Tag Archives: secularism

Two links about religion

If you’re coming here for the nature stuff or the poetry, well, I’ll get back to that next week. I wanted to keep on the religion/secularism thing for one more post and throw up a couple links about religion and material culture – punningly literal material culture. I’m talking about clothes, son. I’m teaching a class on doing research in religion and secularism studies this semester, so it’s even more on my mind than usual.

First, this blog post by the Pew Research Center about a University of Michigan study about religion and secularism in primarily Middle-Eastern Muslim-majority countries drew a lot of attention, as it focused on social attitudes toward appropriate women’s dress as an index of secularism, Westernization, and Muslim identity. In particular, the infographic at the top of the post went massively viral.


It shows stylized portraits of six Muslim women from the head up in attire perceived as increasingly less restrictive, starting with the burqa and then moving toward an ultimately uncovered head and Western attire, and then gives the percentage of respondents from each country that selected that attire as the most appropriate dress for women in public. Some of the attention the graphic drew was satirical, some of it disapproving, but mostly it would seem the attention was due to the fascination with how Muslim women dress. (Hey, I retweeted it too.) Hence the disapproval, that Pew was playing into the Western obsession with Muslim women’s hair-covering, not to mention that the graphic abstracted women in the countries covered to a handful of caricatures.

I get the discomfort with the reduction of women’s presence to a sliding scale of clothing marked as increasingly foreign and weird, and I get the annoyance at how fascinated people seem to be with this aspect of culture in Islamic societies. But 1) I think a graphic like this helps give people a slightly better picture of the complexity of cultural expressions of and responses to female modesty in the Islamic world, and, 2) as the authors of the study point out, issues of women’s dress have been central to internal debates about the status of women and secularization for over a century. I think, too, though, that the study could have used some more sophisticated thinking about dress and religious identity that would have helped them move beyond the rather simple and Eurocentric contention that the question of dress unproblematically “also revolves around the question of individual choice, gender equality and a woman’s control over her own body and sexuality,” but it’s certainly true that those questions come up.

The benefit of a more nuanced approach can I think be seen in the interesting and unsurprising gender breakdown of responses in regards to dress. Men and women in each country were largely in agreement about appropriate attire, but differed considerably “on the issue of a woman’s right to dress as she wishes. Women are more strongly in favor of this statement than men across the seven countries. People with a university education are also more supportive of women’s choice (except in Saudi Arabia).” That the Christian populations favor less restrictive clothing is also not surprising, and of course reflects economic and cultural situations and not exclusively religious. What does it mean, I would want the study to explore, that women can insist on having more control and more choice over their clothing, positions that could certainly be seen as reflecting secular values, but that their choices would still mesh with those seen as being more religious, or more traditional?

Second, what I would want it to be would to be more like this fascinating discussion of women’s clothing and religion by Laura Leibman over at Religion in American History that looks at nineteenth-century attitudes toward Judaism, the fraught intersection between whiteness and blackness at the time, and women’s clothing and fashion. I’ll let it stand on its own, and you should go read it in full. A couple things that struck me, though, in the context of the previous debate are the extent to which loose and disheveled clothing were used in art to indicate the non-white status of Jews, and the extent to which clothing that could be seen as stiffer and more restrictive could indicate the relatively freer and less black status of the wearer. That’s the entry into Leibman’s reading of the wedding portrait of a freed mixed-race daughter of a Jewish plantation owner and a slave that closes the post, which then goes on to highlight a number of representations of class and gender freedoms and restrictions in the subject’s tightly corseted attire that cannot be reduced, as she says, to “an assimilationist vs. devout model.”


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Should a university accommodate a man’s religious objection to interacting with women in class?

No. And this York University case I think was relatively poorly handled by the administration, and although I don’t fully know the reasons why the professor refused to honor the administration’s decision to accommodate the student, I think that the professor’s actions were appropriate, and I’m glad that the resolution of the case in the end seems satisfactory to both the professor and the students.

Briefly, the student requested accommodation in a hybrid class where much of the work was online, but classroom meetings required working in groups with other students, some of whom were likely going to be women. The university granted the request, and the professor refused to honor it on the grounds that it negatively impacted women in the class, and that granting this request would only open the door to increasingly disruptive demands from others. The professor’s department issued a statement supporting the professor, who continues to refuse to grant the accommodation. The student, though, is apparently satisfied with the seriousness the university debated the request, and is agreeing to comply with the requirements of the course despite his religious sensitivity to the presence of women.

