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Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents Hardcover – February 21, 2010

3.9 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Democracy in Decline? (A Journal of Democracy Book) by
Democracy Studies
This short collection of essays is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the latest thinking on one of the most critical questions of our era. Learn more | See related books
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The place of organized religion in the public square is well-trammeled territory; in this brief volume, journalist and Bard College professor Buruma (Murder in Amsterdam) adds to the discussion with political and cultural analyses from the United States, Europe, and Asia. By examining the history of church/state relations in the U.S. and Europe, the role of religion in the politics of China and Japan, and the growing role of Islam in contemporary Europe, Buruma makes an attempt to sort out, in different cultures, how democracies have been affected... by these tensions [between religious and secular authorities]. One of his most provocative investigations involves secular, liberal Europeans, some of whom now find common ground with conservatives in their opposition to Islam out of fear that it will roll back the progressive gains of the past decades. Buruma takes issue with theocrats and strict secularists alike, using the example of Martin Luther King Jr. to argue instead that expressions of religious beliefs in politics are legitimate as long as those beliefs inform positions that are subject to reason. Some readers may have difficulty following the thread of Buruma's thesis through the dense weave of historical data. (Mar.)
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From Booklist

At least two of Buruma’s three chapters on the fraught relations of religion and government may greatly enlighten most readers. Within a framing sketch of U.S. evangelism based on Sinclair Lewis’ satiric Elmer Gantry, “Full Tents and Empty Cathedrals” synopsizes Western European-American church-state separation. Philosophically, three different political bases for separation stem from Hobbes (enlightened tyranny), Spinoza (democracy), and Hume (traditionalism). Practically, the concept of so-called civil religion, especially in its American and Dutch versions, has facilitated long-term stability. “Oriental Wisdom” dispels many myths about religion and state in China and Japan, demonstrating a greater connection between them in both nations despite the ancient and still powerful secular ethical influence of Confucianism. Perhaps this chapter’s most surprising revelation for modern Westerners is the revolutionary, often democratizing role Christianity has played in the Far East. The concluding chapter on Islam and democracy covers more familiar ground with the considerate moderation Buruma has exemplified all along. Because of Buruma’s clarity and temperance, a most informative primer on systems of church-state rapprochement in the modern era. --Ray Olson

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (February 21, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691134898
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691134895
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 6.1 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,188,453 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This slender book reads like Usain Bolt. With his trademark no-nonsense style, Buruma clocks in at just under 125 full pages. He is light-footed without, however, being lightweight. His arguments are solid and clearly formulated. The three essays contained within discuss secularism versus belief in the public space. The first is on the separation of state and church in the West, the second on religious authority in China and Japan and the third deals with the Islamic challenge in Europe. In a bird's-eye view, Tocqueville, Voltaire and Confucius as well as Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Tariq Ramadan march past. Buruma's perspective is liberal, exemplified by his emphasis on distinguishing between believers and people prepared to kill for their gods. A liberal democracy must be able to separate potential terrorists from law-abiding believers, even fundamentalists. Not shared values but shared rules are paramount in a democratic society. Non-believers often ask why they should show respect for religious beliefs. For Buruma this is not a problem, but he observes that this doesn't mean that you have to admire them. With Rushdie, he argues that it's permissible to attack beliefs but not believers. This implies that no one is beyond criticism or above the law (as in preventing the use of condoms or encouraging violent acts, such as the stoning of allegedly adulterous women). As long as you abide by the democratic rules, you should be regarded, and treated, as a full citizen. Even some public funding of religious practices and education can, in Buruma's view, be defended, i.e. it gives the state a certain amount of control (p. 123).
He has reservations against Jürgen Habermas and his idea of a Kulturkampf between secularists and multiculturalists.
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Format: Hardcover
Alexis de Tocqueville thought that Islam and democracy were incompatible. The polemicist Ian Buruma declares in "Taming the Gods" that "Tocqueville's idea that Islam and democracy cannot survive together must be disproven."

It would be easier if there were any Islamic democracies, but Buruma, who revels in the gaudy but faintly ridiculous title of Henry R. Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College, tries.

First he examines whether democracy is compatible with any religion, finding that in America, for example, the two get along. He cites Tocqueville, approvingly this time, to the effect that "democracy in the United States could be established because Americans shared a Christian faith, specifically a Protestant faith, whose free agents observed clear boundaries between their churches and the democratic state."

Tocqueville was assured by various sectaries that they accepted toleration, and Buruma believes this, and Tocqueville may have believed it and even his informants may have believed they believed it. I grew up in Tennessee, and I don't believe it.

Tolerance survived in the America not because the various cults thought it good, but because there were 400 of them and they couldn't stand each other. Or as Samuel Eliot Morison put it: "The only way these sects of divers doctrine could be kept in a single political party, was by agreeing on toleration." At times and places where one sect dominated - as Connecticut in the 1800s, Indiana in the 1920s or Tennessee in the 1950s -- civil rights and free speech were hard to come by.
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Format: Hardcover
Riding the wave of his last hit, Ian Buruma's "Taming the Gods" Religion and Democracy on Three Continents// offers three essays examining the interplay of politics and faith. The first, "Full Tents and Empty Cathedrals" compares the state of religion in the United States versus Western Europe, the latter having grown progressively more secular while in the former it remains a powerful force in the public sphere, arguably controlling a major political party. His second, "Oriental Wisdom," considers the role of religion in the political evolution of China and Japan. Both essays are a tad cursory, albeit well written and occasionally insightful. The third, "Enlightenment Values," however is clearly meant to generate sparks, as Buruma dives into the issue de jure, Islam and the West.

Buruma argues that claims of an Islamic "threat" as overblown, anti-immigrant sentiments. To the degree it exists, he sees it as a political threat akin to Germany's Red Army Faction, to be dealt with by similar means. Yet his argument proves unpersuasive on several fronts. For example, over and again Buruma analogizes Muslim fundamentalists to Christian separatists like Mennonites and the Amish, pointing out the latter's successful coexistence with liberal democracy. There's a sad intellectual dishonesty in such comparisons.

Devoting considerable space to the Salman Rushdie fatwa, Buruma ignores the murderous riots sparked by the Mohammad cartoons, thus failing to consider the self censorship which is now normative among cowed publishing houses and media outlets. He gives short shrift to questions about reactionary threads found even in "liberal" Islam, with writers such as Reza Aslan painting the Prophet's 7th Century Arabian community as an egalitarian Utopia.
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