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Harper's Magazine
Friday, June 25th, 2010
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Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents

by Ian Buruma

Taming the Gods

A review by Benjamin Moser

Religions tend to claim a monopoly on truth, which is why most of us learn as children that it is impolite to inquire too closely into the religious beliefs of others; and since such beliefs tend to be held with considerable zeal, the wisest course, we are taught, is to stay out of it. This sound advice, not to children but to governments, is reiterated by Ian Buruma, who concludes his Taming of the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents (Princeton, $19.95) with a paraphrase of Confucius: "Let us leave the spirits aside, until we know how best to serve men."

Buruma examines the role that religion plays in the modern state, a subject that has been so belabored -- Are Muslims taking over Europe? Are religious fanatics taking over America? -- that it requires all of Buruma's essayistic skill to condense these debates into a compact work. That he succeeds says much about his talent for unwinding complex topics, as well as for approaching overly familiar discussions in unfamiliar new ways.

In Europe, conflicts between religious groups and so-called religiously neutral states have sometimes seemed irreconcilable, and, as in America, the nativist right wing has profited from the threat of Islamic fundamentalists. But Buruma shows that the debates go beyond the household names, and so if Spinoza puts in an appearance, along with the equally inevitable Tariq Ramadan, George W. Bush, and French girls wearing headscarves to school, so do the nineteenth-century architects of Japanese emperor worship and the horrific Taiping rebellion in China, during which 30 million people died as a result of the mad Hong Xiuquan's conviction that he was the brother of Jesus Christ.

Buruma opens with Sinclair Lewis's skirt-chasing evangelist Elmer Gantry. But he emphasizes that even though Europeans may believe that "secularism had always distinguished them from the parochial, conservative, God-fearing Americans," Europeans have a far more fraught record on this subject than Americans. And he agrees with Tocqueville that religious fervor in America has often strengthened democracy, as well as religion, by its very determination not to be corrupted by politics. The current resolve of certain religious leaders to identify believers with one political party is, in this sense, a historical perversion.

Buruma's comparative approach demonstrates, in the kind of sober voice that is all too often drummed out by political hysteria, that it is in the interest of both politics and religion to keep to their respective realms. "It is not the task of a liberal democratic state to provide answers to the deeper questions about life, let alone impose metaphysical beliefs on its citizens," Buruma notes, with typical clarity. He realizes that the temptation will always exist. But the state ought to insist "on observance of the law and of the basic rules of democratic society. As long as people play by the rules of free speech, free expression, independent judiciaries, and free elections, they are democratic citizens, whatever they choose to wear on their heads."

Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.

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