Ordinarily I’m willing to give considerable sympathy to requests for accommodation, in educational situations and otherwise, that might even run against someone’s gut sense of what’s fair and appropriate. Most of these requests are coming from the conflicts between either non-Western, and chiefly Islamic, worldviews or defiantly anti-modern pockets of Christian culture and our contemporary Western, secular spaces. We tend, I think, to overreact initially and bristle at these accommodations because they seem to aggressive challenges to secular values. This is why, for instance, I’m so fascinated with the “headscarf debate” – bans and attacks on women for wearing the headscarf are clear overreactions that demonstrate an emotional engagement that exceeds any rational explanation for one’s position.

No small part of those same secular values, though, insist that we make every effort to accommodate religious requests in public spaces so that all people have equal access to those spaces and in particular no group is denied access because of deeply held convictions. And so the university’s decision to honor the request, and any such request, where there is no “substantial impact” on other students is understandable, and even commendable, since a generous gesture at accommodation should be the default attitude to counter the gut-level emotional responses to challenges.

But secular, public space isn’t entirely a vacuum: it is not merely defined by gate-keeping requirements about behaviors permitted within it. The university is a secular space with very specific cultural orientations, practices, and attitudes, ostensibly directed toward the development and dissemination of knowledge, professionalization, etc. I’m not going to get into deeper debates about the validity of the university and projects of modernity and secularization, so we’ll leave it at that.

You wouldn’t let a student object in a biology class about the teaching of evolution – and I certainly don’t accept student objections to the theory of evolution in my writing classes. If you can’t accept the theory of evolution on religious grounds, then I think you need to accept that a secular space devoted to the transmission of human-centered knowledge absent any divine revelation cannot accommodate you. Other social spaces may be made available, certainly, but the university – and educational institutions, generally – are a very specific secular space. We may wish to view society as a totality in which some accommodation must be made for everyone encompassed, but there’s no way that universities could be made so.

The same has to be the case for gender relations. The same is true for race, class, etc. Secular spaces have real, positive, particular, and, yes, contingent cultures and values. You could argue that not interacting with women is not going to affect those women, and the lack of any real harm done means that accommodation is possible, and this is clearly York’s position. But to do so would violate principle moral values of the secular space – that one does not chose to interact differently with peers in the education setting based on accidental qualities like class, race, gender, etc.

So what’s the difference between allowing headscarves, for instance, and allowing genders to segregate? Somebody could argue that allowing a woman to wear a headscarf in a public space violates the same principles of equality and fairness. Well, in part, this is where I think you need to insist on that initial impulse toward generosity, and I think that in light of that gesture, headscarves seem permissible while gender segregation does not. But I think, too, other inherent values of secularism that respect an individual and individual demands of conscience and hold those values as paramount over freedoms to interact or to chose not interact with others.

I don’t have a clear answer on it, though. And I have to admit that much of this seems rationalization of my own gut-level sense that one should permit religious observation and the dictates of conscience whenever possible but realize that acting within a specific secular space requires abiding by certain values and restrictions placed on interacting with others. And that this is as true in the marketplace as it is at the university.

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Accursed land

This is a new one. Former GOP presidential nomination frontrunner Rick Perry has come under some heat for his unconventional and frankly disturbing religious associations. These go beyond the typical guilt by association that plagues politicians who may have encountered some fringe figures in their spiritual pursuits, like Obama’s close association with the controversial and outspoken (and aptly named) Jeremiah Wright or Michele Bachmann’s with the extremely odious Bradlee Dean. I certainly believe these relationships bear scrutiny, but generally not the clutching-the-chest panic they tend to evoke from partisans. Perry, on the other hand, moved into territory that quite frankly can be described as un-American – and by such I’d mean contrary to broad agreements about American political heritage as represented in discussions and interpretations of the Constitution, and nothing more – with the massive prayer rally called “The Response” held in Texas back in August. I don’t need to belabor the obvious here about an elected representative of the people – a governor, no less – endorsing, planning, and leading an exclusive religious festival not as a private citizen but in his capacity as a public servant.

