Enlightenment illiberalism, pluralism and Islamism

My friend Iain Benson has engaged in a public debate with University of Western Ontario’s Salim Mansur.

Mansur is popular among those who want to stop the encroachment of both Islamism and political correctness on the Enlightenment principles undergirding democracy.

However, my view is that the Enlightenment did not spring from nothing, but was an attempt have all the benefits or goods that came out of a Judeo-Christian foundation without the religion that made it possible.   It set the individual and autonomy as the highest good without any sense of what freedom is for, or a regard for the importance of having intervening institutions such as the family, religions, civic organizations, labor unions, charities to protect the individual from totalitarian impulses of the state.

Benson gets this in a way that many of my friends who cry for individual rights to not seem to understand.  This argument is especially important now as we see huge violations of religious freedom all around the world and increasingly in the west, where a new rabid secularism is acting like a competing non-theistic religion and pushing all other views out.

Lest Canada become like Communist China in stamping out religious rights—which are more than freedom of worship but involve the communal rights to worship publicly, to educate, to preach one’s faith in the public square, and to change one’s religion–it’s good to pay attention to a little Iain Benson now and then.

Here’s a money quote from Benson’s critique of Mansur’s latest book:

Liberalism should have a Richer Notion of Group Rights
and Particularly the Group Nature of Religion

I also agree with Prof. Mansur’s concern about the difficulties of forming a vision of the common good if our focus is entirely on “islands of exclusivity” (the phrase I got from my friend Prof. Alvin Esau) or simply the silos of ethnicity, race and religion. What the book, however, fails to do and I say this with respect for the author’s obvious learning and erudition, is to look a little deeper at what in fact unites citizens across ethnic and particularly religious lines, with the common project of citizenshipwithout dissolving their ethnic and religious differences. The great risk of Prof. Mansur’s two-handed bat-swings against multiculturalism is that he avoids various important nuances.  Professor Mansur doesn’t like “groups” and throughout the book he is at pains to develop a kind of liberalism that is highly individualistic.  In this, I believe he is doing a disservice to the richest conception of liberalism – – one that is not individualistic but that sees persons in relation.  Not locked within groups or oppressed by them, but free to join or leave them (within certain restrictions of the theory of group identity itself).   There is something dangerously negative about groups and associations the way Professor Mansur views them.   Yet in the way he deals with them there is something dangerous about Professor Mansur’s rejection of them.    He seems to be the sort of liberal who views neutrality as the expunging of religion from the public – – like the French or Quebecois – – yet this is far from neutral and actually a long way from allowing human freedom in a richer form – – that is to say, human freedom to maintain and celebrate within associations that are protected by the rule of law and understood to be prior to law not constructed by it.  This is a major difficulty with Professor Mansur’s approach – – it fails to respect the importance of group identity and membership and association to human freedom itself.



 I believe we can have multiculturalism that is not relativistic and totalitarian just as we can have a liberalism that is not monochromatic or hegemonic in the way so many pseudo-liberals describe it today.    There is not space here today to spell out how “liberalism” itself can be co-opted by an illiberal version and the best description of this I know is in the work of English Philosopher John Gray whose Two Faces of Liberalism.  (New Press: 2000) urges us to reject as illiberal moves that suggest there is going to be eventual agreement or that there should be eventual agreement forced by law and politics that bleaches out difference.  Gray calls for a resurgent modus vivendi based upon a recognition that disagreement (over, say, such things as whether or not same-sex marriage is legitimate)  is a permanent condition requiring ongoing toleration not one to be bleached out over time when law and politics bring us to agreement on one state of liberal affairs.   I believe that modus vivendi is only preserved by a vibrant life of associational recognition and that the freedom so dear to liberals can only be preserved by recognizing that associational differences can and must be encouraged to co-exist within a properly liberal order.  Unless I read Professor Mansur incorrectly, he favours convergence since he opposes associational difference.   In this, he is not a liberal at all but one of those liberals John Gray says poses a threat to genuine liberalism.

In fact, unlike Professor Mansur, I view multicultural respect, properly conceived, as a help towards avoiding the very threats to individual liberty that he seems to see multiculturalism as furthering.   Taking aim at multiculturalism as being the culprit for the kinds of incidents graphically set out by Professor Mansur is a bit like blaming the existence of a football league with lots of diverse teams for the bad acts of particular players on the field.

Subsidiary groupings, whether they are the family, the local authorities (health care or educational) or associations, chief amongst them, religious associations, provide protection from a “one size fits all” conception of the state in which there is one conception of public policy forced, without a respect for diversity, upon all the citizens. It is this recognition of the importance of the person in relation to their chosen associations that animates, I think, a richer conception of freedom than an undifferentiated blending into the mass which seems to me to be the risk of Prof. Mansur’s approach.

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4 Responses to Enlightenment illiberalism, pluralism and Islamism

  1. A classic and somewhat older book here, would be: He Who Is, A Study in Traditional Theism, by the Anglican, the Rev. E.L. Mascall (Longmans, Green..1943). It is still very much worth the read!

