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Relativism and Religion: Why Democratic Societies Do Not Need Moral Absolutes
Carlo Invernizzi Accetti
Columbia University Press, $65 (cloth)

The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions
Michael Walzer
Yale University Press, $18 (paper)

Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report
Saba Mahmood
Princeton University Press, $24.95 (paper)

The American public sphere is blessed with many religious experts. In the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis, pundits reminded us that Christianity enjoins the welcoming of refugees. Many of the same people, it turns out, are also deeply familiar with Islam, allowing them to piously intone that it is a “religion of peace.” These claims often come from people who are not themselves affiliated with those faiths or any other: they are political interventions masquerading, sometimes insultingly, as exegesis. They serve an important function, however, as a form of wish fulfillment. If these pat, nervous descriptions of long and complex religious traditions were true, the age-old problem of religion in the public square could vanish into a puff of banalities. Peace and refugee assistance are perfectly good secular, progressive goals, and it would be convenient if Christianity and Islam, which long antedate secular progressivism, happened to enjoin the same things. Alas, the world is not so simple. But what, then, are we to do? What should we expect from religion in a secular society?

The conservative position on religiosity has the virtue of coherence: America, from this perspective, is a Christian nation. Even if other religions should be tolerated in the name of Christian charity, they should cede pride of place to America’s exceptional Christian heritage. Progressives have a much more difficult time, and we ricochet between contradictory and unsustainable positions. On the one hand, religion is transparently absurd, but on the other the triumphant atheism of Richard Dawkins is embarrassing, too. When someone such as Kim Davis forces us to confront difficult issues of law and faith, we often have recourse to uncomfortable mockery, unsure why it is wrong to disobey political authority in the name of individual conscience. The old Marxist account of religion as an “opiate of the people” survives, too, in the conventional wisdom that evangelical voters cling to guns and religion because they are distracted from their true economic interests. These attempts to sidestep the question of religion’s role are dangerous but understandable. The great philosopher Richard Rorty once sighed that religion was a conversation-stopper: If someone claims to be acting for religious reasons, what is there to say? If he were alive today, he would know that if we cease talking about religion, we start shouting about it.

For decades, the persistence of religious violence and discrimination was largely outsourced to social scientists, who told us that religion would either vanish altogether or become privatized as societies industrialized. As these predictions have proven faulty, scholars have been going back to the drawing board. In the last year, there have appeared a number of books eager to help us out of this quandary: What, they ask, is the proper place of religion in a democratic society? How can people live together if they have fundamental, irreconcilable beliefs about the nature of the universe?

One answer is to simply declare outright that there is no such place. This is not at all a new position, but previous attempts to police the public sphere in this way have proven both politically and intellectually ineffective. The political theorist Carlo Invernizzi Accetti’s bracing new book, Relativism and Religion: Why Democratic Societies Do Not Need Moral Absolutes, provides a novel and powerful approach. Accetti does not simply dismiss religion in the name of a secular, rationalist form of ethics or democratic legitimacy. He would not try to prove Kim Davis wrong and explain why marriage law should be secular. Instead, he argues that only a revived form of philosophical relativism can get us out of the secular-religious bind. He takes religious arguments very seriously, and devotes a good portion of the book to a patient reconstruction of the Roman Catholic argument against relativism. He thinks that religious critics of relativism are wrong, but in the process he makes the more startling claim that secular critics of relativism are wrong, too.

What if there is no such thing as ‘religion’ and therefore no obvious phenomenon for secularism to police?

Accetti’s singular insight is that Catholic and secular theorists of democracy, for all their differences, agree on one fundamental assertion: ethical relativism is a problem for democracies. The Catholic Church has been making this claim for more than a century, and Catholic dogma, like most American politicians, holds that democracies can only exist on a strong bedrock of religious values. Secular theorists of democracy such as Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls do not agree, of course, but they accept the basic premise that relativism is a problem and that democracies must have some means of adjudicating truth claims. In the place of theology, they use different forms of neo-Kantian philosophy to derive a democratic ethic from pure reason.