But this is interesting. Evangelist, and from what I can tell, professional crazy person Cindy Jacobs has claimed that “The Response” has lifted a curse from American soil. Part of the purpose of the “The Response” was to pray away the problems that bedevil the country, and no one could be blamed for thinking back to Perry’s earlier state proclamation to pray away the droughts and wildfires that have made Texas, as least as viewed from afar, seem as if it were a land subject to the wrath of some divine power or another. But Jacobs’s claim is new to me: she claims that the sins of the Native Americans – chiefly their cannibalism – cursed the land and that curse, until recently, was affecting the legacy of the European settlers that displaced the native population. This recalls Pat Robertson’s rather confused and contemptible assertion that it was the Haitian Revolution’s pact with the Devil to overturn the French colonial government there that had cursed the land and resulted in Haiti’s horrific earthquake. Now it’s easy to dismiss Jacobs – she’s the fringe of a rather fringe group, and her major claim to notoriety is that she’s prone to make these crazy claims, like her claim that a massive die-off of birds in Arkansas and Louisiana was due to the end of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, the military’s former policy of the forced exclusion of gays and lesbians from service. But the claim itself, and that it would find itself articulated within a specifically evangelical environment, that fascinates me.

Some ritual cannibalism was indeed practiced by Native American peoples prior to European settlements. And not long ago the anthropology community was embroiled in a rather sensational debate about the extent of the cannibalism practiced by a vanished tribe that preceded the Pueblo in the Southwest. But the weirdness here isn’t the lurid fixation with cannibalism itself, but that the sin or crime tainted not the people that practiced it so much as the land they lived on. And not the land so much as the geopolitical entity that inherits that continent.

Our culture is rife with heavily symbolic accounts of the transfer of authority over the land from Natives to Europeans, beginning with the fiction and poetry of the nineteenth century – especially Cooper’s novels and the narrative poems of Longfellow – and the trope of the Vanishing Indian, the peculiar insistence of nineteenth century Americans, including even otherwise astute and sympathetic observers like Thoreau, to insist that the Indians were already prior to the encounter with the West a dying and vanishing race, whose convenient inability to thrive and prosper allowed for European occupation of otherwise soon-to-be-vacated lands. Stories of the transfer of the land from Natives to Europeans continue through our contemporary popular culture, as in the infamous “crying Indian” ad from the 1970’s Keep America Beautiful campaign. And yet in all of those accounts, the Indian vanishes physically but retains some spiritual claim over the landscape, and either approves and guarantees the moral and inevitable nature of European settlement (as we find in Longfellow), or in the case of the TV ad, admonishes its improper stewardship of the transferred lands. Never does the transfer involve our assumption of a primal crime.

If it weren’t for Jacobs’s ties to Perry’s prayer festival and to a prophetic movement that’s become associated with his candidacy, it would be the odd notion of a negligible lunatic, and maybe it is that. But evangelical Christianity has a long history of obsession with geography and spirituality, primarily with that of the Holy Land, so I can’t discount it entirely. Neither do I know what to make of it. Part of it does seem to be a rebuke against secularism, though. If we’re going to be cursed on account of primitive (meaning first, not crude) practices on this continent, the others must be under similar burdens, unless also relieved of that curse by a specifically Christian ceremony – one that deliberate transgresses the original founding compact of the affected nation-state that distinguishes public duties from private obligations of conscience. I think it’s fairly clear here that the sin that far more concerns Jacobs than cannibalism would be the Jeffersonian separation of church and state. Secularism did not permit a sacralization of the American landscape, except in the revisionist histories that see the Constitution in some sort of pre-Bill of Rights dispensation sanctifying a Christian America before the 20th century judicial pronouncements began to pry religion and governance apart. Without that sacralization, the pagan earth that sustained the primitive inhabitants would be the same that sustains our rather shaky secular government, according to this view.

I wonder, then, if we could tie Jacobs’s claim here to the motivation behind Glenn Beck’s rather odd and uncomfortable rally in Jerusalem. The Holy Land has long functioned for evangelical Christians as an historical anchor for what they view as the inevitable and necessary transformation of the created world. It was where Jews were historically supplanted in ecclesiastical importance with Christ himself, and while it is necessary for many Christians that Jerusalem remain Jewish so that historical continuity from Jew to Christian remain forever imminent. But they’re still Jews, and the primal crimes of the land must remain still remain, in this view.

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Headscarves and soccer

An interesting controversy. And a ridiculous decision on the part of FIFA, the international governing body of professional soccer – well, football as they call it. Basically, just before the Iranian women’s team was set to play an Olympic qualifying match against Jordan last week, they were disqualified for wearing uniforms that might cause the players injuries – that is, for wearing an athletic version of headscarves. The international uproar isn’t helping the already scandal-plagued organization.

