Liberalism can be defended

Taner Edis thinks Gary Bouma is right about secularism and that Russell Blackford is wrong. I think Taner is mostly wrong that Russell is wrong that Gary Bouma is wrong. Still with me?

Note that, as often in the liberal tradition, the main pragmatic argument Blackford uses to promote a secular regime is that it helps keep the peace between rival sects…Such arguments tend to overlook how such reasoning is difficult to generalize beyond the context of Western European Christianity in the modern era.

Possibly. But then…this may sound crude, but the reality is, Western Europe is a pretty good place to live, and it and its descendants are better places to live than most of the rest of the world. Yes, that does sound crude, but it doesn’t sound exactly fictitious, does it. There aren’t great waves of migrants going from France or Canada or New Zealand to live in Pakistan or China or Nigeria, and that’s not just some random accident. Yes Western Europe and its descendants are prosperous as well as liberal, but then it is generally thought that there is a pretty strong connection between the liberalism and the prosperity. So even if it’s true that secularism currently seems easier to defend in (let’s call it) the liberal world than outside it, that doesn’t really indicate that the illiberal world (to put it crudely) has a good case for theocracy.

But today’s multicultural urban environments are different. We have to deal with not one fragmenting religious tradition, but people thrown together from very different faiths, including various kinds of Muslims, Buddhists, African Christianities, indigenous traditions, etc. etc.

Well not exactly ‘thrown together’ – as indicated above, it’s more a matter of people going to such places on purpose, for reasons, because they want to. It’s a matter of mass migration, of large-scale immigration, of people who are drawn to these places because, for whatever reason, they prefer them to their places of origin. For at least some of those people, secularism and liberalism in general are among the reasons, are among the attractions that draw people from all these very different faiths into today’s multicultural urban environments. It is not necessarily the case that people who move from one place to another want their destination place to transform itself into a simulacrum of the place they left behind. People don’t generally leave home in order to find the same thing elsewhere, so the fact that the new place has many unfamiliar aspects is not automatically a reason to change those aspects. For all anybody knows those are the very aspects that draw people in the first place.

[I]t is hard to say that individualist tendencies are clearly dominant over desires to retain some measure of community identity and cohesion. Governmental bodies, unless driven by an explicit secularism in the French style, can effectively deal with representatives of religious communities as intermediaries. Keeping the peace often means ensuring that South Asian Shiites and Korean evangelicals and so forth do not feel disrespected and disadvantaged.

Yes it’s hard to say, but it’s hard to say the reverse, too. It’s hard to say (for sure; without risk of being dead wrong; etc) that desires to retain some measure of community identity and cohesion are clearly dominant over individualist tendencies. And then with the next sentence, we get into the really bumpy territory. What does ‘effectively’ mean there? Sure in some sense government bodies can pretend that various self-appointed people can claim to be ‘representatives’ of all putative members of their putative community, and the two can agree between themselves what is to be done, but the reality is that that’s basically just lazy bullshit, and it gives away genuine representation to people who are not elected and not reliably accountable. It shouldn’t be taken at face value as a good way to ‘deal with’ various ‘communities.’

I think Taner is making the mistake here of treating groups as uniform blocs, when the reality is that all groups are made up of particular individuals, and no matter how instructed or persuaded or indoctrinated those particular individuals are, it cannot simply be assumed that they all think alike on any one question. Even the question of secularism, even the question of individual rights. Some putative members of the putative group may well simply disagree with their putative representatives or leaders – but those people are marginalized and ignored by any system that pretends that self-appointed leaders really can represent people who have no voice.

In a multicultural environment, you have to be careful where and with whom you voice criticism…Atheists will denounce the intellectual pathologies that support supernatural beliefs, but they will do it in academic circles or in small discussion groups. They won’t go to the mass media. That would be foolish, even dangerous.

Well if that’s true we’re screwed – and it’s not true, at least not yet. There is a huge amount of social pressure on atheists to confine our atheism to some small closet or other, but there is also a pretty robust resistance to that pressure. If what Taner says really does describe ‘a multicultural environment’ then I don’t want to live in one – but fortunately I don’t think that’s the only possible understanding of ‘multicultural.’

[A] broader historical experience has made the darker, coercive aspects of liberal politics more obvious. Postmodern multiculturalists legitimately ask why a liberal individualist model, with its violent, anti-communitarian aspects, should remain dominant in the legal realm.

I don’t think so. I think compared to the darker, coercive aspects of communitarian politics, liberalism as such (not liberalism as a front for imperialism or cut-throat capitalism) looks pretty good. I’m not sure what Taner means by that passage, so I won’t belabor the point further, in case I have him wrong.

Now, I don’t particularly like all this. My particular interests drive me toward secular liberalism, even after repeated disenchantment. I dislike tight communities. Multicultural bullshit may be useful bullshit, but I still have an aesthetic dislike toward it that I cannot seem to overcome. But all of this is hardly a basis for public policy.

There I think he’s simply selling himself way short. What he’s describing is not a mere aesthetic dislike. ‘My particular interests’ are what drive people in general toward secular liberalism, especially when they’ve been able to develop a healthy sense of their own interests. People – women, in particular – who’ve been raised within ‘communities’ that see them as inherently and permanently inferior and subordinate are often inhibited from developing a healthy sense of their own interests, but that’s not a reason to raise that inhibition to a general principle. On the contrary. And people’s healthy sense of their own interests is indeed a basis for public policy.

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