Jun 15 2010

Liberal democracy and religion-2: How to avoid conflict between the two

Based on the examples I gave yesterday, I would argue that religion and liberal democracy are fundamentally incompatible. The reason is that democracy is a system of social organization that is based on rules that are arrived at either by consensus or by some democratic process. The ideals of liberalism are not given by god but have been arrived at over centuries by people trying to find the right balance between personal freedoms and the need for an orderly society. There is no higher authority for any law or constitution than the consent of the governed. If one wishes to change the laws, then one has to persuade ones fellow citizens of the benefits of the change and get them to agree in sufficient numbers.

The laws of religion, on the other hand, are supposedly given by god and usually written down once and for all in some text. They do not usually evolve with the times, except within limits. While there may be some flexibility in interpretation of these laws, they are non-negotiable in principle. The idea that there is a supreme, all-knowing power who knows best and lays down the rules pretty much eliminates the possibility of negotiations and compromise, a bulwark of the liberal democratic process.

Liberal democratic values can flourish only in those countries where religious beliefs are weak or non-existent. As long as religions and religious authorities are kept out of power, then democracy can exist. The problem of religion in liberal democracies is what to do when religious groups threaten to use the processes of democracy to take over the power of government and then impose their religious practices on everyone. When confronted with this possibility, you are forced into a choice between allowing undemocratic forces to exploit the democratic process to force everyone to live in a theocracy with its denial of basic freedoms of democracy, or using undemocratic means (such as banning religious parties) to prevent such a theocratic takeover. Neither of these outcomes is desirable since liberal democracy dies either way.

Is there a solution? I believe that the best thing to do is to not let religion gain a foothold in the first place. The only way to do so that is consistent with liberal democracy is to use our freedom of speech to show that religious beliefs are false, the idea of rights and values given by god makes no sense, and that no reasonable modern person should take religion seriously. If we can do that and make religion less appealing, then it becomes highly unlikely that religious political parties will ever gain power. After all, it is unlikely that any political party today that bases its platform on the sayings of Greek gods will win any elections because those gods have been discredited. It is not necessary to ban the worship of Greek gods or throw its believers in jail because believing in such gods is now seen as ridiculous.

This is where the current accommodationist policy of not criticizing religion, and even praising it for its supposed good qualities, shows its greatest weakness. It actually increases the likelihood of an eventual theocratic takeover by making religion seem like a good thing. What is worse, people bend over backwards to give religious special privileges that other groups don’t enjoy, such as tax-exempt status, and by pandering to religious leaders and practices, thus giving them greater credibility and actually enabling them to get even stronger. When we treat religious beliefs with reverence and act like religion is a force for good, we make political parties based on religion more likely to flourish and grow.

People who seek to avoid offending religious people by not criticizing their beliefs are thus in a bind. They cannot oppose religious political parties because of their religious basis since they claim that religion is a good thing. It is then hard to later turn around and oppose religious groups when they look likely to seize power and impose their religious rules on everyone.

Gideon Levy points out the dangers of increasing theocratization in Israel and of the special privileges that it currently gives to some religious groups, like being able to avoid serving in the military. He places the blame for this squarely on secular people who misguidedly treat religions as deserving of special treatment.

Orthodox society and its leadership should not be blamed for this. The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have the right to do everything they can to impose their faith on the secular majority. It’s the secular who are to blame. Just as it’s not yeshiva students’ fault that they are not drafted, but rather the fault of the secular majority that allows this, so it is with the other aspects of our lives. We, the secular people, are to blame for all this. We’re the ones who give in.

Robert Fisk talks about the increasing influence of religious groups in Israel’s military.

Take Amos Harel’s devastating report in Haaretz which analyses the make-up of the Israeli army’s officer corps. In the past, many of them came from the leftist kibbutzim tradition, from greater Tel Aviv or from the coastal plain of Sharon. In 1990, only 2 per cent of army cadets were religious Orthodox Jews. Today the figure is 30 per cent. Six of the seven lieutenant-colonels in the Golani Brigade are religious. More than 50 per cent of local commanders are “national” religious in some infantry brigades.

There’s nothing wrong with being religious. But – although Harel does not make this point quite so strongly – many of the Orthodox are supporters of the colonisation of the West Bank and thus oppose a Palestinian state.

And the Orthodox colonists are the Israelis who most hate the Palestinians, who want to erase the chances of a Palestinian state as surely as some Hamas officials would like to erase Israel.

Fisk is wrong about one point, led astray by his own liberal democratic thinking. There is something wrong with being religious for the very reasons this series of posts makes and which he himself demonstrates in his article – religion and liberal democracy makes bad bedfellows.

This is why it is important in liberal democratic societies for us to prevent such scenarios from unfolding and the way to do that is to use the process of open discussion to show up religion for what it truly is, a waste of time and resources, a holdover of thinking from the dark ages, and a burden on society. If enough people can be persuaded that religious beliefs are useless and that those who hold them are as much holdovers from primitive thinking as astrologers and those who make decisions based on chicken entrails, then it is less likely that political parties based on them will ever be in a position to take over state power. And liberal democracy can be preserved by liberal democratic means.

Next: What is happening in Europe.

POST SCRIPT: Touchdown Jesus, R. I. P.

Why does god hate Jesus?


  1. 1

    Mano –

    I agree with you in principle, but I think you’re overlooking the value of plurality of religions as a check on their influence. I think the major reason we’ve managed to avoid as much religious influence in government in the US as we have is that the various Christian denominations are usually at odds with each other. Thus, we have certain laws based on where they find common ground (profanity, obscenity, blue laws, etc.); but nothing further than that. Mono-religious countries, or even countries where a single denomination is a clear majority, don’t have that – they either have unopposed religious influence in government (Israel, the Muslim nations, etc.) or they’ve got enough religious strife in their history to know better for now (most of western Europe).

    I disagree with Levy about not blaming the Orthodox – they were granted certain major privileges during the founding of Israel, essentially in exchange for a promise of being non-political. That promise hasn’t been kept. Certainly, the secular majority has fallen down on the job of keeping them in check, but I don’t drop the blame entirely on their shoulders.

  2. 2


    It is true that competing religious factions help. But the US is also helped greatly by the constitutional barriers to establishing religion.

  3. 3
    Jared A

    This is somewhat off-topic,but this sentence: “It is not necessary to ban the worship of Greek gods or throw its believers in jail because believing in such gods is now seen as ridiculous,” reminded me of something that might interest other readers.

    The conception of how “real” myths are has changed over history, and the modern conception of the meaning of classical Greek mythology is relatively recent and heavily influenced by Christian interpretation of its own mythology.

    In actuality certainly by the Hellenistic period (~300-0 BCE)–if not much earlier–the Greeks (and Romans) saw their mythology as the basis of their literature and culture. It’s “veracity” was more about how well it defined Greekness, morality, and values in general. It was something that could be changed and added on to.

    So a modern person could consistently be an atheist and believe in the Greek Gods in the classical sense. I know at least one person who does. I say give the classical religions some credit! In many ways they were much more sophisticated than many modern religions.


    Well, this is a simplification, but I think that we should and spend some time cultivating our own collective mythology. There’s no reason to rely on gods anymore, but as (I think) Nietzsche pointed out if we didn’t take care to cultivate our art properly we would be severely stupefied in our public discourse as a result.

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