I think the case is worth noting because headscarf bans in general get promoted as potentially liberating for the women that they affect, but the liberation of those women is never what actually prompts the bans or serves as their goal, and in fact the bans generally serve to perpetuate or further restrictions on the freedom of those women. I think that’s quite clear in the FIFA case.

Rather than ban the headscarves, it’s more productive, I would think, for those that believe the scarves to be an expression of the oppression of women to advocate instead for the use of headscarves so that women who feel compelled to cover their hair in public can participate as much as possible in public life, and thereby see and experience how other women and other cultures negotiate the demands of modesty and public display. Otherwise, as we see from the FIFA example, they quite literally cannot participate, and therefore forfeit any advancement they may have potentially made on behalf of their gender.

In any case, Fast Company’s Co.Design blog reports on an elegant solution – and what I believe should be the desirable outcome in the situation: a sleekier, even more athletic hijab being offered by ResportOn, a company established by designer Elham Seyed Javad to respond to this very need.

The sports hijab was apparently initially inspired by a taekwondo ban on female Muslims wearing a headscarf beneath a regulation helmet. These are the advancements which serve global civil liberties in the 21st century. If FIFA is able to find this acceptable – and that’s by no means given since the reasons for banning the hijab initially aren’t fully clear and likely more about cultural bigotry or the desire to make women’s soccer more like beach volleyball – but if they do, soccer and sport in general advances, religious liberties advance, personal freedom advances, so does women’s liberation, and finally so does secularism. Hurray! If not, well, we’re in this for the long haul.

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I gotta say, I agree with this call.

Now I can’t really claim any expertise in the appropriate application of the Constitution’s establishment clause, but as a supporter  and critic of secularism, I do have my sympathies for certain directions in its application. And so I find the court right in its determination here.

The case concerns efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to control the content of a prayer given at a Memorial Day event at Houston National Cemetery. Reverend Scott Rainey has twice given a prayer at the event sponsored by the National Cemetery Council for Greater Houston, but this year the VA requested to see the prayer Rainey was giving in advance of the ceremony. The director of the cemetery objected to the prayer, which included the Lord’s Prayer and ended by giving thanks to Jesus Christ, on the grounds that it was “specific to one belief.” Upon being asked to keep his prayer “general” and “nondenominational,” Rainey filed suit. A judge has granted Rainey a temporary restraining order that prevents the VA from interfering with Rainey’s prayer on Monday, effectively deciding the case in Rainey’s favor.

The grounds for the VA’s objections are fairly clear – a) while the ceremony is being sponsored by a private trade organization, the Houston National Cemetery is a public space, and a federal one no less, and therefore resolutely secular, and b) while the prayer and the ceremony are clearly intended to honor all the dead, not all soldiers are Christian, and the families and intimates of those non-Christian dead would rightfully feel those they hold in remembrance somewhat excluded from the full honor the ceremony confers. Rainey’s objection is likewise clear: for him the notion that his prayer would not end in an evocation of thanks to Jesus is somewhat inconceivable. It’s the mention of Jesus, one might say, in Rainey’s case that makes it a prayer.

Secularism or freedoms need not be a zero-sum game. Freedoms for and from religion when expressed need not mean that someone else has less of it him or herself. But in this case there does seem to be a conflict between the rights of those who honor and remember the non-Christian soldiers buried at Houston and Rainey’s right to express himself according to the dictates of his conscience. I think Rainey’s rights trump here because of a limited success, we might say, of secularism. Honoring the dead has few secular analogues; cross-culturally the behavior is fundamentally religious. Religion and its expressions are inherently sectarian. To a certain extent it’s pleasing to believe that there are certain basic spiritual beliefs and practices that we all share and that could form a basis for a “general” and “nondenominational” service, but common grounds only exist where previous accommodations to the religions of other cultures with which one comes into account have been made – and of course to religions that bear strong family resemblances. Protestant Christianity finds that it can tolerate accommodations to Catholic and to Jewish faiths at increasing degrees of attenuation. Muslim, sure. Hindu faith? Buddhist? Animist? Atheist? Here our notions of religious practice begin to break down as we attempt to conceive how those accommodations might take place. Philosophically it is possible to connect Hindu and Christian godheads in terms of a variety of shared characteristics, but approaches to prayer, honoring the dead, etc., don’t have close analogs.* And with Buddhism we continue further out.

