The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam; Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents

In This Review

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam
By Eliza Griswold
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
336 pp. $27.00
Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents
By Ian Buruma
Princeton University Press, 2010
142 pp. $19.95

Both The Tenth Parallel and Taming the Gods are concerned with the perceived growing role of religion as a problem in international affairs. The tenth parallel is the circle of latitude several hundred miles north of the equator, which happens to correspond to some of the "hot spots" in U.S. foreign policy -- Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Griswold uses this geographic device to argue that these countries are not only arid, poor, and war-torn but also the scene of the new ideological fault line between a resurgent Islam and evangelical Christianity. And she documents how what are often considered religious conflicts are also about land, water, oil, and other natural resources. Since ethnicity, religion, and economic livelihood sometimes coincide, however, conflicts over seemingly secular concerns are shaped by religious ideas, values, and doctrines, too.

Buruma chooses the countries he knows best -- the United States, the Netherlands, China, and Japan -- to make general observations about religion, democracy, and secularism. The "God gap" between Europe and the United States, as he sees it, is more apparent than real, since people everywhere are trying to cope with a globalizing world by turning to fixed racial, religious, or national identities. Here, he is correct; fundamentalists of all stripes offer quite modern constructions of religion, and this is what distinguishes their brand of religion from those of traditional religious leaders and institutions (indeed, the conflict between the two types is one of Griswold's themes). Buruma also restates the liberal case that religion can threaten democracy and extends it to Asian religions. For liberals like him, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, and Alexis de Tocqueville are the great heroes of reason, toleration, and enlightenment. But, as the historian Michael Burleigh has shown, the story of religion and politics even in Europe has a far more complicated plot line than what Buruma allows. And it is remarkable that the discussions between the atheist philosopher Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger (which took place before Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI) on a more nuanced understanding of religion, reason, and democracy figure nowhere in the book.

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