27.4.09

Liberalism and Religion

Terry Eagleton has written something very interesting over here. It points out the central difficulty of the liberal approach: 'you must be properly intolerant of assaults on tolerance'. How does a liberal state deal with individuals and groups opposed to liberalism, such as radical Islamists?

Eagleton is (according to his wiki) the most eminent literary critic in Britain. So we should take his opinion of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie seriously. But do they all 'tout a brand of western cultural supremacism'? Do they all reduce Islam to 'a barbarous blood cult'? Are they really unconscious 'of the national injury and humiliation' that underlies Islamist terrorism? I'm skeptical. These writers are too intelligent for such tabloid short-sightedness.

But I would be skeptical, wouldn't I? For I subscribe to the atheist 'creed' and am emotionally and intellectually obsessed with the idea of progress - democratic, egalitarian, liberal. Naturally, I don't see this as anything to atone for. Am I a Western supremacist? I guess I am, depending on the values we choose to define as 'Western'. The developed world is responsible for liberal democracy and human rights, and also racism and slavery. I deplore the latter, and uphold the former. Socialists and radical Islamists seem to tie the two together. Eagleton may be making the same mistake.

I'm not sure. I am confident that if handed the reigns of power, Richard Dawkins is not going to abolish religion, knock down churches and persecute priests. We are liberals, we respect freedom of conscience. What all the above thinkers are doing is engaging in a vigorous public debate, and attempting to win it. They tolerate religion. That doesn't mean they have to support it.

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