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Posted by on Aug 6, 2014 in Education, Environment, Featured, Government, International, Politics, Religion, Women | 20 comments

Are Religion and Democracy Compatible?

1470Professors (1)Does religion interfere with democracy? It depends on the religion. The more modern and open religions, that do not demand strict conformity to the positions of their leaders, can coexist with democracy, causing no problems for the religion or interference with the democratic process. Conservative or orthodox religions and religious fundamentalists, that do not countenance free thinking, are antithetical to democracy as they are intolerant of ideas that do not fit with their world view and rigid in their expectations that their leaders will be obeyed. [icopyright one button toolbar]

Religious practices, doctrines, and beliefs are accepted by adherents purely on faith. Empirical data that contradicts these beliefs are rejected out of hand by followers of conservative religions, who are not open to different interpretations or beliefs. And the doctrines of their faith are usually interpreted literally, which can lead to conflict with the devotees of other religions. True believers are often told not to mix with followers of different religions or to marry outside the faith. The leaders who interpret the doctrines and espouse the practices of their religions are expected to be followed blindly by pious observers.

On the other hand, in a democracy, voters are encouraged to make up their own minds about the issues and candidates before them in elections, and to vote on that basis. In America, conflict between conservative religions and people who are secular involve specific issues. Since the pious believe they are following the word of God, they try and impose their beliefs on individuals who think differently. The most contentious issues include a woman’s right to obtain an abortion, contraception, same-sex marriages, and scientific education.

In a democracy, no one should contest religious believers’ right to follow their own particular doctrines (assuming they don’t cause harm to other people). But those who are religious should not try to force the general population to live their lives in a manner in accord with their conservative religious beliefs. If you don’t believe in abortion, you don’t have to have one, but should not make it impossible for non-believers to have abortions. Some religious adherents have resorted to violence and killing of providers to prevent abortions.

Many religious believers also think there should be no separation between church and state. They want religious doctrine to be taught in the public schools and for the state to pay for the education of students in religious schools. In addition, they want public schools to permit prayer. Conservative religions do not accept evolution or the Big Bang theory as being valid and fight against teaching these theories in science classes. Instead, they push for Creationism or similar ideas to be taught alone or alongside evolution, confusing students and wasting valuable school time. (This is one of the reasons many American students are scientifically illiterate, lagging behind most of the developed world in their knowledge of science.)

In Third World “democracies,” conservative religions make it even more difficult for true democracy to function. Women do not have the same rights as men in many of these nations. Homosexuals are persecuted. Religious leaders are even more intolerant of other religions and may encourage violence against practitioners of different faiths.

In Pakistan Sunnis kill Shiites, Sufis and Amahdis as apostates, as well as Christians, and are not brought to justice. Blasphemy is punishable by the death sentence. Citizens who want to change the law have been assassinated by religious fundamentalists who are not prosecuted by the government.

Similar practices occur throughout the few so-called “democracies” in the Middle East where intolerance of other religions is rampant. Many Moslem nations do not recognize any other religion but Islam, and converting to another religion can be a criminal offense, sometimes punishable by death. (Variants of Shariah, Islamic Law, are practiced in some Moslem nations or in regions of these nations.)

Iran is basically a theocracy and candidates must be vetted by religious officials before they can run for office. Religions other than Shiism are not accepted and adherents of other faiths are often persecuted or even killed. In the “democracies” of Iraq and Lebanon, violence between Shiites and Sunnis is a constant refrain, with Christians killed or forced out of different areas.

As other illustrations of intolerance, in Myanmar and Thailand Buddhists are persecuting and killing Moslems, usually without being punished by the state. And in India Hindus have persecuted and killed Moslems simply because of their religious affinity.

Though Israel is considered a democracy, religious Jews have stoned young Jewish girls and women who they thought were insufficiently modest in their dress and escaped prosecution for their actions. Transportation is not permitted in areas inhabited by religious Jews on the Sabbath and reform rabbis are not recognized by the state. Women have not been allowed to pray at sacred sites set aside only for men. And until now, extreme Orthodox Jews have not had to perform military service or other obligations like the rest of the citizenry.

The above examples are merely superficial accounts of why activist religions and democracy don’t mix. Faith is fine, but beliefs or practices should not be imposed by one group upon another through the ballot box or any other means. Subjugation of women and violence against minority religions are not compatible with democracy as it is practiced in many so-called “democratic” nations.

