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Is Religion Compatible With Democracy?

Some wit has said that religion is too sensitive and too vital a subject to be left to the church alone. It is time to come boldly forward and look it in the face, the face of total mystery and enigma.

Religion may be the last bastion of collective faith, inspiration and spirituality for mankind where, most often than not, God remains encapsulated in church dogmas and doctrines forbidden for profane and inquisitive minds to peer into. But even the farthest galaxies in the heavens, the highest mountain ranges on the earth crust and the deepest trenches in our oceans have been reached and exposed for human eyes to see.

Nothing is now hidden from man’s curiosity. The heavens are laid bare. Look, it is cold and insensitive out there. Look again, it is black holes, star dust and quantum emptiness yonder. The ‘twinkling stars’ that we write poetry about are simply nuclear infernos. The morning star, a quintessence of beauty and splendor, is but a lifeless celestial body.

Mankind is now investigating the far and dim fringes of the universe with giant telescopes in order to quench its insatiable appetite for knowledge and eventual conquest. Yesterday’s mystery is today’s public knowledge. Miracles are simply ‘anomalies’ that are awaiting further investigation in our science labs. Demons have been relegated to psychiatry, and the problem of aging will soon be solved.

In this piece of writing I will be crossing the limits prescribed by tradition and propriety and will be treading on uncharted territories that border on the absolute Taboo, possibly offending the spiritual sensitivities of some and provoking the rest in the process. Thus far and no further! one might say. Disregarding all this, I have decided to become at times blunt and politically ‘incorrect’.

Let me start with this simple question. What has religion to do with the building of nations? Everything. It had already played its part in the appearance of most European nation-states in the 17th and 18th centuries. The theory of the divine right of kings practiced by Louis XIV and adhered to by Cardinal Mazarin (18th Century) had made it clear to any political freethinker of the time that temporal power had its origin in God, the Absolute, and that there was therefore nothing anyone could do about it. It took a resolute Assemblée Nationale and a Révolution to dump the theory. The Age of Reason arrived finally.

Is religion compatible with the concept of democracy or the principle of human rights and equality? Not all the time; and this for the simple reason that religion believes in the Absolute, with all its arbitrary, fixed and unmovable laws which leaves no room for doubt and change; for religion (claiming to be above reason) is ready to dispense with all these democratic principles and human rights for a better life in the hereafter. Absolutism (the doctrine of finality) is static, while Relativism (open ended), in which the principles and functioning of democracy find their raison d’être, is dynamic. It is therefore easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than that religion assumes a dynamic nature. Close-circuit dynamism may be possible in religion, but that is a contradiction of terms!

However pious or well-meaning an organization may appear to be, if the foundation upon which its good deeds and lofty principles are established claims to be above reason, and to have therefore the exclusive access to truth, the absolute truth, it will only open a long and tortuous path strewn with all types of fanaticism, mistrust and arrogance.

Being above reason, however, does not make a religion any more acceptable. Marconi has invented the radio not by hovering above reason, but by getting down to reason and abiding by its laws. Newton did the same. So did Freud and Bill Gates, etc. No one could have invented a car or a camera simply by praying or by adhering to simple faith. The Good Lord (or the Primal Mover) has given us the brain to use in solving our problems and to change our surroundings through its all-subduing force.

Einstein has said that God doesn’t play dice with the universe. Everything has order and is governed by laws. But in the world of metaphysics to which religion belongs, reason drops dead out of exhaustion, logic regrets its creation and intelligence groans for release and freedom. Well, while in this mortal world, I prefer to rely more on my reasoning powers than in my believing faculties.

Religion, which is based on the Absolute (with its fixed laws) and claims to have an infallible source of guidance from above, remains incompatible with the principle of change, growth and development which is the basis of all human social and economic advancement. The Absolute shuts the mind while the Relative opens all the doors of doubt and inquiry, of investigation and discovery. Bertrand Russell had put it aptly when he said: the problem with this world is that the ignorant are so sure of themselves, while the intelligent are full of doubt. Science is born out of the doubting mind. Religion leaves nothing to doubt and allows no one to question it.

Whenever a government puts more religion as ingredient for the smooth functioning of its machinery, it starts to move with an irritating squeak; with less religious input, however, its journey to democracy becomes easy.

