusively on reason and science. And once humanity had achieved this higher state, sloughing off its unexamined theological prejudices like a coat of dead skin, the beliefs that animated the great monotheistic religions would be universally seen for what they are—elaborate fabrications of the human mind expressing in somewhat more sophisticated form the same ignorant impulses that once led the most primitive societies to bow down before mountains and thunderstorms. 

So much for the confident predictions of the finest minds. With Christianity and Islam gaining ground throughout the developing world, and Muslim extremism inciting violence in countries around the globe, and politicized Protestantism playing a significant public role in the United States, it has begun to look like religion might be here to stay. And that realization has highlighted how intellectually unprepared we are to understand the situation. Lulled to sleep by fantasies of a secular utopia, we have awoken to find ourselves in a strange, unexpected world—one in which the fire of faith continues to burn brightly, mocking all those who have longed to see it extinguished. As we struggle to find our bearings in this world, we would do well to spend less time speculating about possible futures in which theological beliefs have miraculously disappeared and more time engaging in rigorous reflection on the place of religion in a decent political order.

Which is why, when I first learned that Ian Buruma had produced a book on the subject of politics and religion, I was cheered. Buruma is an uncommonly gifted intellectual, an elegant writer with a deeply humanistic sensibility, and a voice of dispassionate reason and good sense on a wide range of topics, including civilizational conflict. Moreover, as an expert in Asian languages, history, and culture (specifically those of China and Japan), Buruma is uniquely well placed to provide a sorely needed trans-cultural perspective on our current confusions about the intersection between the sacred and the secular. The book promised to bring a level head to a complicated, polarized, and crucially important subject.

The head is level, but the book is not. It is something of a conceit that a short book is all that it takes to settle its vast and sweeping theme—“religion and democracy on three continents” (North America, Asia, and Europe). Buruma certainly writes with authority throughout the book, marshaling an impressive range of arguments and evidence, as well as issuing informed judgments, on nearly every page; but the character of those judgments, and the ideas and assumptions that underlie them, are not quite as unimpeachable as he thinks.

Buruma gets a lot of things right. He is surely correct, for example, that “[r]elations between church and state, or religious and secular authority, cannot be explained as abstractions,” but only in the “context of history.” When he turns to that history, he does a fine job of laying out the complicated similarities and differences between America and Europe on church-state issues. It is true that the Western nations separate faith and politics to an extent unimaginable before the modern period. But the United States and Europe handle that separation in starkly divergent ways, with the United States both formally disestablishing religion and rigorously protecting its free exercise, and European nations adopting a range of less balanced alternatives, from France’s radically secular policy of laïcité to the forms of church establishment still found in England and Germany. Following Tocqueville and other classical liberals, Buruma indicates that politics and religion each benefit from keeping out of each other’s business. Political actors are thus free to govern without contending with religion’s often non-negotiable demands, while religion is insulated from the taint of political partisanship and the corruptions of temporal power. All this is very sensible.

In some of the most illuminating passages of his book Buruma applies these distinctively Western insights to the tumultuous political histories of China and Japan. In his view, much of China’s intense political illiberalism over the past century can be traced to the fact that, for complex historical and cultural reasons, a “split between religious authority and secular rule” never developed in the country. Japan, by contrast, did develop “a kind of separation between religious and worldly authority” during the nineteenth century—a separation that disappeared during the 1930s and then returned after the country’s decisive defeat in World War II, helping to ease its rapid postwar transformation into a liberal democratic nation.

Yet it is also in his chapter on Asia that Buruma runs into the conceptual problems that eventually lead him to make questionable assertions about contemporary Europe. In the midst of his discussion of China, for example, Buruma notes that during the Cultural Revolution “the simple act of crumpling up a newspaper bearing [Mao’s] image could lead to a death sentence.” Commenting on this grotesque policy, he remarks that “[i]f ever there was a case of religious and secular authority being one and the same, Maoism was it.” In his very next sentence, however, Buruma uses the term “religious” in a very different sense: “As in the Soviet Union under Stalin, or Hitler’s Germany, this proved the danger of forcing people to renounce all religious beliefs and to worship a worldly leader instead.” In the first statement, religion is the ideological motor behind totalitarian oppression; in the second, it is the victim of that oppression. He seems to think that religion denotes merely any worldview that is held with absolute certainty.

This slippage becomes even more pronounced, and problematic, when Buruma turns his attention to the controversial question of how liberal societies should respond to the complex challenges posed by devout Muslims living within them. As one would expect, Buruma usually treats the tension between liberalism and Islam as a particular example of the perennial conflict between (secular) politics and religion. But at other points he makes a very different claim, writing (in a representative passage) that there is a “curiously religious, even apocalyptic undertone in some . . . anti-Muslim rhetoric.”  

Are some writers and politicians in Europe and the United States overly concerned about Muslims living in their midst? Absolutely. Do their fears sometimes border on hysteria? Certainly. But are their worries “religious”? Only if we cease to think of religion as a cluster of beliefs and practices having to do with the divine or the sacred and instead begin to use the term far more imprecisely—to describe any strongly held opinion. In making this shift, Buruma’s subtly argued analysis of the dangers of mixing politics and religion devolves into an intellectually and morally sloppy critique of passionate politics as such. So, in Buruma’s view, those militantly devout Muslims who once dreamed of murdering Salman Rushdie—like those today who threaten to murder the outspoken atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who succeeded in murdering filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004, and who responded to the publication of satirical drawings of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper in the fall of 2005 by throwing a theologically motivated temper tantrum that resulted in more than one hundred deaths in countries around the world—are a problem; but so, too, are those who uncompromisingly, and sometimes rudely, defend liberalism, the Enlightenment, scientific truth, and the right to free speech. In his book on the murder of van Gogh, he called them “Enlightenment fundamentalists.” Both sides, you see, are “religious.” 

Or maybe not. In some of the most muddled and maddening passages of his book, Buruma asserts something close to the opposite view, at least with reference to Islam. “The challenge posed by Muslims in Europe,” he writes, “is not cultural, civilizational, or even, in the end, religious. It is social and political.” Here Buruma edges toward yet another definition of religion, as an otherworldly, peaceful expression of spirituality that in certain rare and lamentable circumstances gets corrupted by an essentially non-religious “political rage.” Like many well-meaning liberals, Buruma insists, implausibly, that Islamic militancy has little if anything to do with Islam, either in its historic roots or in its modern forms, despite the fact that the militants themselves fervently insist that they are in fact motivated by their Islamic faith. 

Toward the end of his book, Buruma writes that “[t]he way forward . . . is not to insist on social, let alone theological, conformity, but on observance of the law and of the basic rules of democratic society. As long as people play by the rules of free speech, free expression, independent judiciaries, and free elections, they are democratic citizens, whatever they choose to wear on their heads.” Quite right. But this happy outcome is unlikely to take care of itself. On the contrary, it depends on liberals responding to egregious acts of religiously inspired illiberalism by rising unflinchingly to the defense of these laws and rules—and by insisting, without embarrassment, hesitation, or apology, with a ferocity that some people may mistakenly regard as religious, that all citizens obey them, regardless of their theological commitments.

Damon Linker’s next book, The Religious Test: Six Political Commandments for Believers and Atheists, will be published by W.W. Norton in September.