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Islam, secularism, and liberalism (part 2)

Here’s part one. And sadly I think there will need to be a part 3. Plus an additional post specifically on the whole Sharia law paranoia that’s gripped the imagination of the not-particularly-intelligent-or-imaginative. The whole thing is so long, and the arguments against Islam addressed so baseless, that you may very well want to wait until part three is ready, but I had to write this to get it down before moving on to more compelling arguments. It might be useful background at points for someone interested in but not fully engaged in arguments about secularism, secularization, and religions in the public sphere.

So here goes.

Secularism is a product of social developments in Protestant Europe and the political thinking that prodded and was prodded by them. At first a way for competing Christian persuasions to get along, it became an integral component to modernization, liberalization, and the development of the individual self as the primary arena of moral conflict and suasion, and it never quite lost its mooring in the Protestant ethics of individual choice and progress toward perfection. It is this vaporous religious substance trailing secularism that allows Robert Bellah to diagnose the presence in American civic life  the persistence of an attenuated Protestantism that he calls America’s “civil religion” and that remains in the public sphere, for good or for ill, in subtle tension with our Constitutional tradition of resisting any appearance of the establishment of an official state religion.

In the non-Western world, a key question for some time after the ebb of colonialism has been whether secularism is irredeemably a Western phenomenon – requiring too much of a Protestant worldview and ethic to be adaptable to other contexts – or whether its principles have become sufficiently general and universal that they might prove beneficial to all societies. My personal feeling is more the latter than the former, but I’m not going to get into that now. Instead I want to examine the recent liveliness of the other side of the question. One of the unexpected if now unremarkable consequences of the ebb of colonialism is the thorough cosmopolitanism of the West. And this is no longer a purely urban phenomenon, though it is certainly most concentrated and relatively problem-free in more urban areas. The question being asked now, in a variety of registers and with a various sophistication, is whether secularism can accommodate the non-Protestant.

Well, yes, of course it can. The two major problems for American secularism have been Catholicism and Judaism, and we seem to have reached a point where despite occasional difficulties, Jews and Catholics are largely considered citizens without much suspicion that the Catholic is under the authority of the foreign power of the Vatican or that the Jew places ethnicity higher than civic authority. But these religions were well in place in the Western world before our colonial adventures. What’s prompting the question now is the realization that Islam is a presence in American communities and the perception of Islam elsewhere as a geopolitical problem for the project of secularization. So is Islam here in America a threat to our secularism?

I think the instant response for most is that any answer yes to the question must be driven by Islamaphobic bigotry, and by and large that would be right. The always odious Bryan Fisher, for example, has stated that Islam does not qualify for First Amendment rights of the free exercise of religion because when the Bill of Rights was written solely to protect Christianity and its various observances. And that’s such obvious ignorance and distortion. It’s quite clear that the authors of the Bill of Rights and its antecedents had a conception of religion in general very much in line with our contemporary conception of religion as a cultural phenomenon variously expressed throughout all human societies, and that quite literally First Amendment protections encompassed, as Thomas Jefferson once put it, “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”

Another of these recently emerged and easily dismissed attempts to place Islam outside of the pale is the notion that Islam is not a religion, but instead is a political cult with a theology, “a violent political philosophy more than peace-loving religion,” according to Tennessee’s dimwitted Lieutenant Governor and failed candidate for the Tennessee GOP nod for the governor’s race. The Tea Party favorite was speaking in response to the shameful efforts of some Tennesseans to prevent the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s entirely possible to view Christianity in exactly the same manner. In fact, one of Carl Schmitt’s primary contributions to political philosophy is his notion that the entire modern state is a Christian political cult, in that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” And violence is of course in modernity exclusively the legitimate domain of that state.

Regardless of one’s take on Schmitt’s notions of sovereignty, it’s not far off the mark to note that secularism itself as a secularization of Protestant theological concepts would mean that its refusal to accommodate, well, any form of religious expression might have to do more with the political continuation of Christianity than anything else, regardless of what happens outside the historical bounds of Christendom.

