What is a Religion?1
The head is level, but the book is not. It is something of a conceit that a short book is all that it takes to settle its vast and sweeping theme—“religion and democracy on three continents” (North America, Asia, and Europe). Buruma certainly writes with authority throughout the book, marshaling an impressive range of arguments and evidence, as well as issuing informed judgments, on nearly every page; but the character of those judgments, and the ideas and assumptions that underlie them, are not quite as unimpeachable as he thinks.
Buruma gets a lot of things right. He is surely correct, for example, that “[r]elations between church and state, or religious and secular authority, cannot be explained as abstractions,” but only in the “context of history.” When he turns to that history, he does a fine job of laying out the complicated similarities and differences between America and Europe on church-state issues. It is true that the Western nations separate faith and politics to an extent unimaginable before the modern period. But the United States and Europe handle that separation in starkly divergent ways, with the United States both formally disestablishing religion and rigorously protecting its free exercise, and European nations adopting a range of less balanced alternatives, from France’s radically secular policy of laïcité to the forms of church establishment still found in England and Germany. Following Tocqueville and other classical liberals, Buruma indicates that politics and religion each benefit from keeping out of each other’s business. Political actors are thus free to govern without contending with religion’s often non-negotiable demands, while religion is insulated from the taint of political partisanship and the corruptions of temporal power. All this is very sensible.
In some of the most illuminating passages of his book Buruma applies these distinctively Western insights to the tumultuous political histories of China and Japan. In his view, much of China’s intense political illiberalism over the past century can be traced to the fact that, for complex historical and cultural reasons, a “split between religious authority and secular rule” never developed in the country. Japan, by contrast, did develop “a kind of separation between religious and worldly authority” during the nineteenth century—a separation that disappeared during the 1930s and then returned after the country’s decisive defeat in World War II, helping to ease its rapid postwar transformation into a liberal democratic nation.
Yet it is also in his chapter on Asia that Buruma runs into the conceptual problems that eventually lead him to make questionable assertions about contemporary Europe. In the midst of his discussion of China, for example, Buruma notes that during the Cultural Revolution “the simple act of crumpling up a newspaper bearing [Mao’s] image could lead to a death sentence.” Commenting on this grotesque policy, he remarks that “[i]f ever there was a case of religious and secular authority being one and the same, Maoism was it.” In his very next sentence, however, Buruma uses the term “religious” in a very different sense: “As in the Soviet Union under Stalin, or Hitler’s Germany, this proved the danger of forcing people to renounce all religious beliefs and to worship a worldly leader instead.” In the first statement, religion is the ideological motor behind totalitarian oppression; in the second, it is the victim of that oppression. He seems to think that religion denotes merely any worldview that is held with absolute certainty.