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Taming the Gods

‘Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents’ by Ian Buruma; Princeton University Press, 2010. 142pp

Reviewed by Steve Nash | October 2010

Author of the acclaimed ‘Murder in Amsterdam’ an account of the murder of Theo van Gogh, Ian Buruma has followed this up with an attempt to investigate one of the central conundrums of the modern world. What is needed apart from freedom of speech and the right to vote to hold democratic societies together? Is the rule of law enough, or do we need common values, ethics and mores? And what is the role of religion? Buruma is at pains to explain that he is not writing a polemic but is attempting to make sense of the world. Conclusions are only provisional and it is the exercise of thinking about the world that seem to Buruma the most important factor in pointing the way forward. Rational enquiry as opposed to dogmatic assertions is Buruma’s favoured weapon. The question we have to ask is if this works in illuminating the subject.

One major criticism could be the unstructured appearance of the book which appears as three self standing and to some extent unrelated chapters. The first chapter looks at the role of Christianity in the United States and examines Enlightenment thinking about religion. It also examines some historical cultural nuances as they effect and continue to effect different societies. Chapter Two examines religion in China and Japan largely from a historical perspective and Chapter Three looks at the contemporary debates around Islam in Europe. Clearly the chapters appear to be the work of separate essays and Buruma is obviously making use of his knowledge of China and Japan in producing a Chapter that seems strangely at first to be extraneous to the main subject. However throughout the book the subject matter is always of interest and the thread that runs through the book although very thin at times, just about holds.

Buruma’s main strength in his writing is the nuance he brings to each subject. By providing both historical and intellectual background he is able to leave the reader with many more questions than just simple solutions. In this way he offers some awareness of the complexities and contradictions of the world in which they live. For instance, the first chapter draws heavily on the observations of Tocqueville and demonstrates the importance of religion in the democratic life of the United States while also showing how the peculiar brand of Protestantism also favoured individualism over equality. European disdain for American religiosity is shown to disguise several differences within European countries. Bringing events up to date Buruma correctly summarises the effects of the social changes of the 1960’s across the Western World that have created the modern anxieties that can often play themselves out in an exaggerated anxiety about Islam. The chapter answers one of the questions raised. Religion is not incompatible with democracy as long as State and Church are kept separate.

The second part feels like a bit of a diversion but adds to the sense of complexity of the questions raised. Again the thread just about holds. By examining the moral teachings of Confucius he demonstrates that morality and ethics pre-date organised religion and so religion is not necessarily needed in order for society to function.

The real meat of the book is contained in the third part which examines the reactions to the role of Islam in Europe. He demonstrates the central problem facing us today. When universal Enlightenment values (those historically associated with the left) came to be rejected in the 60’s and 70’s, multi-culturalism and relativism became mainstream. He quotes the anti-Islamic politician Gert Wilders from the Netherlands attacking Queen Bertrix for spouting ‘multi-cultural rubbish’. The same could be said of Queen Elisabeth if we weren’t too polite. Multi-culturalism which – on the surface – has an egalitarian and non-judgmental appearance also has the effect of limiting people’s aspirations to their own particular cultural background. Rather than helping to overcome society’s divisions, this can help to solidify them.

There are obviously many tensions within this multi-cultural world. As Buruma shows, a culture war between multi-culturists and secularists has been raging in one form or another for the last 50 years. It is only by taking into account this background that we can make sense of the reaction or ‘over reaction’ to Islam in Europe. The hysteria of those opposed to Islam running from the politicians in the Netherlands to writers such as Melanie Phillips in the UK only highlights the anxieties present in all sections of society. In fact as he points out some of the more strident anti-Islamists seem to share some of the same beliefs about modernity being decadent and corrupting. Buruma is surely right in showing that there is a need to re-assert social and political solutions to society’s problems rather than scare everyone with an apocalyptic ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative.

As an antidote to the present dogmatic ‘secularists’ the book is a welcome addition and corrective. Whether it is Richard Dawkins on religion or Melanie Phillips on society there is a need for cool reflection and Buruma provides this. He doesn’t however go on to offer much in the way of answers. Is this too polemical or is he afraid of entering political territory? His reasonableness can leave us with platitudes about agreeing to live and let live and abide by democratic mores. Being reasonable and gaining insights into the way the world works is a useful tool but needs to be used a bit more forcefully in order to carry some more weight in the battle of ideas.