Liberal democracy and religion-1: Are they compatible?

I have argued repeatedly that science is incompatible with any religion, unless one claims that religion is nothing more than just a grouping of like-minded individuals who feel the need to engage in theological discussions and common rituals, similar to groupings of social and business clubs. As soon as you introduce a supernatural agency that is unconstrained by the laws of science that everything else operates under, you have abandoned the scientific worldview. So the answer to the question of whether religion is compatible with science is a simple ‘No’.

But is religion compatible with liberal democracy? At first glance, it would seem that the answer is yes. After all, a characteristic quality of a liberal democracy is about not imposing any ideology on people but respecting their personal freedoms as much as possible. The freedom to believe in whatever one wants to should surely be considered a basic right. But that is not what I mean by compatibility. After all, we know that there are many religious scientists but that does not mean that science and religion are compatible, only that it is possible for a human mind to simultaneously hold two incompatible beliefs. The key question is whether at a fundamental level, the goals and ambitions of religion will inevitably collide with the ideals of liberal democracy.

I am a firm believer in the virtues of liberal democracy. But for all its virtues of tolerance for diverse views and support for fundamental freedoms and basic human rights, it has an Achilles heel: that it allows authoritarian and even dictatorial groups to use that very tolerance of diverse views to gain power and, having done so, seek to do away with the very freedoms that enabled them to freely gain power in the first place.

This can happen in two ways. In the first, a party can come to power with a covert agenda, giving lip service to the principles of liberal democracy but then subtly undermining those values. We see that currently happening in the US as both major parties steadily undermine the constitution by denying such fundamental rights as to be free of torture, the right to a speedy trial before a judge and one’s peers, the right to habeas corpus, the right to a lawyer, the right to personal privacy, and so on. While publicly praising the rule of law and the virtues of the constitution and boasting about their own adherence to those values, the Obama regime, like the Bush-Cheney one before it, has sought to undermine liberal democracy by increasing the king-like powers of the presidency, even asserting the right to execute people just on his say so.

The other way liberal democracies can be undermined from within is if a political party openly states its desire to replace democracy with an authoritarian system. This is what is more likely to happen with religious groups. Suppose for example, a political party with an overtly religious agenda seeks to win elections on a platform that says they will impose religious laws on the country if they gain power. Since religion is considered a good thing by many, and the majority of people are religious, it is not at all improbable that such a religious political party can win substantial support.

These are not merely theoretical concerns. We have seen this happen in countries where religious groups have taken power through the democratic process. The very fact that Sarah Palin can openly state that she wants the US to be governed by the laws of the Bible and not have people react in horror is a sign of the possibility of this scenario playing out in the US.

The religious groups do not have to gain total power. As long as they have sufficient clout that political leaders feel the need to pander to them, liberal values suffer. The various ‘blue’ laws restricting activities on Sundays are instances of where religious groups have succeeded in imposing their will on everyone else.

Religious apologists talk about the tolerance that their religions preach but the fact is that when religious groups attain state power they seek to impose their own religious beliefs and practices on everyone and liberal democratic ideals die. The reason that the Catholic Church was able to unleash the power of the Inquisition to torture and murder heretics was because state power was available for its use. Can we doubt that if the Catholic Church gains state power anywhere today it will try and impose its doctrines about abortion and contraception and homosexuality on everyone? How can it do otherwise since they think these doctrines are based on god’s commandments?

In Sri Lanka, although it remains a democracy (though not a liberal one), the desire of the government to pander to the Buddhist majority has resulted in similar impositions. For example, full moon days are considered holy days because of the myth that the Buddha obtained enlightenment on such a day. When I was living there, the government ordered that all places of entertainment (theaters, bars, clubs) had to close on those days because these things might distract people from praying and meditating. The radio would play only somber music. In other words, the government legislated what everyone, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, should do purely on the basis of what the most powerful Buddhist leaders demanded.

Of course, the cases of Islamic countries immediately come to mind. Almost all countries where there is an Islamic majority, even if they are not outright theocracies, impose varying levels of Islamic rules on everyone. We know how bad actual theocracies can be from the examples of the Taliban in Afghanistan and regimes like Saudi Arabia.

The problem of what happens when religious parties use democracy to gain power can be seen in Algeria. After achieving independence from France in 1962, its elected president was overthrown by the military in 1965 and the country was led by a succession of military leaders for the next two decades. But after moves to restore democracy, the first ever parliamentary elections held in 1991 was won by a fundamentalist religious group called the Islamic Salvation Front. To prevent a theocratic takeover, the military cancelled the election and seized power again, throwing the country into a bloody civil war that has continued intermittently ever since.

The Islamic country in the Middle East that progressed the most was Turkey under Kemal Ataturk who created a secular republic in 1923, stripped religious leaders of their power, closed religious schools, abolished Sharia law and introduced a secular legal code, and discouraged the veil and other traditional clothing and encouraged western dress. But religious groups have recently grown in dominance, gaining a plurality in recent elections. The current leadership has gained significant clout by downplaying its religious motivations and the country is struggling with what to do if religious parties gain a total majority and seek to impose Islamic-based laws on everyone. It would be a tragedy if Turkey ended up like Algeria.

So is a liberal democracy a state of unstable equilibrium, always in danger of getting pulled to the two extremes of religious or anti-religious authoritarianism?

Next: How does one avoid a theocratic takeover?
POST SCRIPT: Testing Galileo’s claim

All of us know that if you drop a hammer and a feather, the hammer will hit the ground first. Students are told that this is because of air resistance and that in its absence they will fall at the same rate. Apparently the Apollo 15 astronauts tested this on the moon and I was unaware of the existence of the video showing this until very recently.

You can see the movie and read the NASA webpage that discusses the experiment.


  1. Eric says

    Mano --

    If you want a very good fictional example of what the U.S. would look like under a religious dictatorship, I recommend Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100. I quote (not from that book, but from a related one):

    “The potential for religious hysteria had always been present in the American culture . . . . the only thing that preserved religious freedom in the United States was not the First Amendment and was not tolerance . . . but was solely a Mexican standoff between rival religious sects, each sect intolerant, each sect the sole custodian of the ‘One True Faith’ -- but each sect a minority that gave lip service to freedom of religion to keep its own ‘One True Faith’ from being persecuted by all the other ‘True Faiths.'”

    The underlying premise behind freedom of speech is that, by allowing everything into the public sphere, good ideas will be lauded & bad ones will be ignored. The problem with the “free market of ideas” is the same as with other free markets, however -- “popular” isn’t always synonymous with “good.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *