In the aftermath of the murder of Theo van Gogh on November 2nd 2004, a stream of books has been published related to this tragic event. Friends of Van Gogh wrote books (Theodoor Holman, Theo is dood [transl. Theo is Dead]), journalists investigated Islam in the Netherlands, Ayaan Hirsi Ali published her book Infidel. My life: The Story of my Enlightenment in which she discusses the tragedy at length, Ian Buruma returned to the Netherlands where he was brought up to investigate the cultural climate and published Murder in Amsterdam. The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. A lot of public intellectuals gave their opinion about Islam, integration and religion as such and about whether or not Dutch (western?) civilization is on the brink of destruction. The freedom of expression is under attack because of the murder of Van Gogh. The state has failed to protect its citizens.
Intellectuals and politicians receive (death) threats. It is not only right wing anti-Muslim politicians, like Geert Wilders, whom are threatened, left wing multiculturalists as well, such as the major of Amsterdam from the Dutch Labour Party, Job Cohen, and alderman of Amsterdam Ahmed Aboutaleb, a liberal Muslim. The Dutch Hofstad Group, a group of 14 young Muslim fanatics in the Netherlands, has a large impact on the cultural and intellectual climate. The situation might be compared to the panicked reaction to the terrorist acts of the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany in the seventies. A question of public discourse is how many Muslims in the Netherlands sympathize with the Hofstad Group and to what extend.
Philosopher, humanist and public intellectual Paul Cliteur’s latest book Moreel Esperanto (transl.: Moral Esperanto) is also written as a philosophical reaction to the murder of Van Gogh. Before the murder of Van Gogh, Cliteur regularly appeared on television commenting on issues of the multicultural society and Islam. After the murder of Theo van Gogh, he stopped his public criticism of Islam. Now, three years later he makes his political philosophical statement. He looks at the whole affair from a more abstract point of view. Instead of directly criticizing Islam, or religion in general, (which could result in threats), he asks the fundamental political question of how people can live together peacefully, especially in a multicultural, multi-religious society. What is implicit is the assumption that ideologies like Muslim fanaticism cannot fit in with an open liberal society as the Netherlands. During the past decennia there has been a continuous influx of immigrants of whom a majority are Muslims. Because of the pluralist model of the separation of church and state, the state finances religious education and cultural organizations of all religious denominations equally. For a long time, till the murder of Van Gogh, left wing ideology has been multiculturalism, which hindered the assimilation and integration of immigrants by maintaining that immigrants could and should hold onto their (religious and cultural) identity.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was one of the first to question the validity of multiculturalist ideology in the political arena. She argues that multiculturalism turns a blind eye to oppression and subjection within subcultures, like the Muslim community in the Netherlands where many women suffer from domestic violence, suppression and arranged marriages. In short, multiculturalism tolerates intolerance by giving priority to groups instead of individuals. In two of his books, Moderne Papoea’s and Tegen de Decadentie, Cliteur analyzed and denounced cultural relativism and protested against left wing politicians and intellectuals who disregard in-group intolerance.
Moreel Esperanto is a fascinating hybrid book. It combines ethics (an in-depth analysis of the fundamental difference between religious and non-religious ethics), political philosophy (a philosophy of secularism), a critique of contemporary politics (‘Kulturphilosophie’) and a crusade against postmodern relativists and fellow travelers of fundamentalism. A motley crew of well-known (Kant) and less well-known (Schulz) philosophers are blended with (Dutch) journalists, writers and politicians. Cliteur’s book has two dimensions. In the first place, the book is an academic political and moral treatise on the necessity of nonreligious ethics and secularism in politics. Secondly, the book shows Cliteur’s personal involvement with and concern for the open society in the Netherlands, especially after the murder of Theo van Gogh. Moreel Esperanto stands out among the plethora of post-trauma books, because Cliteur goes much deeper into the fundamentals of ethics and politics. The book will be read differently now than in fifty year’s time, but I do think it is still worth reading fifty years from now.
In Moreel Esperanto Cliteur tries to find the minimum level of consensus which is needed to live peacefully together. The basic problem is how to cope with intolerance without becoming intolerant oneself. On the political level, Cliteur argues, the state should be neutral: the state should not in any way support religion. Cliteur pleas for the French model of secularism (laicité), instead of the Dutch model of pluralism. Religion should not be privileged. On the moral level, Cliteur argues that morality cannot and should not be grounded in religion. The essence of religious ethics, according to Cliteur, is the Divine Command Theory: God commands you to do something and your duty is to obey unquestioningly. The story of Abraham who is about to slaughter his son Jacob on god’s command is the locus classicus of this theory. Cliteur abhors this ethic, because it lacks morality: morality is about what is good and just, not about blindly obeying orders. The Divine Command theory is based on obeying orders from up the social hierarchy, with god at the top, assisted by his translators, exegetes and executioners. The Divine Command theory comes down to the Befehl ist Befehl ideology of the Nazis.