Democracy is a rule by the ruled, meaning that the people hold the ruling power in their hands. It is an institution that enshrines universal human rights and the principle of equality within it, based on reason and common sense. There is no alternative to democracy. All nations should be moving towards it. No culture or tradition nor any organized religion should stand as an obstacle for its realization or present itself as an excuse for its delay. There are no variations in democracy when it comes to upholding the basic human rights and defending it for the wellbeing of the people. Those who practice tyranny are no better than the beasts of the field.

It was in the 1840s that the Church was finally dumped, and it was then that the world began to change for good. All the scientific and technological advancement that you now witness around you are the products of rational minds that flourished in the last 150 or so years. The priests gawked at the new world created by science. Religion lost its bearing and is now trying to reconcile itself with science.

Granted, religion can unite and bring some relative unity and peace to a certain extent. But it is a unity and peace built upon the ashes of human reasoning, scientific logic, legitimate doubt and common sense.

If religion brings some semblance of progress and prosperity to its followers, the credit is to be given more to the unifying forces it eventually releases on the believers (through the belief in one Absolute God buttressed by sets of fixed laws, guidance and instructions) who now sublimate their raw force and energy for the pursuit of peaceful trade and exchange of ideas.

A warring tribe or an unruly people united under religion may thus fare much better than those who spend their time fighting each other. The relative peace that religion creates among its followers does bring diverse minds together to think for change and progress. But their raison d’être being propped up by their supernatural and unquestioned faith (which somehow reins in their unbridled desire to tread on uncharted seas), the ‘progress’ is short-lived and is soon followed by fanaticism and social degradation.

Sometimes people wrongly attribute to religion the prosperity and advancement of nations and societies even long after the religion itself has ceased to inspire or to influence its followers. Such phenomenon should, however, be understood as the propagation of scientific knowledge and technological knowhow (the fruits of the rational mind) that try to revitalize the lifeless body of worn out religions, and hence should not be seen as resulting from any kind of divine or spiritual intervention.

Dethroned by science and unable to fruitfully participate in the scientific, technological, social, economic and political progress of humankind, the now helpless religion continues to scoff at new theories and learned speculations, and laughs at the most sophisticated scientific findings that threaten its already shaky foundations, all the time claiming to have the Absolute truth on its side. A ‘sour grape’ syndrome indeed!

Strangely enough, it was thanks to science (the invention of the movable printing press by the German scientist Gutenberg) that religious Scriptures (the word of God) reached the heathen. Now they are using computers in convents, and soon will they start cloning converts, proselytes and born-agains. Well, what pious wishes and divine miracles could not produce have found life through the consistent and indefatigable investigation of the inquisitive and doubting mind.

Absolutism is not always confined to religions though. Man-made absolutism in the form of communism, Nazism and fascism should not be seen as different from divine absolutism in the form of religion, sect and cult. But while man-made absolutism is short-lived due to its insufficient ‘spiritual capital’ (its belief in science contradicts with the divine), religion with its unlimited source and supply of salvational and redemptive assurances can survive for a long time.

Take any religion, break it down to its smallest units, examine it with a critical mind and a clinical approach. If you are sincere, you will find no trace of truths that ask for change or improvement in there; for in religion the quest for truth has been made to stop with a loud screech. To doubt is considered sin, to hesitate is tantamount to inviting the Tempter, and to think differently is to be fit for hell fire to roast for eternity.

Think of the Absolute. The ideas of the fearless minds and valiant souls that have helped our world to change are the products of relativistic and not absolutistic way of thinking. It was after all Humanism and not Religion that helped the Renaissance to come.

If Democracy, a product of noble and lofty thinking and reasoning, had been compatible with religion, then the Jews, who after leaving Egypt knew what tyranny really meant and longed much for justice and equality, would have been the first to discover and apply it, antedating the Greeks by thousands of years. Well, only their religion was to blame for that.

While the Greeks consulted with their best minds in their Agoras and argued with their skeptical and fearless philosophers in market places, the Israelites got their instructions direct from their God from above, who even led them to war against the uncircumcised heathen. Nobody questioned him. When, Saul, the first (human) king of Israel chosen by the people after receiving a half-hearted permission from God, proved to be rather wishy-washy in his obedience to God, he was replaced by David who knew better than to contradict his Lord.

