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Religion is incompatible with democracy

September 28th, 2004 (01:18 pm)

Monday morning on NPR, I heard a story about a fallen soldier. His parents provided a perfect demonstration of how religion undermines democracy.

(ObDisclaimer: I do not belittle the family's loss. They have lost their son, which is a pain I hope never to experience for myself. However, I maintain that the attitudes they display, when shared by a large fraction of the population, make it more likely that sons will be lost.)

The mother explained that, while her son was in Iraq, she wasn't worried; she knew that accidents could happen anywhere, and that her son was in God's hands. Then the father said that he was convinced that the war had been a good idea, because the President said it was; the President gets a lot of information we don't, you know. And they were proud of their son, because he'd died serving his country.

In other words, these people's religion has taught them to accept whatever happens unquestioningly, because it must be God's will, and God knows better than we do. This blind submission has carried over into the political realm; they obey the President, because he knows better than we do. And they are proud that their son died obeying the President, because to obey the President is to serve the country.

These people are not qualified to be citizens of a democracy. Their religion has turned them into serfs, unable to perform their duty to make informed decisions. And yet, not only do they have all the same privileges as people who are capable of critical thought, the religion that has crippled their minds gets privileged status--e.g., tax breaks. When they give money to their church, and claim a tax deduction, they are, in effect, picking my pocket to support the spread of their religion.

The conflict is fundamental: democracy requires citizens to think clearly; religion requires its adherents to stop thinking. Religion is not compatible with democracy.

Comments

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: September 28th, 2004 10:41 am (UTC)

I am as obnoxious an agnostic/atheist as anyone I know, but I have to say that your unspoken premise seems to be your conclusion, and you argued your way back to it, somewhat artlessly.

I agree that religion can be an opiate - and opiates curb critical thinking. But I think that (if I remember Kohlberg's theories correctly - I'm not checking right now), that it is just as possible that at a higher moral level one takes additional risks as part of ones contribution to ones greater tribe/society. That risks abound everywhere (we could die anytime, anywhere), but if no one morally accepted the duties of mutual protection, we'd all fail from some sort of tragedy of the commons. Those that serve, may do so nobly, even if the leaders who send them to serve are lieing weasels.

I'm not at all sure what point you were attempting to make - if for no other reason than I know very religious people with tremendous insight and who more than exercise it well enough to manage democracy.

Authoritarianism is not compatible with democracy, but we knew that. :-)

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: September 29th, 2004 09:43 am (UTC)

if no one morally accepted the duties of mutual protection, we'd all fail from some sort of tragedy of the commons. Those that serve, may do so nobly, even if the leaders who send them to serve are lieing weasels.

This is true. However, their nobility does not excuse them from the duty to think. The fallen soldier's parents still support the President, because he's the President, even though anybody who's paying attention knows he was lying. (You don't even have to pay that much attention; only a few months elapsed between Saddam letting the weapons inspectors in, and Bush saying he didn't.) You'd think that, when their son died, they would wake up and smell the weasel.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: September 29th, 2004 10:13 am (UTC)

However, their nobility does not excuse them from the duty to think.


You will have to search a long time to find where I claimed otherwise.

The people I believe would least be in a position to perform critical thinking would be a pair of grieving parents. I would expect them to be working through any one of a number of ways of re-framing their grief - anger is one, justification of their sons deeds another.

I remain finding it too great a leap to generalize from people who are least robust in their current situation, to all religious people and some kind of anti-religion jihad. :-)

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: September 28th, 2004 12:56 pm (UTC)

The problem is not with all religions, though. It's only with those that discourage analysis. Some people manage to analyze everything (from politics to religion to whatever else) even though they have a strong belief system of some sort. Your father seems to be clear thinking on most topics, but he's clearly very devout.

It's the people who believe that questioning is a SIN that are the problem. There are surely plenty of people who don't have a religion who think questioning the President is wrong or unpatriotic.

Posted by: maestrateresa (maestrateresa)
Posted at: September 28th, 2004 04:03 pm (UTC)

I'm fairly disturbed that you have managed to blithely lump every single religious person into one giant heap of unthinking, unquestioning stupidity.

There are a lot of religious people who spend their lives thinking, questioning, trying to right wrongs and fight for social justice. Many religious people think and struggle and wrestle with moral issues, always seeking to find truth, especiallly in the socio-poitical arena. Getting all "religious people" to agree on how to vote is neither more nor less simple than, for example, getting all non-religious people to agree on the same issues. This dialogue is *precisely* what democracy is all about. Yes, there are certainly a lot of "sheeple," but religious faith does not necessarily equate to unthinking.

