I’d like to establish a separate post on Karen Armstrong’s ideas, which entered the discussion here on the earlier thread and point towards the important issue of the secular state.
I want to make it clear that I’ve been defending the book Fields of Blood as an impressive piece of scholarship. I’m not saying Armstrong is right.
Nor am I commenting on her earlier book Muhammed: a Prophet of our Time, which I haven’t read. It’s a matter of principle with me that you don’t criticize works you haven’t read.
To coincide with the publication of Fields of Blood Armstrong wrote an article in The Guardian.
“Religion”, Armstrong says, originally referred to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The real question we should ask is how we came to consider religion “as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics.” Until the 18th century, she says dissociating religion and poltics would have been like trying to take the gin out of a cocktail.
Where she’s heading is the concept of “secularisation” which was coined in the late 16th century, and the later notion of the “secular state”. But secularism especially when allied with nationalism turned out to be as oppressive and violent as anything it replaced.
Yet I finished the article asking, if the secular state is not the answer, well what then?
Stephen Law, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, had a similar problem and wrote an open letter to Armstrong, asking her to commit to the concept of Secularism with a capital “S”. He outlines the concept thus:
Contemporary political secularists are concerned with religious neutrality. They want the state to be neutral on matters of religion. They want church/state separation. They believe the state should not endorse one religion over another, or endorse religion over atheism, or indeed endorse atheism over religion. They suppose the state should not fund religious schools, or automatically put religious people into positions of political power (any more than the state should be doing this for atheists).
- secularists, in this contemporary sense, emphasize the importance of freedom of thought and expression. People should be free to express their religious beliefs. Religious practice should be protected. Of course the same goes for atheists and secular humanists: they should be no less free to express their views, organise themselves, and publicly argue against religion if they wish.
He points out that many religious people are Secularist. He then lists Armstrong’s complaints about secularism and points out that they do not constitute Secularism as defined by him and several organisations he names. She really needs to decide whether she will come on board.
Law thinks the movement to Secularism is recent and fragile, and under attack around the world.
We need to consider, I think, whether we welcome the diversity of religious belief in our midst, or whether we merely tolerate it.
For me the problem is that religions typically come in packages, institutional packages, parts of which can be toxic. Also commenter Karen was right when she said:
- The monotheistic religions *do* divide humanity up into us and them and if you belong to *them* you are an infidel, evil, sinner or whatever. This is as the heart of the monotheisms and lends itself to conflict.
I also found this piece by Unitarian Fred Harland. If you can read it at all, it reads like a sermon. After citing 10 instances where a literal reading of the Bible will have us stoning or killing people, for things like having their hair cut short, he comes to this:
- Some scholars suggest that the difference between my Dad’s and my Mom’s beliefs are key to understanding religious violence. Listen, for example, to the arguments put forth by Rodney Stark, a sociologist at the University of Washington and by Johan Galtung of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo. To both of them, central beliefs of Christianity and Islam incline their followers to violence. For example, their identification of their deity as the only one, their consequent contempt for the beliefs of others, the notion of being a chosen people, and their apparent need to overthrow or suppress other Gods. Galtung concludes that, among the major religions, Christianity and Islam have the most dangerous beliefs. That Judaism’s beliefs are somewhat less violent, followed by Hinduism and then, with the most peaceful beliefs, Buddhism. He notes that there is a hard either/or, we/they, right/wrong dimension to Western religions, and in particular to Christianity and Islam. Which is in vivid contrast to the softer both/and dimensions of Eastern religions.
Galtung’s bottom line is that we need to strengthen the softer bits if we want peace.
Armstrong is no doubt right when she says that people can draw contradictory and opposite conclusions from the same texts and sets of ideas. Nevertheless the notion that some religions are more inclined to violence still has some traction.
Finally, I’d like to repeat here my statement following Fukuyama of what is required for a civilised society:
- A civilised society requires a functional modern secular state where all citizens have equal rights, which according to Fukuyama has three elements. First you need a strong and capable state which collects taxes, can defend itself externally, maintain order internally and provide necessary services like education, hospitals etc.
Secondly, there must be a rule of law that applies equally to everyone, and a competent justice system to which everyone has access.
Thirdly, the government of the state needs to be accountable to the citizens through universal suffrage.
Such states have only existed in the 20th century. Many fall short in their justice system including us to some extent.
I think there is a fourth, which Fukuyama doesn’t mention. It’s the notion of economic growth, and a standard of living that provides dignity for all. In most countries that didn’t happen before WW2. Until about 500 years ago wealth was a zero sum game. If you wanted more you had to take it off other people.
There is also a fifth, which can be thought of as identity – something that binds us together and distinguishes us. Here ethnicity, culture, language and religion can play a part.
Religion also may be the source of some of the values and norms that are codified into law. There are some religious values and norms that the law should prevent or curtail, and Islam has thrown up some of these IMO.
Religion playing into identity is problematic if it tends to exclude, which almost inevitably it does. That’s true of all religions, including Islam.
The book is Francis Fukuyama: The Origins of Political Order.
He says there was a lot of good luck that got us to the present standard of political order. We may need more than luck to maintain it.