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the Complete Review
the complete review - religion / politics

Taming the Gods

Ian Buruma

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To purchase Taming the Gods

Title: Taming the Gods
Author: Ian Buruma
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 125 pages
Availability: Taming the Gods - US
Taming the Gods - UK
Taming the Gods - Canada
  • Religion and Democracy on Three Continents

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, but limited

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Prospect . 3/2010 Peter Steinfels
The Australian . 13/3/2010 Peter Kirkwood
Bookforum . 2-3/2010 David Wallace-Wells
The Guardian . 27/2/2010 Steven Poole
New Statesman . 6/5/2010 Sholto Byrnes
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/4/2010 Peter Beinart
The Spectator . 14/4/2010 Jonathan Sumption

  From the Reviews:
  • "The strengths of this book are its clear analysis of the messy melange that makes up an open democratic society, its diagnosis of underlying insecurities fuelling heated debate and its even-handed arguments on how to best harness competing forces productively" - Peter Kirkwood, The Australian

  • "Taming the Gods is nonchalant scholarship, an effort to color our amnesiac journalism with the shadow of genuine historical depth, and in that modest purpose the book is a modest success. But when Buruma turns to contemporary matter he is less persuasive." - David Wallace-Wells, Bookforum

  • "Interesting though it is, one wonders if Princeton University Press would have allowed a writer of lesser renown to approach his subject in such a leisurely manner. (...) (T)he problem with this book is not that it attempts to say too much, but that it is far too short. (...) As it stands, it may be a useful introduction for students too idle to work through a long reading list. For the rest of us, Taming the Gods is little more than a tantalising brochure." - Sholto Byrnes, New Statesman

  • "Despite these nitpicks, Taming the Gods is an admirably learned book. Buruma's writing is spare and careful, and one never feels that he is stretching his material to fit some all-encompassing theory. But if that is the book's virtue, it is also its failing. Buruma is a fox, not a hedgehog, offering up lots of small insights rather than any overarching one. When covering so much terrain in so little space, that's more honest. As a result, however, Taming the Gods seems more like a set of related essays -- about Christianity in the United States and Europe, about religion in China and Japan, about Islam in Europe -- than a unified book." - Peter Beinart, The New York Times Book Review

  • "But can democracy survive for long in the face of a significant group which not only rejects the agnostic and hedonistic culture around it, but declines to distinguish between the domains of private morality and public authority? Buruma thinks so. He has no time for the apocalyptic prophecies of other US-based commentators about Europe." - Jonathan Sumption, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Taming the Gods is a three-part look at "Religion and Democracy on Three Continents". The continents are (North) America, Europe, and Asia, but in fact Buruma's focus is even more limited -- basically to the US, Europe (with a lot of attention on the Netherlands), and China and Japan. Other areas get some (though often only token) mention -- India, Indonesia -- but obvious examples of religion and democracy intertwining (such as Israel) are ignored -- as is all of Africa (despite potentially intriguing examples such as Nigeria).
       Buruma is focused on what mainly concerns American and European readers, which amounts to the declining influence of Christianity in Europe and its continued strong hold in the US, and the perceived threat that Islam poses. His historical overview of the separation of church and state, and the differing approaches -- from a Spinozan absolute separation to more accommodating variations -- is quite interesting, and he connects it quite well with the spread of democracy.
       His discussions of Chinese and Japanese history and experience are particularly interesting -- in no small part because these traditions and experiences are far less widely known. And it is amusing to see, for example, the Enlightenment admiration for Confucianism:

The idealization of Confucianism by European radicals is especially interesting in the light of what future generations of Chinese would say. In the early twentieth century Chinese intellectuals would come to see Confucianism as the main obstacle to their twin modern ideals, which they called "Mr.Science" and "Mr.Democracy".
       Buruma does offer some interesting history and insights with regards to these Asian countries -- including a discussion of the Taiping 'Heavenly Kingdom', with its huge human toll (thirty million, he suggests) --, but it remains a fairly limited examination. Other examples -- South Korea, with its widespread embrace of Christianity, or overwhelmingly Buddhist Thailand -- are not brought up.
       What Buruma really wants to get to is, of course, Islam, and that's what he grapples with in the third part of his book. He explores how the growing Islamic population in Europe and several incidents -- notably the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the reactions to Ayyan Hirsi Ali -- have proved difficult for Europeans to reconcile with their Enlightenment values.
       As Buruma notes, the fact that 'revolutionary Islam' has been very visible, and that horrendous acts have been perpetrated in the name of the religion:
has led many people to conflate the threat of political extremism with customs and traditions associate with the religion that do not conform to the conventions of modern liberalism: Islam as a threat to the Enlightened West, as the Trojan horse that will "Islamize" Europe.
       Buruma writes:
     That violent Islamism is dangerous is not really in dispute. The question is whether the main cause of this violence is theological or political.
       He repeatedly makes a case that it is political, a convenient tool for some to exploit to their own ends.
       Buruma endorses Enlightenment all the way: tolerance as long as behavior remains within the law, and a strict separation between church and state. He's unconvinced by efforts to 'win over' religious moderates, for example:
     Trying to find religious "moderates" may not be a good idea anyway. A democratic state has no business being an arbiter in theological affairs. Otherwise, what is the point of separating church from state ?
       Of course, many don't see that particular point anyway .....
       Buruma's short book is useful as a reminder of how religion has played an influential role in various nations at various times, and how support of Enlightenment values can suddenly evaporate when people are confronted by new circumstances (such as the 'rise' of Islam in some European countries).
       Modestly interesting, Taming the Gods is both too limited and too broad. An interesting introduction to a complicated subject, but really just a starting point.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 February 2010

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Taming the Gods: Reviews: Ian Buruma: Other books by Ian Buruma under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       English-writing Dutch-born author Ian Buruma currently teaches at Bard. He was born in 1951.

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© 2010 the complete review

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