You know me. Do you consider *me* to be an unthinking sheep, unfit for democracy? I am a religious person. If "being religious"=="being unfit for the democratic process," your logic insists that I must be. If you do *not* see me as being unfit for democracy, you need to consider the flaw in your logic and re-think.

As to quesioning the President...I do so all of the time. I think the man is a criminal. I certainly know a lot of people on either side of that issue (although, being in California, most of the people I know are, shall we say, not particularly in favor of his policies :)

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: September 29th, 2004 09:37 am (UTC)

I'm fairly disturbed that you have managed to blithely lump every single religious person into one giant heap of unthinking, unquestioning stupidity.

I will agree that what I wrote was too absolutist; the situation is certainly not black-and-white. However, I maintain that religion, as a necessary condition for its existence, inhibits critical thought--just not necessarily to the extreme degree that these serfs exhibited.

Religion has to inhibit critical thought, to place all or part of itself outside the universe of discourse, because religion has no rational basis. Indeed, massive parts of some religions are not just unproven but largely disproven--e.g., the Christian assertion of the historicity of Christ is contradicted by the earliest Christian writings (dating to about 100 BCE), which do not refer to Christ as a man until about 150 CE. Prior to then, Christianity was a form of Jewish mysticism, which sought to gain power by understanding and influencing the Christ, the putative spirit through which Yahweh worked his will on the world. (A modern Christian will recognize this Christ as similar to the Nicene Creed calls the Holy Spirit; presumably, this is because the Nicene Creed was written by a committee, which had to appease the mystic tradition.) The teachings of a modern Christian church cannot be rationally reconciled with the textual evidence; this makes it, at best, difficult for a modern Christian to consider the textual evidence with an open mind.

There are a lot of religious people who spend their lives thinking, questioning, trying to right wrongs and fight for social justice.

Yes. But my contention is that they would do better if their minds were not constrained by their religions. Consider Mother Theresa, who refused to give Calcuttans what they most needed: birth control.

Do you consider *me* to be an unthinking sheep, unfit for democracy?

No. I consider you quite thoughtful, but less so than you would be if you were not religious. The serfs in the story were an extreme case; for them to become as thoughtful as you would be a massive improvement. It's just that their very extremity made them a good illustration of the problem. Not all religions are as damaging as theirs (whatever it is); but they all do damage.

Posted by: goldsquare (goldsquare)
Posted at: September 29th, 2004 10:19 am (UTC)

Religion has to inhibit critical thought, to place all or part of itself outside the universe of discourse, because religion has no rational basis.


All belief systems, even an agnostic/atheistic one, have some fundamental principles at the base of them - whether that faith/principle is that consistent truth is good, or that the scientific method is an appropriate means to pierce the veil of ignorance, or that ignorance itself is poor, or that pure critical thought process is a worthy end goal.

It's all Godelian in its fundamental basis.

I happen to share your prejudce (note the word) that religious logics and teachings do not form the best basis of living praxis - but I do not share your disturbing hubris that YOUR (my) assumptions are perfect and THEIR assumptions are mind-control dreck. I don't like or choose them, but dismissing all adherents with such a degree of extremism is not showing your world view in a particularly flattering light. :-)

Nor is the extremism of "because some days a religious person would accept paradox as acceptable, or have fundamental truths they will not change even in the face of best current evidence - they are unfit for democracy" as even good basic logic. In the hypothetical, there could be "good enough for democracy", even if your entire locomotive train of thought were valid.

Posted by: maestrateresa (maestrateresa)
Posted at: September 29th, 2004 07:18 pm (UTC)

I would respectfully submit to you that absolutism and extremism, regardless of the vector, are greater inhibitors to democracy and greater causes of damage than any religion. I will cheerfully agree, however, that using extreme points of view for the purpose of sparking reasoned, civil debate, can be a valuable tool. :)

I don't feel a need to reiterate goldsquare's comments, other than to note that I pretty much agree with what has been said, but with a spiritual cast to my personal prejudices.

Posted by: Justin du Coeur (jducoeur)
Posted at: September 30th, 2004 12:12 pm (UTC)

Religion has to inhibit critical thought, to place all or part of itself outside the universe of discourse, because religion has no rational basis.

Oh, come on -- now you're just making yourself look parochial. This may be true of, eg, some brands of fundamentalist Christianity, but it is certainly not true of *all* religious thought.

Take me as an example. For me, religion is all about the big questions that science has no traction on: is there such a thing as a soul? Where did the universe, in the largest sense, come from? Is there a greater purpose to life? What is the most appropriate way to conduct one's affairs? None of this is anti-rational -- indeed, I can make a pretty good case that atheists are just as irrational as the worst fundamentalist, because they presume answers (generally in the negative) without evidence, or simply duck the questions entirely.