Accetti responds that the problem has been poorly posed. What if relativism is a precondition for democracy, and ideological certainty, whether religious or secular, is the real threat? His case draws above all on the Austrian jurist Hans Kelsen, who made a similar argument a century ago. Essentially, Accetti argues that there is a price for admission into democratic debate: we must all agree that our commitments are “relative.” This does not mean that we should become apathetic or abandon our values altogether. It does mean, though, that we should not enter the public sphere under the preconception that our own perception of the truth is the only valid one, and that it should acquire the force of law.

On its own terms, Accetti’s argument is convincing and cogent. But what would it look like in practice? In the end, Accetti must simply want to remove religion from democratic society altogether. “Democracy only really makes sense,” he argues, “in a society of democrats”—in his view, a society of relativists. But can a religious actor actually admit that her religious beliefs are relative while remaining a religious actor in any robust sense of the term? What would it mean to believe, in an existential sense, that my religious commitment to, say, pacifism or abortion regulation was relative? Relative to what? If we ask Kim Davis to accept that her belief in God is relative and therefore cannot be used to legitimate restrictions on others, we are asking her to violently upend her faith. Accetti’s logic only makes sense if we assume that religious populations might be convinced to adopt a form of double consciousness. Accetti’s sort of relativism, in the end, looks quite a bit like dogmatism.

This is not necessarily a problem. Accetti’s dogmatism is refreshing in a world committed to vague and unsustainable ideals of multiculturalism and toleration. But when it comes to the concrete questions we face, it is hard to see how this kind of relativism helps us. We might be squeamish about asking a committed believer to sacrifice her faith, but she would not be squeamish about refusing. Consider the fate of Accetti’s hero, Kelsen. Although Accetti doesn’t mention it, Kelsen himself fell prey to religious extremism: the Austrian Constitution he so lovingly crafted after World War I was overthrown in 1934 by a Catholic dictator, Engelbert Dollfuss. When confronted by religious passions, relativism tends to crumble.

It is this empirical fact that has excited the interest of Michael Walzer, an American progressive icon, who offers a more pragmatic version of Accetti’s argument. If secularism is so manifestly attractive, he wonders, why has it so often been on the losing side of history? Walzer agrees with Accetti that democrats are too willing to treat religion with kid gloves. In an electric and controversial essay on Islamism published last year, he reminded progressives that secularism is an important part of their legacy and that they need feel no qualm about criticizing Islamic fundamentalism for what it is: a violent, extremist, and dangerous set of beliefs. In The Paradox of Liberation, Walzer expands on these ideas: How can it be, he asks, that so many noble, secular, and even socialist projects of national emancipation have foundered on the rocky shores of religious extremism? In other words, why are we facing the religious question so frequently, and why won’t Accetti’s solution work?

One virtue of Walzer’s account is that he reminds us of the wave of secular hope that motivated revolutionaries in places such as Algeria, India, and Israel, his three case studies. While all three of these places are currently in the throes of religious extremism, their national liberation movements were, Walzer claims, triumphantly secular, democratic, and even socialist. (He is aware that his model fits some cases better than others; this book paints with the broadest of brushes.) Those movements were led by educated elites, often familiar with the Western secular tradition from the metropole. In the euphoria of liberation, an alliance between modernizing elites and the masses, largely rural and religious, was possible, but as liberation gave way to the humdrum of governance, the fundamental clash between modernizing elites and traditionalist societies became apparent. The bent twig of religiosity snapped back.

If Accetti’s brand of secularism seeks to defang religion entirely, Walzer wonders how its claws might be turned to more productive pursuits than terrorist attacks or gender-based oppression. He dismisses the notion that religious citizens could be convinced to become less religious: in his view, that has been tried, and it has failed. Secularists, Walzer thinks, should learn to critically engage with religious traditions in order to locate and emphasize the progressive, secularizing features of ancient and complex faiths. Instead of ritually dismissing religions as atavistic holdovers from the past with no role to play in polite society, we should recognize that they are here to stay and try to cultivate the forms of religion that are most acceptable to the secular conscience. There are, he points out, resources in the Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu traditions for something like feminism, and the Western feminist is more likely to succeed by learning and speaking that language than by strapping on the armor of secularism.

