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11/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My Talk With Bernard-Henri Levy: The Empty Heaven of Democracy

In the United States we are not so familiar, as they are in Europe or Latin America, with the phenomenon of engaged intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Levy (or BHL as he is called in France) who are always there when events require definition or when conscience must be called to action. However, since history came ashore on 9/11, turning the real estate of the free into the soil of tribulation, BHL has been a constant and welcome presence in the American discourse. Now, in his new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism he sketches the vital lines of scrimmage at a time when the liberal order is besieged by challenges.

For all his flash and media savvy, the years have proven BHL to be a steady and serious thinker since he emerged as one of the famous "nouvelle philosophes" in the wake of May 68.

When many of his compatriots toyed in the romantic playground of Maoist fantasy or Marxist revolution, BHL remained a loyal steward of the Enlightenment and staunch defender of liberal civilization. He has kept his eye on the ball of human freedom even as the issues and their context changed, from the Gulag Archipelago to ethnic cleansing to female circumcision, championing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Alija Izetbegovic and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In the same long breath he has condemned Soviet prison camps, genocide against Muslims and the oppression of Muslim women immigrants in Europe in the name of mulitcultural tolerance.

When Daniel Pearl was decapitated by what BHL calls "fascislamists" in a shuttered room on the grimy outskirts of Karachi, he saw more than the murder of a Jew, but a striking out at the impure cosmopolitanism of the American-led liberal order. Though critical of the war in Iraq, BHL nonetheless insists on being "anti-anti-American" because he understands that anti-Americanism is the thread that has linked the three totalitarianisms of our time -- fascism, Communism and Islamism. Like Paul Berman in his book "Terror and Liberalism," BHL sees that that the yearning for purity -- whether based in class, race or religion -- is what lay at the root of all crimes against humanity. It is the impetus of obscurantism, of the impulse to close off instead of open up, to exclude instead of embrace.

Much of Left in Dark Times is a breathless account of the outright silliness of the French left and the political battles waged over the past few decades as a result of BHL's public stances. The rest defines the battles ahead for anyone from within the left committed to liberal values.

The stunning central thesis of the book is that "tolerance could be the cemetery of democracies, while secular concepts are their crucible." For BHL tolerance "is the idea that every belief has every right;' tolerance "grants all power to communities." In secular society, human rights come first. In effect, secularism shields the free individual from belief and community. A topical case in point is that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, targeted by fascislamists and African tribalists for her defense of women against the multicultural relativism that enables "honor killings" or other crimes by Muslim immigrants on European soil.

His concerns ring somewhat less true in the United States. To be sure, every eruption of religious awakening in America has sought, with limited success, to curb civic freedoms. But the powerful assimilationist impulse which converts ethnic communities, especially of immigrants, into individual citizens has been the forte of this fading superpower. Barack Obama is exhibit number one.

I agree with BHL that "the temptation to differentialism," by which he means relativism that claims the same rights don't belong to all, is the greatest threat to the universality of reason. But since his gaze is fixed on Europe and the Middle East, he barely mentions China in this book. Yet, surely, the return of the neo-Confucian Middle Kingdom as an influential global power while the West limps toward hegemonic demise is something that ought to engage his attention when he returns pen to page. "Non-universalism" is, after all, a central tenet of China's resurgent Confucianism.

Even more provocatively for a religious society like America, BHL argues that "atheism is the price of democracy" because it will rescue free people from "the devil and his legion of murderous angels." By "atheism" he means the rejection of any system of belief rooted in another realm -- not just traditional religion but the materialist faiths of Communism and History -- that would destroy free individuals in the name of their salvation.

"No other heaven, ever again," is the slogan BHL proposes in order to avoid the holocausts, genocides, prison camps and blockbuster acts of terrorism in the times to come.

With this slogan, BHL and his atheist fellow travelers such as Christopher Hitchens or the Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka (who has condemned the "psychopaths of faith" trying to muzzle "the Muse of Irreverence") seek to equate the excommunication of God with the freedom of man and peace, or at least less suffering, in the earthly kingdom.

Others don't see it that way at all. Jurgen Habermas, the leftist German sociologist, worries that modern, faithless Europe is unable to generate its own values as it heads into the future. Instead, it must fall back on notions of human rights and dignity of the individual that spring from the Judeo-Christian heritage that sanctifies the person because he is made in God's image. To that end Habermas calls not for atheism, but for a "post-secular " society that admits religious belief is not inconsistent with modernity.

