Liberalism, Blasphemy and Religion

By Tate, John William | Nebula, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Liberalism, Blasphemy and Religion


Tate, John William, Nebula


The modern contours of the debate concerning the relationship between church and state were established in 1689 by Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration, and discussion of the issue has not advanced one millimeter beyond Locke's treatment even though over three hundred years have passed. (Fish 1997: 2255).

Liberal democracies embody two competing political traditions--liberalism, which in various forms places a priority on individual liberty, and democracy, which defends the sovereign capacities of political majorities. This paper focuses on the liberal tradition and the complexities it encounters when confronting minority religious and cultural claims. At a philosophical level, democrats have little trouble dealing with minority claims. For instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed the highest duty of a citizen was conformity to the general will, and those who failed to display this virtue must be "forced to be free" (Rousseau 1968, Bk. I, ch. 7: 63-64). In other words, because of its emphasis on the sovereign rights of political majorities, democrats are often willing to allow minority issues to be resolved by a broader collective. It is only liberals, with their philosophical commitment to the rights of individuals and minorities, often against the power of majorities, who are likely to experience philosophical difficulty in such instances, and seek ways to protect individual and minority rights in a political context where sovereign majorities wield significant power. For liberals, political constitutions incapable of being momentarily altered by democratic majorities are often a favoured source of protection for individual and minority rights.

Yet what happens when the clashes between minorities and democratic majorities are intractable because they involve unconditional commitments on both sides? In such instances, neither side can give ground without betraying their own fundamental value commitments. Such intractable conflicts can be seen where issues of blasphemy are at stake. For religionists, what is at stake in such instances is the honour and integrity of their God, and depending on their response, often their own salvation. For secularists, particularly in liberal democracies, what is at stake are fundamental political rights to freedom of speech and conscience. Given the agonistic nature of such a confrontation, evident in the fact that neither side can concede anything to the other without diminishing something fundamental in themselves, solutions consistent with civil peace are not always evident.

As the Rushdie and recent Danish Cartoons affairs indicate, such clashes over the issue of blasphemy can occur within liberal democracies and the cost can sometimes be in human lives. Liberals are divided on the best way to accommodate such endemic and volatile differences in order to avoid such bloodshed. The liberal tradition has its origins in seventeenth century England and emerged precisely in response to such circumstances of religious conflict. The overriding political question was how civil peace could be secured within a polity when its inhabitants were fundamentally divided over questions of religion. A political response emerged in the work of John Locke which emphasized a strategy of "privatization" and "separation," where matters of religion were reduced to private questions of individual conscience, and where such questions were thoroughly separated from civil concerns centered on the public sphere. More recently a different sort of liberalism has emerged, identifying strongly with an ideal of multiculturalism, and insisting that the best way to deal with such conflict is to prioritize a value of equal respect. In instances involving blasphemy, for instance, this value of equal respect would trump competing values of free speech, insisting that individuals should not blaspheme if this violates the equal respect of others (cf. Parekh 1990: 705-08; Rostb0ll 2009: 629, 631-632, 633, 634, 636, 642, 643). …

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