Patrick McCoy's Reviews > Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents

Taming the Gods by Ian Buruma
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's review
Oct 11, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, current-affairs

Taming The Gods: Religion And Democracy On Three Continents Ian Buruma's latest book is a short treatise that looks at the relationship between democracy and religion in America, Europe, Japan, and China. In recent years, Bururma has written about the attitude of east with the west in Occidentalism and has investigated the clash between liberal Holland and Muslim fanatics in Murder In Amsterdam:The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. I think these experiences have inspired him to search out the connections between the liberal democratic governments and the oppositional forces of religion of late. In the first section, "Full Tents and Empty Cathedrals" he looks at how democratic America and those of Europe differ. Buruma relies on the observations of DeTocqueville on America, which is such a religious country and the fact that religion has largely been left behind and continues to be distrusted in Europe as a reminder of the despotic rule of the church before the French revolution. Buruma rightly praises the division of church and state and analyzes the differences in the relations of politics and religion by looking at the views of influential thinkers like Spinoza, Hume, and Hobbes.

Buruma has written extensively on Asia and Japan and China in particular-he is fluent in both languages, thus he shows a strength in analyzing the connections between religion and government in this section. He begins with China from the Quing dynasty and in particular the influence of Confucius. He notes that there never was any true split between spiritual and secular authority. This is realized in the notion that secular power must be justified by moral ideology. He suggests that China must renounce their authoritarian claims on the moral and spiritual lives its citizens. Next, Buruma takes a look at Japan which likes to boast that religion plays no part in politics, which isn't completely true. However, he notes that is mostly in the past where Shinto crushed democratic aspirations and that religion played a role in Japan's response to superior Western power. The fact that Japan was on the periphery and therefore did not see themselves as superior to the Westerners as the Chinese did and who were subsequently subdued by them. Japan sought to learn from them and catch up instead. He also analyzes the influence of Nichiren sects on Tokugawa rule, which resulted largely in a separation of powers. This in turn allowed Japan to make the necessary changes to modernize and fight off western colonialism. it was then noted by a Japanese scholar that the western powers were able to be successful in their rule due to Christianity as a state religion and this led to the establishment of Shinto as the state religion. Thus, they brought state and religion back together. And this justified military conquest, impeded democratic institutions, and made it difficult for a secular dictator to take power. After their defeat, America established a secular democracy and ended state Shintoism. And Buruma suggests, the spiritual vacuum led to the establishment of dangerous cults like Aum Shinrinrikyo that dropped sarin gas in the subways in 1995. However, he suggests that it is not religion alone that promotes ethical behavior and the desire of the right to return to the past is unlikely.

The last section, "Enlightenment Values," takes a look at the the impact of the Enlightenment on christianity and in opposition to Islam. He ask whether or not can democratic governments can hold sway over religious people and it seems that they can with Christians, but the jury is still out with Muslims. He notes that most Middle Eastern Muslim countries have been autocratic for a number of reasons, but suggests democracies do exist: India and Indonesia. However, modern concerns are centered around becoming "Islamized." However, these revolutionaries are usually young people born and bred in Europe. He sees that the main challenge posed by Muslims in Europe is social and political rather cultural. How do you deal with Muslims who don't respect the law of the land? Buruma may not have the solution, but he defends the notion that there should continue to be a separation of church and state.

I found this to be a thought provoking discussion of the Muslim problem. And a good discussion of the modern history of the connection of religion and democracy on three continents. It is by no means a comprehensive study of the subject, but rather a compelling analysis for the general reader.

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