But I digress. Religion like so many human endeavors doesn’t afford tidy definitions, nor do all religions boil down to a specific set of categorical behaviors – the insistence, for instance, on confessional beliefs as the defining core of religious expression (“If you are X religion, then what do you believe?”) is itself a primarily Protestant concern fairly unintelligible in other religious contexts. So we assign the term religion instead according to family-likenesses of behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes, and in that arrangement Islam is clearly a religion, and quite resembles its older cousins Christianity and Judaism.

Religion plays an important role in societies, in their culture, and certainly in their politics, but religion is not integral to either society nor culture, even if it may seem at times not completely distinguishable. And Islam, like its cousins Christianity and Judaism, is what we term a “world” religion – a religion that is sufficiently free from cultural and ethical markers to be exportable to other groups, situations, and societies. And it has done so. There is no single Islamic politics, though there may be and are many approaches to politics that come with some Islamic rhetoric attached. Which makes it no different than Christianity or Judaism.

If it is in truth a religion and not a political cult, maybe it’s a religion with a significant enough difference from Christian sects or Judaism that would make it untenable in a secular society. That’s the approach seems to be the lowest common denominator in the recent flare-ups of Islamophobia, the most recent and prominent expression of it coming from Herman Cain, one of the many less-than-serious candidates for the G.O.P. presidential nomination for 2012. He stated, when asked why he’s uncomfortable around Muslims, that based on his “limited knowledge” of the religion he believes “they have an objective to convert all infidels or kill them” – that they have the First Amendment right to practice their religion, but that they are a unique threat because of a drive to enforce their way of life on everyone else.

I’m sure Muslims welcome conversion. Everyone would like to see others brought over to their point of view, particularly if they believe that point of view to offer considerable spiritual benefits. And every group is engaged in a political struggle at some level to place demands upon the public to further a specific spiritual agenda, hence the continual back-and-forth in the public sphere between Christian fundamentalism and secularists. There are points, then, when I wonder to what extent and at what points is secularism merely a political strategy of realism and achievable goals. Let’s take American groups that are aggressive proselytizers (which Muslims are not): Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, both groups which have significantly higher numbers than American Muslims. Is it the secular modus vivendi that prevents them from threatening violent action against reluctant converts? If anything, I think that the relative lack of proselytizing efforts on behalf of American Muslims may be due to the perception that they would then be likely on the receiving end of the ensuing violence.

So, to sum up: the arguments that Muslims cannot participate in a modern secular liberal state because a) secularism never intended for the presence of Islam, b) Islam is not a religion, or c) that Islam is constitutionally incapable of participating in secular society are all quite unfounded, at least to the extent that any of these arguments would distinguish Islam as particularly unsuitable. And certainly to address these issues seems a bit pointless, as anyone who knows – even casually – American Muslims on a personal level recognizes that these objections are groundless and largely based in ignorance and hysterical fear.

But that brings me to what I’ll address in part 3. Although the arguments above don’t hold water, I do find the argument worth considering if ultimately not compelling that secularism itself as currently configured is deficient in accommodating the presence of Muslim communities.


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Islam, secularism, and liberalism (part 1)

One of the core values of liberalism is the notion of free speech, a notion which has a deep historical association with the freedom of conscience and worship. Indeed, secularism – and by secularism here, I mean the notion that each person should be free to follow the dictates of conscience – can and I believe should be seen as core to the development in the West of individual liberties. There are, of course, other secularisms, and even other strands in Western secularism that complicate application and adjudication of free speech and free worship.

A key facet in our notion of free speech, is that the free exchange of ideas is a form of a market. Rather than ban speech that is dangerous or offensive, we permit it, believing that it will have little currency in the larger market and, failing to gain purchase, will fade. Banning it, we believe, may allow it to fester – feeding it as the oppressed with the legitimacy it would drain from those who ban it.

So much of Enlightenment liberalism, of course, depends on a vision of us as rational actors capable of embracing a common good, and passion and sectarianism – what secularism meant to banish from the public sphere – frequently reveal our limitations and the blind spots in our confidence. Demagoguery has become a real danger in contemporary political discourse, and over the past few years, anti-Muslim demagoguery has become among the most visible expressions of it.

When Terry Jones threatened to burn the Koran on September 11 of last year as a public rebuke of Islam, it became an international media event, despite the fact that Jones is on the fringe of the fringe of hard-right Christianism and the leader of an almost laughably small church. The announcement inflamed many in Muslim communities and provoked widespread condemnation in the Western world. Jones eventually back down in the face of all this pressure.

