Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
Research Centre for Religious Studies Research Centres Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalization
Header image The Religion Factor

Whose religion? Whose Tolerance? A Response to Jonathan Israel

Date:15 December 2015
Author:Erin Wilson
Hilversum, Stationsplein. Kunstwerk “Voor verdraagzaamheid” van Edo van Tetterode. Hilversum/The Netherlands.
Hilversum, Stationsplein. Kunstwerk “Voor verdraagzaamheid” van Edo van Tetterode. Hilversum/The Netherlands.

In yesterday’s post, Aukje Muller and Roos Feringa provided a summary of a public lecture delivered by Prof Jonathan Israel at the University of Groningen. CRCPD Director Erin Wilson was one of three scholars asked to give a response to Prof Israel’s talk. These remarks are published in today’s post.

Tolerance is something that many Western democracies, though perhaps especially the Netherlands, pride themselves on. Yet, as numerous events in recent times, not the least being the refugee crisis, the so-called Global War on Terror and the apparent resurgence of religion in the public sphere make clear, this tolerance is precarious, complex and highly political. Prof Israel’s discussion has suggested that the reason the Netherlands lost its primacy in terms of safeguarding the rights to freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination is because tolerance in the Netherlands “was essentially a de facto stalemate of conflicting confessions and theologies, not a genuine secularization based on democratic Enlightenment principles and values.” While I find this argument convincing, it nonetheless raises a number of questions for me, which I would be interested to hear Prof Israel’s thoughts on, and which I hope will also generate some discussion.

Firstly, what exactly is ‘a genuine secularization based on democratic Enlightenment principles and values’? I would suggest that the idea of some kind of ‘genuine secularization’ is in many ways a construct, since, as Prof Israel has suggested in his previous work, secular perspectives were associated with both moderate and radical Enlightenment positions, and as scholars such as Jose Casanova, Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Ahmed Kuru, just to name a few, have made clear, there are multiple forms of the secular, secularism, secularization and secularity, across different historical and contemporary contexts. Secularization has developed very differently and manifested in different ways across different cultures and political systems, and has not always contributed to the establishment of democracy, but rather has been associated with authoritarianism. Several Middle Eastern Countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Iran provide examples here. Even if such an ideal of genuine secularization based on democratic Enlightenment principles exists in theory, I am skeptical as to its existence in practice.

Secondly, I wonder to what extent the experience of the Netherlands is unique, in terms of the weaknesses of tolerance. The safeguarding of rights and freedoms is contested across numerous contexts in contemporary global politics. From the increasing penetration of data surveillance and meta-data retention to the heated debates that have occurred around immigration, the relationship between Islam and Democracy and the degrees of intolerance that have been shown to minority populations across secular liberal democracies in Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific, individual rights and freedoms are being challenged and contested by multiple actors across multiple domains. One could speculate as to whether the Dutch experience may have to some extent pre-empted the current difficulties being felt in these other contexts regarding how to manage relationships amongst groups and individuals adhering to different worldviews. That is, perhaps tolerance in each of these different secular liberal democracies, has to some extent always been based on some kind of stalemate, unwillingness or inability to understand and respectfully engage with others, and that the contemporary condition of heightened globalization and increasing cultural, political and religious diversity is exposing these weaknesses.

This brings me to my third point – it seems to me that the discussions around the history of secularization, the protection of the rights and freedoms of conscience, expression, religion or belief are predicated on a clear delineation and differentiation between the religious and the secular, and on a particular understanding of what religion is – primarily that it is a private individual affair, governed through religious and political institutions, and that it is at the least particular and specific, at the most irrational and illogical. Such an understanding of religion, as numerous scholars in religious studies have demonstrated, does not do justice to the plethora of ways in which ‘religion’ is lived, experienced, enacted and practiced around the world, nor even just within Europe or the Netherlands itself. This understanding of religion as essentially institutional, individual and irrational limits our capacity to analyse the ways in which what we understand as the religious is present in contemporary politics and society and indeed how it is entangled with, rather than clearly differentiated from, the secular. An example of this might arguably be nationalism. While many scholars in politics and international relations have suggested that nationalism is a largely secular ideology, it nonetheless contains elements of the religious, or perhaps more accurately the sacred, drawing on narratives similar to those found in religious traditions of sacrifice, messianism, salvation and redemption. Thus the extent to which the religious and the secular can be clearly delineated is questionable, and itself a production of Enlightenment modernist thought, as Talal Asad as famously demonstrated.