Walzer’s view is certainly attractive, and some version of it is probably common sense among many progressives—wary of trumpeting atheism on the one hand, desiring to pursue their own ideals of gender and equality on the other. This view grants religion an immense amount of explanatory power, while also positing that it can be reformed, and perhaps reformed more easily than deep-seated structures of political economy. Religion, we are often told, is the ultimate explanatory variable: cause of terrorist attacks, cause of wars, source of voting patterns and gender politics. As such, it cries out for policing, and both Walzer and Accetti seek, in their own ways, to police religion, defining from a secular perspective what sorts of religion are allowed. If Accetti wants to sidestep religion entirely, Walzer wants to instrumentalize it for secular ends. Disappointed that religions continue to exist at all, he hopes progressives could at least learn to cultivate those aspects of religious traditions that are acceptable to Michael Walzer. Is this, though, a genuine solution or a stopgap measure? The Paradox of Liberation is more the elegy of a frustrated leftist than a cogent path forward. “The dialectic,” he sadly admits, “doesn’t seem to be working these days the way it used to.” His goal is more to jump start its wheezing motor, employing religion as a sort of sparkplug, than it is to theorize our categories anew.

The persistence of religion demands a more fundamental rethinking of our political and social theories. As is so often the case when facing apparently insoluble dilemmas, the first step might be to clarify our terms. What if there is no such thing as “religion” and therefore no obvious phenomenon to be policed? Now, of course there exist forms of authority and practice that explicitly gesture toward some kind of transcendent deity, and it is useful and necessary to have a term for such phenomena. But when that term is used to describe the entire being of an individual or a community or a war, it breaks down. And when intellectuals imagine that religion is a major problem to be solved, they ratify that reductive notion and paradoxically end up granting power to it. What is actually being said when we claim that there are two kinds of refugees: Christian ones and Muslim ones? Two kinds of national liberation movements: secular ones and religious ones? Two kinds of speech: secular speech and religious speech?

To ask such questions is to begin to recognize that secularism is not simply the victory of relativism or progressivism over the forces of religion—it is the very imagination of such a thing called religion, linked with the conjuring of, for instance, Christianity and Islam as entities that somehow bind wildly disparate practices and projects across time and space. Think for a moment about the incredible variety of practices and social relations that are classified as “religious,” from terrorism to Sunday School to electoral politics. It is not clear what these have in common, if anything, and it is even more unclear how they might be distinguished from, say, a national anthem or a mall Santa.

The notion of religious freedom commits us to the idea that lives and societies can be split into pieces, some called religious and others not.

The idea that some essence of religion exists across different societies and can be analytically distinguished is only about three centuries old. Crafted primarily by European missionaries and imperialists confronted with a challenging and opaque world, its legacy does not inspire confidence, and there is no particular reason to remain beholden to it. The deconstruction of the category might seem like an academic parlor game, but in fact the stakes are high. The invocation of religion as an explanatory variable and a bump in the night has become commonplace, and it legitimates a powerful, often-unquestioned worldview.

Secularists, and even some religious people, generally think that religion is the problem to be solved, but secularism might be the greater puzzle. In two recent books, the political scientist Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and the anthropologist Saba Mahmood study secularism in a laudably concrete way by exploring its paradigmatic political commitment: religious freedom. The secular state does not seek to eradicate religion but to create a religiously plural society in which everyone’s religious rights can be respected. The idea sounds unobjectionable until we look closely at what it means in practice, something that most apologists for religious freedom—from Becket Fund supporters to ardent atheists—don’t often do. As Hurd and Mahmood recognize, if we declare something to be free, we presume the existence of that thing. The notion of religious freedom, therefore, commits us to the idea that our lives and our societies can be split into pieces, some of which can be called religious and others of which cannot. This gesture is central to Walzer’s and Accetti’s policing strategies and to those of the liberal state that has long declared itself in favor of religious freedom. But, as with most policing, such strategies can lead quickly to violence.

Hurd explores the ramifications of secularism and religious freedom on the global stage in her provocatively titled Beyond Religious Freedom. Political secularism and the attendant logic of religious freedom, she shows, have long been central to the governing methods of the United States, the United Nations, and many individual states too. In her view, the category of religion is a clumsy one, and the religious-secular binary obscures more than it illuminates. It is impossible, she thinks, to disentangle elements of a society that are religious from those that are not. “To rely for policy purposes on the category of religious actor,” she argues, is to “presume a certain form of actorship motivated by religion that is neither intellectually coherent nor sociologically defensible.”