Even while still ruled by secular kings, the Israelites could elect neither a senate nor establish a republic that could bring them closer to democracy, for the shadow of the ever-zealous and suspicious God was always moving in their midst, interfering in the affairs of the state. The eleventh commandment should have been: Thou shallt never think of democracy as long as you live!

All the virtues vaunted by the various religions in the world at present, all the noble ideas and lofty principles peddled about by arrogant evangelists or fanatical Shaaria advocates or by bigoted ultraorthodox Jews, or deified Hindu ascetics, had existed among the heathens a long, long time ago.

The Greeks without religion were in some respects more socially advanced and practiced much more democratic rights than their Israeli contemporaries in Palestine who considered it a divine mission to destroy whole towns and villages along with its inhabitants in the name of God!

There was more rule of law during the pagan Pax Romana than during the Christian Renaissance in Europe. Remember that the Roman law is still the basis for most of the world’s legal systems.

It seams that Christianity had a wonderful time during the Dark Ages in Europe where the Pope, wallowing in sin himself (some even had concubines), ruled over the souls of poor Europeans who were sent to Palestine in the name of God and with a promise of landing in Paradise if they killed the enemies of their religion, the Saracens.

Heretic burning was the order of the day with Señor Tomás de Torquemada (1420–1498), a prominent leader of the Spanish Inquisition, scaring the shit out of well-meaning but suspected heretics. Europe was then full of seers, visionaries and doomsayers (all siding with the Church, or else) with their eyes brimming with illusion and delusion regarding everything from statecraft to how the universe was created. They were the scientists of the age.

The French Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence which both saved mankind from religious and political hallucination had to wait for some 300 years! And then, only then was religion politely escorted out through the back door not to ever intrude into statecraft again. Good riddance? Not exactly.

Well, who can argue with someone who thinks he possesses the absolute knowledge that only religion claims to bequeath to its adherents? And who can reason with all those who find it more comfortable to use their subconscious minds or reptilian instinct at the cost of their intelligence? Can anyone argue about religion and come to a compromise? Unthinkable. The word compromise does not exist in religious dictionaries.

It is simply a waste of time; for religion has its foundation in mystical or metaphysical belief-system which the rational mind finds at times incongruous, asymmetrical, inconsistent and bizarre. Religion by its very essence abhors everything that smells of reason and logic. Religion and science are strange bedfellows!

Well, since religion seems to have come to this world to stay, the only way to deal with it is to consider it as yet another form of personal experience with the Absolute, to be left to individuals or organized groups as long as they leave their neighbor in peace. There are many religions and thousands of cults in this world and they have the right to exist as atheism has the right to exist. But they should not impose themselves on any human affairs unduly.

Some amount of spiritualism may be salubrious for the social health of mankind, (Voltaire had said it: even if there is no God, we have to invent Him), but beyond that and imposing religious beliefs on the affairs of state is unacceptable simply because religion by its very nature abhors change, free investigation for truth, logical discussion and hard reasoning. How can you discuss with someone who keeps on saying at every turn that God can do and does whatever He wants. Mind you, in a universe where everything is possible, nothing is eventually possible!

The separation of church and state was a good start for the parting of these two social forces that shaped the life of the individual and the society in the past. If religion could only supply some of its ancient wisdom and help science to find the right course between blind materialism and blind fanaticism, then it is acceptable. Otherwise to try to solve the world’s social, economic and political problems through the application of fixed and unmovable religious dogmas and doctrines based on faith and vision (Bush tried) is simply impractical and will simply produce more problems than it can solve.

That could be the reason why Europeans at present seem to have set religion (and its accessories) aside, relegating it to social workers and welfare organizations that seem to make much more sense out of it than it had ever been made to deliver during its millennia of tumultuous and turbulent existence.

And finally I would like to say that if, this is a big If, religion should somehow insist that it is compatible with democracy and science, then it should believe in the relativity of truth and rethink its doctrine of absolutism. This is however like asking science to bow to the Absolute. It is simply impossible!

Based on this, it is established beyond a shadow of doubt that religion can never, ever be compatible with democracy (as it still feels uncomfortable in the presence of scientific reasoning) and has therefore to separate itself from all human social and political affairs for its own good and for that of the world and its inhabitants.

eripost@awate.com

About Amanuel Sahle

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