Modern Western religion is not the limit of the idea, especially in its dogmatic and sometimes anti-scientific basis; it evolved that way over the past thousand years or so for reasons that had more to do with politics than with religion per se. But plenty of religion, throughout world history, was just this sort of philosophical exploration of the questions that people care about, but which have no ready proof. Hell, plenty of early Christian thought had a deeply rational spirit underpinning it -- sometimes with a poorly chosen set of axioms, but that was what they had to work with.

Yes, some religions presume the answers to the big questions, and can be dangerously dogmatic in that regard. But others are more about asking the hard questions, and seeing where they lead, which can be deeply compatible with the rational and scientific impulses. When you go tarring the latter with the former's brush, you just blinker yourself...

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: September 30th, 2004 07:09 pm (UTC)

For me, religion is all about the big questions that science has no traction on: is there such a thing as a soul? Where did the universe, in the largest sense, come from? Is there a greater purpose to life? What is the most appropriate way to conduct one's affairs?

Um...by the definitions I'm used to, you're conflating philosophy with religion. Definitions:

Religion
A system of thought which includes postulates about the nature of the Universe. Sometimes these postulates are actually disproven; when that happens, some religions adapt and others don't.
Philosophy
A way of thinking about big questions. May or may not be based on logic. May or may not be concerned with observable phenomena (but, if it does, usually these days we call it Science rather than Natural Philosophy...can you tell I've been reading The System Of the World? ;-).

Of course, a lot of religions come packaged with philosophy (as do most intellectual activities); and some alleged philosophers slip religious postulates into the deck. But this division of "does it postulate about the Universe" is, I think, a useful one. It means that something that's nominally a religion, but does not include any religious postulates, is, in fact, a philosophy.

(And then there's various transcendental approaches, for which I simply have no patience; they seem more like systems of non-thought. Yes, maybe the human brain can tap into some deep source of truth if you turn off the conscious parts; but it seems more likely that what you get in that case is more like what we generally call a "dream".)

indeed, I can make a pretty good case that atheists are just as irrational as the worst fundamentalist, because they presume answers (generally in the negative) without evidence

Perhaps. The problem is that the questions in question do not have good answers. Almost by definition, the Big Questions which most religions tackle these days are those that are outside the scope of science; and science is the only tool we have for finding answers that other people can confirm independently. Without independent confirmation, you're reduced to proof by authority, one way or another. Maybe the authority is "because I'm afraid of going to Hell"; maybe it's "because lots of people read his books"; either way, people are accepting the Big Answers without thinking them through.

Personally, I wouldn't be surprised to learn of the existence of a Creator; but a Creator is not a God. Discovering that the observable universe was, say, a simulation in somebody's handheld (tentacleheld, whatever), would not have any impact on the "how should people live?" category of Big Questions. In particular, it would not imply a duty to worship that somebody.

But plenty of religion, throughout world history, was just this sort of philosophical exploration of the questions that people care about, but which have no ready proof.

I think this is because the priests were the ones who claimed to have the Big Answers, and so they got asked the Big Questions. (Plus, of course, they had the time, and usually the literacy, to spend on philosophy.) The honest ones went off to think about it, and came up with answers that may have been pretty good, but that were limited by their postulates--if you asked St. Augustin "why does God permit evil?", you couldn't expect to get the answer, "because he doesn't exist".

But, every so often, a culture would produce enough surplus to have full-time philosophers, people who could tackle the Big Questions without being priests, and who could, at least in principle, pick their own postulates. This seems to work better.

I think maybe this is where the conflation of religion and philosophy comes from: earlier, poorer cultures couldn't afford to separate them, and so the culture comes to assume that philosophy is the job of religion. When full-time philosophers come along, they're working uphill, because people still think the part-time philosophers called priests have all the answers.

Posted by: Justin du Coeur (jducoeur)
Posted at: October 1st, 2004 06:21 am (UTC)

by the definitions I'm used to, you're conflating philosophy with religion.

The lines between philosophy and religion aren't nearly as clear as many westerners would like to believe: they are often deeply intertwined. Buddhism certainly considers itself a religion, but much of what it has to say is closer to what westerners call "philosophy" than "religion". Not every religion presumes a concept of God that is cognate to the Christian one.

Sure, you can define "religion" so that it only means what you're trying to argue against. But that's a weak argument, simply leaving out the people who consider themselves religious but who don't fall into your neat categorization. And it isn't reasonable to tell people that they aren't religious simply because they don't fit into your somewhat idiosyncratic definition.