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  • The_Ohioan

    This is one of the reasons many American students are scientifically illiterate, lagging behind most of the developed world in their knowledge of science

    This is the only statement I would take issue with. I think it’s more the lack of school funding than religious pressure that leaves our students in the dust of other countries scientific knowledge, though in certain pockets that statement may be true.

  • JSpencer

    Good post Robert. The separation is important for reasons people in the past seem to have understood better than people in the present. The following book is on my reading list and should probably be read by those who somehow imagine the US either is or should be a Christian Nation.

  • sheknows

    I pretty much agree with T_O ” it’s more the lack of school funding than religious pressure that leaves our students in the dust of other countries scientific knowledge, though in certain pockets that statement may be true.”
    Also ,besides funding issues is social strata. Our country is creating more and more families in less than middle class status and many of those students don’t have the drive for academic achievement in the sciences when not emphasized by the educational system. A lot of teachers never were and aren’t big on science either 🙂

    But if you make a contest of religious beliefs vs scientific fact, I think belief will win out every time. The reason is because it doesn’t have to be proven… msybe.a convenient excuse to not have to think 🙂

  • If you noticed, I said that teaching creationism and other unproved theories is “one” of the reasons for scientific illiteracy. I agree that lack of funding for education and poor teacher training are the main reasons American students lag behind in science, math, reading and so forth.

  • sheknows

    Thanks Robert. I think the conversation dovetailed, but your original premise is absolutely correct. Certain religious fundamentalism is anathema to democracy. We see it here in this country with cases dragged before the SCOTUS , as well as local government decisions all the time.

  • dduck

    I am an atheist, who believes religion can do good and may be compatible with some governments.
    When a repressive government, for instance the communist one in Hungary, tramples on the people, often the only refuge/shelter and voice against that can be a religious organization.
    When a more dogmatic religion is replaced by a less dogmatic form (we can debate about the Reformation and different forms of Muslim/Islamic religion), people may benefit, or if the reverse as ISIL is proving, make them very miserable or dead. (I’m sure there are plenty of other examples.)
    When religions do “good” work with the poor, young, etc., that may supplement what the government may or may not be providing, we usually think that is a good thing.
    So, far from a easy question to answer, some quiet (even in a religious structure) contemplation of the individual circumstances may be enlightening.

  • jdledell

    I think the problem with the compatibility of Religion and Democracy lies with the proselytizing religions like Islam and Christianity. I can say with some certainty that Jews don’t proselytize and I’m not aware that Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists etc. proselytize. Islam and Christians do. The problem with proselytizing religions is they believe there is only one way to live properly and that is carried over into one way for the government to act.

    As a boy I had numerous busy body Christians tell me and my family that the reason I got polio was we did not follow Jesus Christ. In fact three times in my life I’ve had a person come up to me and sprinkle water on my head and mutter some words about the Holy Spirit. They said it was an Emergency Baptism in order to save my eternal soul. To illustrate how ridiculous some of the minute differences in belief systems can wreak havoc on lives I’ll tell the story of my college roommate, Matt.

    Matt’s father was a very strict Lutheran minister. Three years after graduation Matt met Lisa and soon asked her to marry him. I was to be best man. When I met Lisa, I thought this was great since she was also raised Lutheran there should be no problem with Matt’s father. Little did I know. Matt’s father was a minister in the American Lutheran Branch (ALC) while Lisa was raised in the Lutheran Church of America (LCA). Matt’s father refused to bless the marriage because Lisa was going to Hell as a non-believer and their children would also. Matt tried to explain the doctrinal differences between the ALC and LCA but to me the differences were like trying to pick fly sh”t out of pepper. As of 4 months ago, Matt and Lisa were still married and their children never met their grandfather.

    Any dogmatic belief system, whether religious or political, will interfere with Democracy. Anytime someone believes there is only ONE way to do things, Democracy will take a back seat to the fight to impose that particular belief system. In Islam the fight between Shia and Sunni is an example and I think currently far right Republicans are another example.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist


    I always enjoy (and learn from) your real-life stories.

    Please keep them coming.

  • sheknows

    Jd, your story probably echoes with many Americans.
    Many of us, me for certain, know of spouses shunned for being of a different faith. Usually the children are exempted from this practice, but not always as you say.
    I always have to ask…what God is it that teaches separatism and hate? There is none. It is the followers who twist the teachings to rationalize their own lack of faith and fear of the unknown.