At the time, many people, myself included, felt that Jones was well within his First Amendment rights to burn the Koran as a form of expression, vile that it may be. I still feel that way. But at the time, I felt that the media was giving him undue attention – that by hyperventilating over his threat, the impression given to the non-Western world is that Koran burning is a large concern and issue in Western public discourse. I don’t believe it is ever wise to determine a course of action largely on the basis of how extremist elements will interpret it, and that needn’t have been the thinking here. Instead, we seemed to be blowing the actions of one minor weirdo all out of proportion because of our concerns that it would allow Muslim extremists to do the same, libeling Western secular culture as irredeemably anti-Muslim.

I appears those of us who wanted the media to ignore Jones and his threats as insignificant and not having any real currency in the free market of ideas were wrong, or at least naïve. When Jones threatened to do it again this March, there was unbeknownst to the general public, a deliberate and active media blackout that refused to cover the event. So it came as a complete surprise to that public when Afghans rioted for several days in early April, resulting in dozens of death, most of them U.N. aid workers. Although only a few Americans were even aware of what had happened, it was not through a lack of effort on Jones’s part, and the story metastasized across the internet, appearing on the websites of Islamic extremists and the like until it became hyped by the perpetually embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai, sparking the riots.

We can’t ban actions like Jones’s. We can’t, it would appear, simply ignore them and pretend that they won’t have an effect, because in our media and information saturated globe, they persist until they find their intended audience. Not unlike the Danish cartoon controversy: the satirical cartoon depictions of Mohammed in Jyllands-Posten inspired some local European reaction after their publication, but it took some time for them to come to the attention of the Muslim world, at which point they became a useful vehicle for inflammatory rhetoric. For Jones and his supporters, the riots prove the point they were setting out to make: their story reached its audience in the end, which were not so much the Muslims in the grip of extremist and violent rhetoric that set them upon the U.N. compounds, but us back in the U.S. Jones and Karzai alike point at the other and say to those whose support and attention they crave, “See. This is what we’re up against.”

I think that the only appropriate response, after the of course condemning Jones’s actions and the even more horrific actions of the Afghan mob, and the hope that there may be some justice for the violence, is a degree of resignation. Our lives will continue to affected by what Hasnain Kazim is calling the “clash of extremes,” militant demagogues on the Christian and the Islamic worlds attempting to gain power and influence by attacking the other side under the banner of an absolute truth. But neither are we completely powerless. These extremes threaten not only our safety but also the liberties of conscience secularism would guarantee, and in both cases it is that secularism that both extremes are at pains to eradicate, and secularism’s fragility, and the fragility of democracy, the expression of secularism in the political realm, in much of the non-Western world is a legitimate source of concern. If we can’t ignore the extremes, then we’ll have to face them, and talk about them. Confidence in the secular project may be the only best response.

Oddly enough, in reading the claims that Jones makes about the Koran in the rather silly mock trial his congregation put on to condemn it, what stands out are the great pains that the church goes through to damn the Koran and Islam on the basis of insufficient secularism. They write, “Islamic Law is totalitarian in nature. There is no separation of church and state. It is irrational. It is supposedly immutable and cannot be changed. It must be accepted without criticism. It has many similarities to Nazism, Communism and Fascism. It is not compatible with Western Civilization.” And then, “Islam is not compatible with democracy and human rights. The notion of a moral individual capable of making decisions and taking responsibility for them does not exist in Islam.” Is Islam incompatible with Western secularism? I’ll look at a few arguments of the arguments, from silly to serious, in part 2.


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The Texas education standards controversy

I had meant to write at length on this myself, but this article from the New York Times Magazine covers much of what I wanted to say quite brilliantly. It should be mandatory reading for anyone concerned with the state of education in the U.S.

For those of you unacquainted with the controversy, you’re probably aware of the strong influence Texas has on what gets taught in public schools nationally – well, public and quite a few private as well. Texas was an innovator and early leader in setting statewide educational standards, and as the second largest textbook market in the nation, what Texas decides is important and necessary to be taught is likely to shape the textbooks educational publishers will offer to the rest of the nation.