Beyond Religious Freedom details the distorting effects that the category of religion has in international relations and foreign policy, drawing freely from examples around the world. Religion has become an object of social control, monitored by bodies such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has counterparts around the world. By conjuring religion as a feature of governance, Hurd suggests, these efforts “stabilize and amplify particular forms of religious and religious-secular difference, obscure other contributors to social tension and conflict, and favor historically specific understandings of religion, religious subjectivity, and freedom itself.” Prioritizing religion as the most important aspect of a citizen’s identity, these bodies end up creating the very difference they are meant to govern. At the same time, the clumsy logic of global governance requires that fluid religions be consecrated into “discrete faith communities with identifiable leaders and neatly bounded orthodoxies” that do not reflect reality.

One of Hurd’s major arguments is that, instead of lumbering opponents in an age-old battle, religion and secularity must be studied in close detail, as strategies in complex, local political contests. Mahmood, with the anthropologist’s eye for lived experience and local ramifications, provides such a study in her exemplary Religious Difference in a Secular Age. Based on more than a year of fieldwork in Egypt, the book shows how various individuals and groups in contemporary Egypt mobilize these concepts, and to what ends.

Like Hurd, Mahmood is convinced that the commitment to secularism necessarily presupposes the summoning, and management, of religion as a central axis of identity. “The regulation of religion under secularism,” she argues, “has not simply tamed its power but also transformed it, making it more, rather than less, important to the identity of the majority and minority populations.” Through an exploration of the Copts and the Baha’i, she shows how two minority groups have selectively adopted that identity—“religious minority”—in order to gain legibility to non-Egyptians and to make certain legal claims under the religious-freedom protections of the Egyptian constitution.

Perhaps the most interesting element of Mahmood’s discussion concerns the regulation of gender. This is a key issue for Walzer, too, whose commitment to secularism is predicated largely on a belief of women’s rights, too often trampled by traditional religious communities. That may be, but Mahmood shows that the logic of secularism might make this problem worse rather than better, in part because that logic presumes a split between public and private realms. According to this distinction, there is a space—my home or place of worship, canonically—in which I can believe whatever foolish thing I please. As long as I don’t start spraying bullets to convert others to the cause, there is no foul. But this is a large capitulation to authorities coded as religious. Secularism does not just create idle divisions: it affirms the rightful place of religion in the ways of the home and therefore family and gender relations. Thus, rather than sever the explosive link between religion and female sexuality, secularism may strengthen it.

Secularism, it turns out, is at least partially responsible for the persistence of religious division and religious conflict and is therefore not the most obvious solution to them. To return to the example with which we started, the reminder that Islam is a “religion of peace,” often heard from good-hearted secularists, surreptitiously grants an independent reality to something called Islam—something with which an opponent might go to war and which might serve to mark certain individuals as a threat.

Recognizing secularism’s role in generating conflict might provide a pathway out of the political-theological thickets that ensnare Accetti and Walzer. In the end, though, the practical consequence of Hurd and Mahmood’s work is just as unclear. Readers are left with serious questions about what will be left behind once the unstable dichotomy of religious and secular is overcome. How might we imagine a “post-secular” condition while holding onto Accetti’s norms of democratic speech, Walzer’s ideals of gender equality and civil liberty, and the traditional progressive commitment to the state as the most important agent of social progress? Is that even possible?

These are serious questions that will hopefully engage us in the future, as scholars and citizens. Such questions provide the opening to a genuine conversation about religion that can take place outside the incandescent heat of the cable news studio. It is possible, I hope, to be committed to ideals that have long been coded “secular” while also learning to think critically about the category. We will, however, have to dislodge specific issues from the grand narrative of religious or secular crusade. The clash between religion and secularism is, like so many of our present wars, never-ending. Resolution will come not through sending more troops into the fray but only through calling a truce. Interrogations of religion in the abstract can only distract attention from the ways in which specific traditions that we call religious are mobilized by particular people for particular reasons. Religion, like politics, is fundamentally local. To understand its manifestations, therefore, requires work—not the conjuring of huge abstractions, but the understanding of particular individuals and projects through leaps of intellect, empathy, and that oldest and most democratic of virtues: faith.