Though Cliteur emphasizes that he does not directly criticize religion - he does claim the importance of the right to criticize religion – by cutting morality loose from religion, religion becomes an empty shell. What remains of religion as a non-moral phenomenon is a set of personal beliefs and perhaps some social rituals and decorum. Religious people who follow the way Cliteur leads them, will soon find themselves empty handed, as empty handed as the ‘god-is-dead’ theologian as Kuitert, or a theologian like Paul Tillich for whom god is ‘ultimate concern’. Cliteur argues that people cannot reach agreement in a multi-religious society when using religious arguments. In order to reach common ground, religious arguments should not be used in public debate about politics and morals. This is indeed what is the social praxis of Christian politicians: they usually do not use religious arguments to make a point, only at some well-defined issues (like abortion). As a humanist, I do hope believers will follow Cliteur’s advice, and take up the moral Esperanto of secularism and work towards a complete separation of church and state, and a separation of religion and morality, but I am skeptical about this happening, especially among (immigrant) Muslims.
For whom is this book written? I suppose Cliteur has written this book to convince his opponents. His opponents are not primarily Muslims. Muslims are the third party. It is the intellectuals and politicians who have fundamentally different views about the role of religion. Most of these people against whom Cliteur reasons are nonbelievers themselves, but they say that we cannot force people to accept our moral standards and that different cultures have different moral standards, different religious believes. At first sight this sounds nice and tolerant. But it is not. If people have to live together in one country (on one planet, I would like to add), then they have to have consensus about some fundamental issues. They have to speak a moral Esperanto. Humans Rights are the universal moral Esperanto of our times. The fate of universal Human Rights can be compared to that of Esperanto: everybody thinks it is a good idea, but not many care to take it seriously. In Moreel Esperanto Cliteur does not give content to what this ‘moral Esperanto’ is about. He outlines the grammar of a moral Esperanto. In part two of the book ‘Autonomous ethics’ Cliteur reviews two schools of autonomous ethics: utilitarianism and Kantianism. He remarks that these philosophies have flaws, but that these flaws are less harmful then the Big Flaw of heteronomous, religious ethics.
In part three, about political philosophy, Cliteur outlines the political framework in which moral problems can be solved by using rational arguments which have appeal to all participants. The largest part of the book is devoted to problems with religious ethics. The argument of the book reminds me of the often quoted words from Derek Parfitt’s Reasons and Persons: ‘Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.’
Cliteur mentions Parfitt on page 291. I think there is a difference between Cliteur’s argument and Parfitt’s. Cliteur pleas for secularism: the idea of keeping religion out of the domains of ethics and politics. In theory secularists can still be religious. Parfitt has high hopes for atheism: the idea that there is no god and that values cannot be derived from a transcendent cause. All atheists (I presume) are secularists (though it is imaginable, by some twist of the mind, that atheists vote for a Christian democratic party), but not all secularists are atheists. Secularism includes liberal believers.
By reading Cliteur’s book one gets the impression Cliteur is a Nietzschean prophet shouting in a Dutch desert of secular ignorance. Well, indeed, there is an urgent need for a philosophy of secularism. But he is not alone in his moral quest. In philosophy many, if not most, Anglo-Saxon political philosophers use a secular conception of government. The traditions of freethought and humanism, which have been institutionalized in the western world since the 19th century, have always been critical of religious involvement in morals and politics. Organized humanism especially is an alternative to established religions. And the main focus of Dutch Freethought Organization De Vrije Gedachte – of which Cliteur is a member – is secularism and atheism. So on the one hand Cliteur takes trouble quoting trivial journalism and nonsensical theologians, while on the other hand he neglects organized freethought and humanism and its publications. He focuses on his enemies and doesn’t take notice of his allies.
Moreel Esperanto appears at a time (February 2007) when a cabinet is installed with two Christian parties in it. It is to be hoped that they will read this book, though I am pretty sure that even if they did, it will not convince them: religious believers are immune to arguments contrary to what they already believe. What I do hope is that, partly due to this book, a cultural climate will change and gradually more people will understand that religion is bogus and dangerous to rely upon morally.
Paul Cliteur, Moreel Esperanto. Naar een autonome ethiek [transl.: Moral Esperanto. Towards autonomous ethics], De Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam, 2007, 428 pp.
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