(I mean, *I* consider Atheism to be a religion, because I happen to largely agree with the first sentence of your definition, and they fall into that. But I don't usually go around trying to tell Atheists that they're religious -- it starts arguments for no good reason.)

The problem is that the questions in question do not have good answers.

You're stating as axiomatic an unproven assertion. In what way is that rational?

My take on it is that these are hard questions -- possibly unprovable, possibly not. That's not a particularly good reason not to ask them. Many of the questions that we've long since answered today fell into that same "no good answers" category for thousands of years. I find it simply intellectually lazy to *not* ask those questions, and see what options we can find.

But, every so often, a culture would produce enough surplus to have full-time philosophers, people who could tackle the Big Questions without being priests, and who could, at least in principle, pick their own postulates. This seems to work better.

Only because you are limiting your definition to "priests" -- formal officers of a religion. But in fact, most serious philosophers throughout history have been men of religion. It's only in the past couple of hundred years that that has changed. And note that atheists have produced just as many obnoxious dogmae over the past couple of centuries as theists have: religious thought has no patent on bad logic.

I think maybe this is where the conflation of religion and philosophy comes from: earlier, poorer cultures couldn't afford to separate them, and so the culture comes to assume that philosophy is the job of religion. When full-time philosophers come along, they're working uphill, because people still think the part-time philosophers called priests have all the answers.

Again, weak argument. While religion and philosophy can go hand in hand, there has never been an especially strong correlation between the priesthood per se and the major philosophers.

Indeed, it's important to note that the great philosophers have usually *not* been especially dogmatic, even while usually being fairly religious. From Plato to Augustine and on up, they've usually been radicals within their religious environment. Their works have become dogma *after* their time, and that's usually produced negative results, but the true philosophers have always demonstrated that a religion merely provides a philosophical context, not a straightjacket.

And I suppose that's where you and I part company. I disagree strongly that religion per se is a danger to democracy: rather, intellectual laziness and dogma are the true danger to democracy. Those are neither necessary components of religion, nor confined to it -- mindless nationalism is just as dangerous as mindless fundamentalism, and for exactly the same reasons. Fanatical Marxists are just as bad as the worst religious extremists, in just the same way.

It's the mindset that is the danger, not the details of how that mindset is applied...

Posted by: Justin du Coeur (jducoeur)
Posted at: October 1st, 2004 06:44 am (UTC)

One more point, which really gets to the nub of the matter, and why I think your original point is misfocused. The danger to democracy is not religion, it is dogmatic beliefs that include the requirement that others must conform to those beliefs. That is true of some religious viewpoints, but not all. It is also true of many non-religious dogmae.

The honest philosopher can easily be religious while still being a fine democratic citizen, provided he admits his own uncertainty. It is fanatical certainty -- about *any* topic -- that endangers the structure...

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: September 29th, 2004 09:49 am (UTC)

There are a lot of religious people who spend their lives [...] trying to right wrongs and fight for social justice.

Mind you, this part does get into the question of whether such people would be fighting this fight without a religion to guide them. I still don't have a good answer for this part; my own morality is definitely tied to the religion I learned as a child. I've shaken off some of it, but I don't have a rational case for the parts I've kept.

Posted by: Justin du Coeur (jducoeur)
Posted at: September 30th, 2004 12:35 pm (UTC)

One more point: the point you're trying to make here doesn't necessarily follow, even on its own grounds. You're making several fundamentally unsound assumptions, but the biggest one is this: Pure rationality is good for democracy.

This seems questionable: a purely rational outlook might well be an entirely amoral one -- that isn't to say that morality is entirely tied to religion, but pure rationality and morality co-exist rather uneasily. And an amoral populace would seem to be a poor environment for a democracy, because the most rational way to maximize one's own benefit is often to undermine democracy rather than to participate fairly. The most dangerous people in Washington today are *not* the religious fanatics -- rather, they're the coolly rational ones who are perverting the system to enrich themselves.

In other words: while dogmatic religion per se can sometimes be harmful to democracy, a well-defined ethical system is essential to making it work. And religion is, historically, the most efficient mechanism for promulgating ethical systems. Indeed, the worst crime of modern American fundamentalism isn't its anti-rationalism -- it's the abdication of its responsibility to promote sensible and consistent ethics, in favor of cheap soundbite religion.

Don't forget that the people who designed our democratic system were religious rationalists, people whose notion of religion was deeply intertwined with science. They built a system that was designed to work best with a populace that was both rational *and* ethical, and the ethics are *more* important to the proper functioning of the mechanism than the rationality is. Those ethics don't necessarily depend upon religion, but claiming that rationality is the be-all and end-all of a functioning democracy is, IMO, dangerously naive...

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