Are Religion and Democracy Compatible?
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.