  2. Ioannes says:

    The Enlightenment was result of a return to pagan ideals after the growth of the seed of Renaissance humanism. Although the Catholic Church supported that movement to some degree, I deeply resent this rediscovery of Rome’s pagan roots- and this is the reason why I prefer the reaction to the Renaissance, which was the Baroque, a movement that expresses its disappointment over the empty promises of the Renaissance. it was also because of the decadence of the Renaissance that gave people like Martin Luther something to complain about, and though they were justified with some of their protests, the Renaissance’s end was the end of the Western Church’s unity, and this ought to be mourned, not celebrated. But it gave rise to the Counter-Reformation which roughly coincided with the Baroque movement. Then after Bach died, (indeed, he was the last Baroque man who was staunchly old-fashioned) it was the decadent Rococo, the Classical/neoclassical movement, which I detest so deeply for its arrogance in believing the rationality of all things- it gave way to the reaction of Romanticism, at its most righteous exemplified by the rightfully outraged Pugin, at its most wicked exemplified by Satan-admiring Byron and Blake. And that gave way to the more conservative Victorian era, characterized by people who no longer believed in God but still live as if the morals that came from Him were still valid. “Englishmen” is what Nietzsche called such people, and it perfectly fit fools like Bertrand Russell and his ridiculous disciples today in people like the cowardly Richard Dawkins who are all outrage and no substance. The Victorian era ended, and the Enlightenment was proven wrong in the most spectacular and terrible and destructive manner- in the way of two World Wars; the rise of the logical conclusion provided by the sort of anti-clerical, anti-religion, secularist ideologies that sprang from the “Enlightenment” – Communism. And with that, though the trauma of two World Wars were decades gone, even today we see the result of godlessness in the millions of murdered people.

    Why? Because the Enlightenment’s principles were merely compromised truths. That’s why Modernism inherited a legacy that relies on so much absurdity, realism, brutality, and that ends up with the praise of degeneracy. The “noble savage” is now the criminal, the psychopath, and not a single artist has anything resembling courage to paint how things really are- because in the end, people will come and buy their “art” and they’d either feel bad about themselves or admit how they really don’t believe what they purport to express in their media. It certainly explains a whole lot of oikophobia from “artists” and the contempt they have for a whole lot of the population that keeps them fed from commissions and food stamps.

    I deeply detest the Enlightenment, and with it the republics and apotheoses of sinful man, the hyper-individualism, the monstrous growth of industry, the fetishization of the intellect, the presumption that we’re all “naturally good” and that everything wrong with humanity can be remedied without God, and with “reason” and everything but God- leading to the way the West is now- materialistic, cowardly, stupid, bitter, and in danger of self-destruction through self-ruin of the individuals who believe their supreme good relies on attaining false, illusory happiness. Technology, certainly, proves to be the sugar that disguises the poison.

    For all the power of technology and supposed intellect of people, the world has become a convenient place, but not a better place. No one wants to admit this, because any radical change from what is comfortable will be met with great resistance. (And this explains the incrementalism taken by homosexuals, perverts, liars, and other wicked people in getting their way in the government- as Charles Coulombe said: people get the government they deserve, because it is not the governments which affect the society that elected them, it is society which affects the sort of government elected.)

    We faithful believe that only God can make us truly happy. But what if the apostate has lied to himself so profoundly that anything BUT God could make him happy? Are we supposed to play according to his own game and his own rules where we would inevitably be proven wrong? At this point, the only thing that makes sense in how to deal with everything could be found in the 30th chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict:

    “Every age and degree of understanding
    should have its proper measure of discipline.
    With regard to boys and adolescents, therefore,
    or those who cannot understand the seriousness
    of the penalty of excommunication,
    whenever such as these are delinquent
    let them be subjected to severe fasts
    or brought to terms by harsh beatings,
    that they may be cured. ”

    Even a saint understands that harsh beatings remedy what endless talk and ineffectual punishment would fail to do. That’s what our society needs- severe fasts or harsh beatings, especially for irresponsible people in power, yet not that greater than the punishment that ought to be inflicted to the irresponsible people who elected them.

  3. Pingback: Enlightenment illiberalism, pluralism and Islamism | Catholic Canada

  4. Modernity and Postmodernity are products of the 18th century European Enlightenment. But the so-called humanism of Erasmus (15th century), which most Protestant Reformers were trained in and followed, was the thinking of “Back to the sources”, of scholarship and logic, with the authority of Holy and Sacred Scripture. And indeed the ideas of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), was also identified as the Scripture in the “principium cognoscendi, the principle of knowing or cognitive foundation of theology, and described doctrinally in terms of its authority, clarity, and sufficiency in all matters of faith and morals, i.e. Holy Scripture. It should also be noted that “sola Scriptura” was never meant as a denial of the usefulness of the Christian tradition as a subordinate norm in theology. The views of the Reformers developed out of a debate in the late medieval theology over the relation of Scripture and tradition, one party (Rome) viewing the two as coequal norms, the other (Protestant and Reformed) viewing Scripture as the absolute and therefore prior norm, but allowing tradition a derivative but important secondary role in doctrinal statement.

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