02 May 2008

Utrecht, Netherlands

I left for Holland on Wednesday evening, after returning from a lunchtime faculty seminar at Trinity College in Hartford on The Secular Conscience hosted by Professor Mark Silk at the Program on Public Values.

I am writing from Utrecht, where I am attending a conference on the future of secularism in Europe. The conference featured a lot of interesting people, including Stephen Law, a senior lecturer in philosophy at University of London and author of The War for Children’s Minds; David Nash, reader in history at Oxford Brookes University, and author of Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History; Herman Philipse, a leading Dutch atheist philosopher; and Azar Majedi, an Iranian women's rights activist and wife of the late Mansoor Hekmat.

Interestingly for me, the conference statement of purpose described secularism in precisely the terms I attack: "secularisms claims that religious arguments should not be used in politics"; and "religion should be a private and personal matter." I was happy to stir the pot.

I enjoyed some spirited after-hours discussions on Iranian secular politics (and jams to American rock & roll) with Azar. A committed socialist, she worries that Western anti-Islamists have discredited themselves by aligning themselves with neoconservatives.

I also had a good debate on the freedom of expression with Danish philosopher Malene Busk, who became a prominent secularist voice during the cartoon controversy and who now writes for Jyllens Posten. Eventually we agreed that blasphemous speech cannot be defended without presupposing some moral evaluation of its content. One reason why liberal societies should actively stand up for blasphemous speech--even while they actively oppose anti-Semitic speech--lies in the positive moral value of contesting illiberal religion.

No comments: