Feb/Mar 2010

Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents

David Wallace-Wells


There are two species of religious sentiment, David Hume declared in 1741, writing in bleak Enlightenment Scotland as the American colonies endured the brushfire of a first great religious revival: the superstitious and the enthusiastic. It can be tempting today to see the secular liberalism of contemporary Europe—a creed besieged by enthusiasts Islamic fundamentalist, American interventionist, and homegrown Christian nationalist—as a variety of gloomy superstition. As Ian Buruma chronicles in his slight Taming the Gods, many of the most vocal defenders of that agnostic, ameliorative tradition make their case with the docent-like outlook of guardians of an heirloom culture facing extinction. Commentators from novelist provocateur Martin Amis to hysterical historian Bat Ye'or have warned of the Islamic threat to Europe; gripped by a natalist panic, alarmists prophesy a continent overrun with Muslim hordes, a civilization dissolved by capitulation and appeasement into a nightmare sharia state known as Eurabia. Politicians, too: The resilient French reactionary Jean-Marie Le Pen has invoked a future in which a Muslim majority terrorizes a European minority, and the late Dutch populist Pim Fortuyn advocated, with relish, "a cold war with Islam."

"If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant," Karl Popper warned, just after World War II and the apparent triumph of liberalism over fascism, "if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them." Buruma is not convinced of the "paradox of tolerance," however, and in Taming the Gods he answers Popper with a contrary history, which depicts the long struggle between faith and liberty issuing finally into a shared civic religion more elevated and esteemed than those based on terrestrial convictions alone. (The book purports to explore religion and democracy on three continents, but its clear focus is on Europe and the collision there of Islam and the secular state.) A Dutch journalist and Orientalist raised in the postwar years who has become, in middle age, a vital leftish critic of the multicultural model those years produced, Buruma acknowledges the charge, leveled most responsibly by the American conservative Christopher Caldwell, that Europe, wracked with colonial guilt and cultural self-doubt, "became a multiethnic society in a fit of absence of mind." But he offers in the place of that familiar nativist alarm only a wistful invocation of the rule of law.

Taming the Gods is nonchalant scholarship, an effort to color our amnesiac journalism with the shadow of genuine historical depth, and in that modest purpose the book is a modest success. But when Buruma turns to contemporary matters he is less persuasive. Portraying the conflict between enthusiastic Islam and superstitious Europe as strictly political, Buruma insists that all that old Europe should ask of its newcomers is that they play by the rules—a prescription that makes him seem alienated indeed from the recent history he means to illuminate. No one is suggesting that those who plotted Islamist bombings in London and Madrid be exempted from prosecution—and no one could sensibly claim that those bombings were a referendum on European legalism. The Muslim population of Europe is rapidly growing and may be perceptibly hardening in its resistance to assimilation, but it takes an apocalyptic frame of mind to see in those trends an imminent political upheaval.

What is far likelier, and far more troubling, is a conflict of culture—a threat British philosopher John Gray has described as a challenge to "the West's ruling myth," "that modernity is a single condition, everywhere the same and always benign." There is a difference between living in a community that conceals a vanishing minority in burkas and one that does it to an astonishing plurality. There is a difference between a publishing culture that permits news-papers to lampoon deeply held beliefs and one that does not. And there is a difference between a society that celebrates a crusader against genital mutilation like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her filmmaker advocate and one that targets them for murder. It may be unlikely, as Caldwell has written, that we can have the same Europe with different people in it. But Buruma reminds us that such hope is, nevertheless, something more than mere superstition.

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March 25, 2013
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