In his political afterlife, Tony Blair has converted to Catholicism and established a Faith Foundation to spread "religious literacy," arguing that religion is a force for the good. Even in BHL's own front yard, French President Nicholas Sarkozy recently hosted the Pope and called for a "dialogue with religion" and a "secularism that respects and includes, not excludes."

So, must the left be atheist or post-secular? That is the coming debate. And BHL should engage it.

Left in Dark Times is a book of profound insights, even if it is sometimes tough going for the American reader not always so attuned to the tussles of European politics. BHL makes a compelling case against those on the deluded left and elsewhere who would extinguish the Enlightenment. The left, he pleads, should come down to earth and forget its "lyrical" dreams of perfecting mankind through appeals to the beyond that always end up as nightmares. Rather, it should remember the humility of Albert Camus and embrace his "melancholy" humanism. He might also have mentioned, which he doesn't, good old American pragmatism which lay, granted, sometimes buried beneath our periodic outbursts of messianism.

BHL is right, of course, to warn -- "from within the family" -- that only by exposing the illusions of the left can it avoid abetting more dark times in the future. He is underlining once again what Immanuel Kant knew and Isaiah Berlin echoed: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made." Even, or especially, BHL might add, if God is on your side.

In the following dialogue, I raise some of these issues with BHL:

MY TALK WITH BERNARD-HENRI LEVY: THE EMPTY HEAVEN OF DEMOCRACY (Translated from the French by Bill Weber).

Bernard-Henri Levy, France's most well-known philosopher, talks with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels about the controversial ideas in a recent book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand
Against the New Barbarism
.

Nathan Gardels: "Tolerance could be the cemetery of democracies, while secular concepts are their crucible," you write in your book, Left in Dark Times. Wow. That is quite a provocative thesis. Do you really mean that?

Bernard-Henri Levy: Of course, in saying this I mean an extreme form of tolerance, one that prompts us to accept the notion that all opinions, absolutely all, without any distinction or limits, deserve our respect. Where does that leave the opinion of the racist, the fascist, the rapist or that of anyone who, in the name of some ideology or other, calls for mass murder or the assassination of those who offend them?

In the minds of the fanatics of tolerance all these opinions deserve respect; and in their eyes the fanatics themselves expect to be treated equally and with dignity.

This leads to crazy situations like those we observe in England, in the Netherlands and in the rest of Europe, where the discourse of the assassins of Theo Van Gogh in the local mosque, as well as that of the killers who were earlier sent out to track my friend Salman Rushdie, become acceptable.

True tolerance begins only after the prior and adamant decision to exclude any form of discourse proffering hatred, discrimination and murder as acceptable speech. Tolerance is not synonymous with an absolute principle of freedom of expression, which, etymologically speaking, would be "unlinked" from any and all transcendental mandate. To accepts such an unlinked principle would render us speechless, for example, when confronted with the assassins who are in pursuit of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Gardels: You say that "secularism is the crucible of democracy." How does that apply across the West when Europe is largely a post-religious society but America is quite religious?

BHL: When I talk about secularism, I have in mind a threefold principle. Firstly, political authorities should have absolutely nothing to say about what our spiritual needs should be. Secondly, the task of the state is not to deal with churches, mosques or religious organizations, but rather with each citizen individually, as pure subjects of the law. Thirdly, in the event that the state should deal with religious institutions, it should do so from the outside, in a neutral manner so to speak, on a purely material level, and with the sole objective of creating a public space where those who are religious, atheist or agnostic can all have an equal chance to meet with their followers and provide them with a message of their choosing. This is true secularism in its exact meaning. It also makes the distinction between the United States and Europe less clear cut than the usual cliché suggests.

With respect to France, we are witnessing an attempt to reintroduce religion into the public sphere. It manifests itself in the Muslim organizations who, during the affair of the Mohammed cartoons in Denmark, attempted to force public opinion, as well as judges and even the legislature, to take religious law into account in the drafting of Civil Law. It became apparent during the riots in the outskirts of Paris in November of 2005 when some proposed sending the imams to restore order where the police of the Republic could not. Lastly, it also manifests itself when President Nicolas Sarkozy incessantly invokes what he calls an "open secularism," thereby intimating that secularism can be "closed" or "negative", or that it could even ruin the social fabric.

I must underline, however, that on the American side, things are less simple than caricature suggests. When Thomas Jefferson talked about "building a wall" between the political order and the great religious dogmas, he actually recommended nothing else than "Rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and Rendering unto God that which is God's". In other words, he issued the most basic secular recommendation.

Where is the evidence that Jefferson's modern successors, those who incessantly invoke God in their speeches, are really that unfaithful to his principle? When President Bush invokes God is he really doing anything more than affirming a space where all religions are able to express themselves on an equal footing? That is a pretty good definition of secularism.