  • The thing to remember here is that organized religion is is created to give central authorities power over the people by threats and or promises. Constantine thought that the Roman Empire needed a new state religion and Christianity seemed to fit the bill. He never believed in the magic himself and in fact refused to be baptized on his death bed.

  • sheknows

    Good point Ron…long before there was such a thing as democracy, there was religious rule…control of the people through fear of displeasing a greater ruler…one which would cast you into hell upon death. 🙂

  • jdledell

    I’m probably stepping on dangerous ground but I’ve often wondered how much of the Torah (Bible) was G-d’s word versus Man’s thinking. Following up on sheknows and Ron’s thoughts, I wonder how much of the Book, written by Jews about Jews, was done to keep the people in line. Talk of a Vengeful G-d full of sound and fury never captured my imagination. I’ve wondered how G-d can create such a wonderous Universe and people can be angry all the time. But if taken literally, the words in the Book sure can keep people on the straight and narrow and the religious AUTHORITIES in control because they control the interpretations.

  • @jdledell: Although there may be much spiritual poetry in the Torah much of it is a political document to insure the survival of a tribal society that was constantly at war.

  • dduck

    I only believe what I saw depicted in the Mel Brooks film History Of The World Part 1:

    So without he missing five, man has created flawed religions. 🙂

  • slamfu


    I think it’s more the lack of school funding than religious pressure that leaves our students in the dust of other countries scientific knowledge

    Sorry to be a bit off topic, but that is clearly not the case. The US spends more per capita on its students than anyone. As usual, the problem lies a bit deeper. If it was a factor of money spent, we’d have the best students in the world. While I am not saying its the fault of religion, or that more funding would be bad, there are non money factors involved, and any solution to the issue needs to account for that.

  • slamfu

    And to be on topic, Democracy is compatible with religion, but religious beliefs are less so with Democracy. At the core of most religions, is that my god is real, and yours is fake. True believers can’t really reconcile that fact, but moderate ones can. In a Democracy that places the laws of Man above holy scriptures, things can coexist. But when the reverse is true, it can not.

    Behold the West, whose adherence to the ideals of the Enlightenment, which were themselves in no small part a rebellion against the influence of religion’s deleterious dominance of the social order, and how in the West we have successfully managed the two things in the last 200 years. While by no means perfect, there were plenty of people oppressed and murdered in its name, compared to what was before it was a MASSIVE improvement. And those ideals led us to where we are today, prosperous, peaceful, and dominant in an unstable world. Even with all of our problems, the USA is still the most immigrated to nation in the world.

    But remove those ideals, and you get the horror shows of centuries past, lived out in the modern world.

  • sheknows

    I think that both bibles , but particularly the old testament was written just for story value. The entertainment of the day. The books were written by man for various reasons, but the old stories have morals to them and lessons. The value of the old testament was to give faith and hope to a people who were conquered and wandering around into lands where their presence was not welcomed. Laws were a way to keep order among a frightened population who believed in a god who would save them.
    The new testament told of how everyone was saved, by the advent of one super human prophet sent to deliver them.
    Judeo-Christian teachings have become so distorted over the centuries and used for political purposes that they are unrecognizable from the meaning of the text.

  • Interesting question and one the OP gets right in distinguishing more open religious practice from rigid, fundamentalist faith. Two essential skills for democracy are critical thinking and compromise. Both are anathema to fundamentalism.

    Sk, you raise an interesting point about the origin of religious texts like the Bible. Religious scholars point out that 90% of the population was illiterate when it was written and the primary readers of the Bible were the clergy. It was a collection of stories meant to be read aloud to the congregation as part of a communal worship service.

    The invention of the printing press and widespread literacy made the text available to all. However, the understanding that the Bible was never intended to be read as a literal, historically accurate account was not nearly so widespread.

  • bluebelle

    Historically, religion has been used to keep the poor in line. I remember learning about the divine right of kings – which prevented many terrible monarchs from being overthrown, because the masses were taught that the king’s law was God’s law. That finally came into question during the Enlightenment, when writers like Locke and Voltaire wrote that men were born with God given rights that no man or king could take away. I have no doubt that we would not have democracy at all if the old power structure had been maintained. Unless religion is kept strictly in the private sphere, it will always threaten a democratic government.
    The Jews may not proselytizing their religion to non-Jews but the ultra Orthodox in Israel- the most intolerant– have a lot of political power over their government.

  • SteveK

    Lewis Black nails it…

    WARNING: Lewis Black language is not suitable for work or with children in the room.

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