Church Against State?

“People see religion as a challenge again to liberalism and democracy.” The “Taming the Gods” author sees that issue as grist for writing.
  • Transcript


Question: Could the U.S. division between church and state crumble in the near future?

Ian Buruma:  I’m not so sure.  I think it’s… the system is fairly robust and… but it has always been contested as far back as Jefferson, and he was accused by Christians of being a man of Satan who was not recognizing that the United States was a Christian country, whereas he of course saw it as the State, as a secular state, so it has been contested from the beginning.

Is religion in any way a threat to democracy?

Ian Buruma:  I think you can’t really answer that question by yes or no because it depends on what kind of religion, under what circumstances and so on.  It’s not necessarily a threat to democracy.  What is a threat to democracy is if the authority of organized religion starts to… gets mixed up in what should be secular politics.

How religious are you?

Ian Buruma:  Well I never had a religion.  Neither of my parents were religious, so I grew up with no religion at all, so I suppose I’m an agnostic in the sense that I’m not an aggressive atheist who has a deep belief in the nonexistence of God.  I’m indifferent to it, which also means I don’t really have an axe to grind and it doesn’t fill me with rage because I don’t have childhood memories to rebel against, but nor am I particularly attracted by any kind of religion.

Question: Is that why you chose to take a scholarly look at religion?

Ian Buruma:  It may have given me a relatively…  It may have enabled me to take a fairly dispassionate view of the problem, but no, that is not the reason I decided to write it.  The book by the way, is based on three lectures that I gave at Princeton and the reason I chose the subjects is because clearly in one form or another people see religion as a challenge again to liberalism and democracy, which wasn’t true for a while.  In Europe people thought that this was a problem that had been successfully licked. But Islam is now seen as a challenge.  The mobilization of the religious right in the United States is seen as a challenge and there have been acts of religious-inspired violence in places like Japan and so on. And so it’s an issue.

Recorded April 21, 2010