America has really always steadfastly upheld this principle. Each time you have had a debate about prayer in schools, the decision favored a secular solution. Each time the so-called "creationist" question came up, you have had some quite idiotic positions, some sterile and absurd debates, but the actual dividing wall was never dismantled.

Let's hope this never changes, which is why this year's presidential elections are so important. In Sarah Palin you have somebody, who, for the first time ever, seems set on chipping away at this wall if she enters the the White House...

Gardels: In this regard, how is your book being received in America, compared to France?

BHL: It has been received well by those who understood the fundamental principle - that the state has the obligation to provide all religions with the legal, institutional and even material framework within which they can flourish; that it shall not preach, recommend, or favor any religion over any other; and, above all, that it shall not favor those who are religiously inclined over the agnostics or atheists who, in the public space, are entitled to the same place and the same dignity as the believers.

This principle, of course, suits the atheists, but there is no reason why it should not also suit religious minds. If I were an American evangelical Christian, for example, I could not ask for more. I would defend, with all my being, my right to organize, to build beautiful churches, and to do it, above all, on an equal footing with older and already established churches. I would not request, nor would it be in my interest, for the state be the mouthpiece for my message, thereby meddling with my affairs. In other words, defending secularism would not bother me in the least.

I just finished a long book tour which lead me to those cities where the evangelical are numerous, well organized and powerful. And frankly, I found them with this mindset, but I found nobody among them who would bemoan the existence of a wall of separation, which, in reality, protects them.

Gardels: Because of the disasters related to religious intolerance, from the Crusades to "fascislamism" to totalitarian oppression associated with the Communist faith, you argue that atheism is the "price of democracy" - the alternative to which is "the devil and his legion of murderous angels." So, atheism must go hand in hand with democracy?

BHL: I have nothing against private and personal faith. I am even willing to grant that faith elevates the soul, gives meaning to life, anything you want. Not only will I concede this but I have often said that the whole concept of human rights is inconceivable without the great wagers of Jews and Christians alike around the notion that the human being is inviolable because he was made in the image of the Creator.

However, I do not wish the Prince, or, if you prefer, the state, to invoke any faith in order to accomplish its tasks of governance. I want a state, which is, strictu sensu, atheist or indifferent towards God. I want a state which acts as if Heaven was empty. What is, in the final analysis, the common trait of all the situations and tragedies which you mentioned? They were brought about by people who wanted to bring Heaven to Eart. They are the doings of madmen, who thought that they were able to build the City of Men in the image of the City of God.

Democracy is just the opposite. Democracy runs counter to the illusion, which was shared by the Crusaders as well as the inventors of totalitarian religions and is presently shared by the supporters of Muslim fundamentalism. Democracy is against the idea that it would be not only desirable but also possible to copy a social order from some sort of divine design. Atheism, in this sense, is the politics of democracy.

Gardels: As you come to this conclusion, Tony Blair has converted to Catholicism in his political afterlife and started a Faith Foundation for religious literacy because "you can't understand the modern world if you don't understand religion." His political experience has taught him that religion can be a force for the good.

BHL: I agree with the idea that "you can't understand the modern world if you don't understand religion." My only problem with this concept is its transfer into the realm of politics.

If Blair had made the same statement when he was in power, and if he had drawn consequences from it for his government, that would have been a problem. What consequences could he have drawn?

First, he could have said that "society should espouse and emulate this religious link, whose grandeur I, Blair, have just discovered." It is very unlikely that Blair, even touched by Grace, would have gone that far, as this would have opened an expressway to pure and simple totalitarianism.

Secondly, he could have drawn the conclusion that the best contract with the subjects of society is one that deals with the churches or mosques en bloc, almost as a flock, looking for us at the church doors by seeking out the bishops or imams who are supposed to speak on our behalf. This opens the door not to totalitarianism, but to "communitarism", which, in my opinion, is hardly better. Blair, however, did not do this, as far as I know. Instead, he recruited Tariq Ramadan and relied on him for his reflections on political Islam, which, granted, was not particularly brilliant. However, he never fell into the anti-secular trap.

Gardels: You mentioned Sarkozy. Let me return to that point. Nicolas Sarkozy argued, during the Pope's visit, that "rejecting a dialogue with religion would be a cultural and intellectual error." He called "for a positive secularism that debates, respects and includes, not a secularism that rejects." What is your view on this intervention?