A further assumption that underpins such discussions is that the religious, building on this understanding of religion as individual, private and irrational, should be subordinated to the secular, that somehow tolerance should be – must be – embedded in a secular democratic worldview. Indeed, Prof Israel’s argument that ‘true religion is not intolerant’ highlights this. It suggests that ‘true religion’ consists only in those belief systems that support and uphold secular Enlightenment values. What is true and what is false about religion is thus determined by those external to religion utilising criteria that are also external to religion. This argument positions the secular democratic worldview as superior to religion, as universal and in some instances as neutral and objective. As numerous scholars have argued, and as I think Prof Israel indicates in his previous work, secularism is often an ideological position, arising within a specific cultural, historical, political and philosophical context, and indeed that there is not one but multiple variations of such secular worldviews. I wonder, then, however, to what extent it is possible to have a “true toleration” when one worldview dominates and is imposed on another, requiring that it “fit” and remain within certain realms of society and not trespass on to others, such as is demanded of religious worldviews by many secular worldviews, that they be kept private or that they be translated into the language of acceptable public reason. Wendy Brown has eloquently made this point regarding the inherent power imbalances that exist in the very idea of toleration, and I quote from her book Regulating Aversion – “Tolerance as a political practice is always conferred by the dominant, it is always a certain expression of domination even as it offers protection or incorporation to the less powerful.”[6] Tolerance carries within it an “us and them” logic. While ever “we” tolerate the views and practices of “them”, “they” will always to a certain extent feel beholden and subordinate to “us”, excluded from the inner circle of secular liberal democratic citizenship. Yet, at the same time, is there an inherent need for such inequality in order to maintain a tolerant society? To what extent should societies desiring to be “tolerant”, to protect individual rights to freedom of expression, conscience and freedom from discrimination, tolerate those whose views are held to be intolerant? Perhaps after all, tolerance is not enough.

What I think Prof Israel has done very effectively here tonight is offer us an historical explanation for why tolerance may be such a precarious value in contemporary secular liberal democracies, by suggesting that the tolerance that we pride ourselves on (and by we I mean those of us living in Western democratic societies), may be a tolerance that is based largely in ignorance of the worldviews and practices of others, an inability to acknowledge, respect and understand not only the right to hold particular beliefs and worldviews, but those very worldviews themselves. It is the respect and understanding of the worldviews, I think, rather than the acknowledgement of the right to adhere to such worldviews, which is the critical point. Lack of understanding leads to ignorance; ignorance contributes to breeding fear, and through fear, hostility and intolerance.

Perhaps then it is not tolerance that we should uphold as a political virtue, but respectful understanding and engagement. Perhaps we should not simply tolerate one another’s differences and the right to hold different worldviews, but deeply engage with them, try to understand and respect them, even if, in the end we do not agree with them, and to understand and reflect on the precariousness of our own worldviews and values, including secular democratic values. In contemporary politics and societal debate, we often simply assume the rightness and virtue of principles such as freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, and so on, without appreciating, as William Connolly puts it, “the profound contestability” that exists at the heart of these and almost all the principles we value. What exactly is freedom of expression? What is its purpose, what are its restrictions and limitations and who decides these limits? To what extent does the right to freedom of expression include the right to offend, and conversely, to what extent does the right to freedom of conscience include the right not to be offended? What do we mean by “religion”? What happens when we decide one group holds a religious worldview and therefore can claim the right to freedom of religion, but another group does not hold a religious worldview and therefore cannot claim this right? These are not philosophical theoretical questions but questions with real and life-changing consequences, as the Danish cartoons affair and the Charlie Hebdo attacks made clear. We must constantly ask ourselves these and other difficult, challenging and uncomfortable questions about the values that we believe should constitute societies that aim to maximize the well-being and freedom of its individuals and communities, and we should always be prepared to change our answers if necessary. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Prof Israel for doing so much to encourage our critical engagement, reflection and debate on these important issues.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen


Loading comments...