Over the past few years, the Texas State Board of Education has increasingly come under the control of conservative activists who are bent on politicizing education. As the article points out, one of the core focuses, and what seems to be the major force driving the agenda of this group, is to rewrite American history to highlight what Christian fundamentalists insist on is the Christian origin of the nation. Although the group has made only a little headway in rewriting American religious history precisely, preferring at this point to focus on promoting explicitly conservative interpretations of isolated historical incidents and shifting the history’s personnel around (removing Ted Kennedy from the history curriculum, and adding Phyllis Shafly, e.g..), the re-imagining of America as a Christian nation remain a rhetorical incitement to their project as well as the intended effect of their changes.

As the article points out, the group has some valid points. The strong interpretation of the separation of church and state over the twentieth century has introduced what the current Supreme Court might very well term a “chilling effect” on the instruction of the role of religion in American history. What should be viewed as a central, organic, and integral component of the lives of the European settlers in North America and the consequences of that settlement emerges instead as piecemeal and often incoherent. Are any schoolchildren taught about the First and Second Great Awakening? The first is important to an understanding of the American Revolution; the second to the broad experience of American Protestantism but democracy, capitalism, and secularism as well (one of the beautiful, untold ironies of American history is how the Second Great Awakening generously produced not only evangelical Christianity but also the contemporary forms of liberal secularism, and not as a reaction either).

But alongside the efforts of the conservative contingent of the board to reintroduce the history of American Christianity into the history of America, there are also examples of selective focus, like putting new emphasis on the Mayflower Compact as setting out a specific Christian agenda for the Puritan settlers, neglecting that the initial colonies arose out of a variety of competing and often exclusive agendas, notably the mercantile proto-capitalism of the Virginia Company. And then, of course, there is the absolute ahistorical hogwash, that seems to come from that unique blindness that first obliterates inconvenient facts and then manufactures new ones to fill the resulting vacuum.

This the familiar historical bullshit that proclaims the Founding Fathers to be Christians who designed the new American nation to be from start to second coming a Christian nation. Do I need even need to rehearse this? The Founding Fathers were Christian in the sense that they were white descendants of Northern Europeans who were not Jews – that is how they understood and used the word. Their own religious beliefs and practices were various to a man, and few bear much resemblance to the beliefs and practices we currently use the term Christian to mean. Few of them believed in the divinity of Christ; few of them believed in the exclusive claim of Christian revelation to the truth. Most of them were deeply suspect of revelation and its claims entirely.

(That these men were educated elites whose own experiences and attitudes could be quite different from the masses whose passions helped fuel the Revolution and the ensuing emergence of the first modern republic should be evident. But let’s not forget the importance of Enlightenment secular thought to American intellectual culture throughout class strata. Washington read his soldiers in Valley Forge from The American Crisis by Thomas Paine, the Christopher Hitchens of the eighteenth century, to inspire them for the Christmas Day engagement with the British soldiers in Trenton that was to change the course of the war to the Americans’ favor.)

The Constitution is a wholly secular document, written to help shape the development of a strong federal government that in part would protect and assure that persons could follow the dictates of individual conscience, no matter what that might be (and the framers were aware and quite explicitly state in their correspondence – especially Jefferson – that the Constitution was to favor no religion over any other, including Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam). Those aspects of the First Amendment that specifically treat religion, the disestablishment clause and the freedom clause, developed out of joint efforts by secularists like Madison and Jefferson and religious dissenters like Quakers and Baptists to protect believers, dissenters, non-believers, and religion itself from what they viewed as potential tyranny of allowing the state to claim any authority from or involvement in religious practice.

And any anyone who believes that American jurisprudence has any relationship to the Ten Commandments is a fool who has either no knowledge of the law or of the commandments, or, mostly likely, both.

The debate is important: 1) the historical record is quite clear that America was founded as the world’s first secular nation, and we need to adhere to the truth where we have it, painful and inconvenient as it may be; and 2) our democracy and our freedoms cannot be ever fully extricated from our secularity: the three are mutually interdependent concepts, and are the consequence and the dream of a fully realized modernity.

I have much more to say on efforts to politicize education and on the hard-line conservative war on truth and reality, and I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity. This issue is important in and of itself, and as the article suggests, the controversy has brought about sufficient national scrutiny to mean that the political futures of the thugs attempting to divert education toward their partisan political agendas is less certain than before. Please, don’t lose sight of this.

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I’m preparing two essays, one brief and another longer, on religion, knowledge, and contemporary society. Plus, I’m due to post an update on the job search. Meanwhile, as I’m continually threatening to violate the spirit and form of a blog with my long even if somewhat spontaneous ruminations, here’s a few small things.

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