BHL: It was not up to Sarkozy to say this. In doing so, he exceeded his prerogatives and his role as president of an authentically democratic Republic. Once again, what is democracy? It is the uncertainty about the ultimate purposes. It is the continuous elusiveness of truth. Once again, it is the empty Heaven. In other words, it is not up to the President of the Republic to comment on what religions tell us about the ultimate purpose of our actions. He is free to believe whatever he wishes, but he should not tell us about it. This is none of our business.

Gardels: Jurgen Habermas, the German social theorist, has suggested of late that what we
need is not atheism but a "post-secular" society in which the religious and secular mentalities
are no longer segregated under some outmoded idea of modernity. Believers and non-believers alike must learn from each other in order to establish a "shared citizenship." Isn't this completely the opposite of what you are arguing?

BHL: Well, yes and no. Yes, we must reflect on religions. Yes, they are part of our heritage, both spiritual and moral. But no, this must not interfere with questions related to citizenship.

Gardels: Habermas has come to this conclusion because he doubts that secular modernity is capable of constituting its own values and must rely, as you yourself suggested earlier, on the Judeo-Christian heritage which sancitifed the person as made in the image of God, and thus gave birth to the notions of human rights and dignity.

BHL: Yes, indeed. I said the same thing, long before Habermas, in a book entitled "Le Testament de Dieu", published in 1979. (It also appeared in the US, published by Harper & Row). Simply put, to say that human dignity is unthinkable outside the Judeo-Christian heritage is one thing. To include this heritage in the social contract, however, is quite another. That is what Pope John Paul II wanted to do in the European Constitution. This is the slippage, the confusion and the misunderstanding that must be avoided at all cost.

In the post-secular society that Habermas conceives, it is vital not to confuse things. To profess that a social contract ought to be reached between individuals who are what they are only as a result of the Judeo-Christian heritage, whose heirs they are consciously or unconsciously, is one thing. I agree with this premise. But to say that the terms of the contract must be based, ever so lightly, on the arsenal of dogmas, rules and articles of faith of the very same Judeo-Christianity, is something else entirely and would constitute a grave error.

Gardels: In your book, a whole chapter is devoted to rejecting "the temptation to differentialism," arguing for the universality of rights. I have just returned from China where it is clear that a neo-Confucian sensibility is beginning to define a kind of non-Western modernity there. One of the basic principles of Confucianism is a disbelief in abstract universal ideas; the belief that all truths are rooted in concrete local realities- thus the principle of "non-universalism."

BHL: So be it. This is a different model of development, based on another mentality. I never believed in Fukuyama's theory of the "End of History" in which the all the world's conflicts resolve into one model. What you are saying gives me one more reason to feel comfortable with my choice.

Gardels: This non-universalism, Chinese intellectuals will tell you, allows China to avoid both "a clash of civilizations" between universalisms (Islamim or Confucianism vs. the West) and the West's universalist triumphalism "at the end of history."

BHL: Yes, that is possible, but in that case these Chinese intellectuals must explain to me how they can, from this starting point, this desire to avoid "the West's universalist triumphalism", create something that is similar to human rights. The "West's universalism" is a meaningless concept. As the term indicates, universalism is universal. It is based on principles which are valid, and fortunately so, regardless of their geographical origin. Let us stop this stupidity! We must abandon this idea according to which all ideas are like plants, firmly implanted in their original soil.

Gardels: Rather than geopolitics, the Chinese talk about a "geo-civilizational" paradigm of the kind, for example, that allowed Buddhism and Daoism to coexist for millennia.

BHL: Granted, but it is not that easy to escape from geopolitics. Look at the great geopolitical choices of China in the last ten years. Look at its position with respect to the question of Darfur, or Iran, or the development of neopopulism à la Chavez. Geopolitics is a form of metaphysics. We are faced with geopolitical choices, which are always linked to the primordial wagers of metaphysics.

Gardels: Though atheistic, isn't your universalism really a function of the Western idea of modernity, rooted after all, in monotheism? Perhaps non-universality is the future in a post-American world?

BHL: Of course, my universalism is rooted in monotheism. But where I disagree is when we are told that this universalism is an invention linked to that specific tribe, which is the Western tribe. Since when is monotheism an invention of the West? Since when are Jerusalem, Nazareth, or the Sinai Desert in Europe? Come on! Let us abandon these childish views! Alright, human rights first appeared in Europe, and more particularly in England. But this proves nothing of their destiny, their desirable area of influence, or the good they will do in non European countries, which may decide to adopt them. Great ideas transcend borders.

Gardels: Maybe the Chinese are the proof of what Habermas doubts: that the Confucian "ethics of reciprocity" -do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- is a non-religious, humanistic ethos, universally shared, but differentially employed?
BHL: Perhaps indeed.