Religion and Democracy
Part 1: Origins of Religion and Democracy.
More than 3000 people died on September 11, 2001. Their deaths caused by religious fanaticism. Islamic variety.
More than 300,000 people died in a Thirty Years war in northern Europe in the early 17th century. Their deaths caused by religious fanaticism. Christian variety.
Untold millions died in wars and violent suppressions beyond counting over 10,000 years of human history. Their deaths often due in large part to Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian, Shinto, Christian, Islamic, Sikh, and many hundreds of other varieties of religious fanaticism.
On the other hand, most of the world’s cultural treasures in art, architecture, music, sculpture, literature and dance were created from religious inspiration. All religious varieties.
Most of the world’s compassionate history—moral codes, generosity, respect for fellow men, hospitals, relief for the poor, support for the downtrodden —arose out of religious motives and heritages. All religious varieties.
And what about today? Is there a connection between religion and violence? Between religion and moral goodness? Between religion and democracy? If so, what is, or rather, what are the connections?
Without doubt, religion historically has been important, if not central to most human lives. It has also been at the center of many bitter conflicts. As it still is.
The western world of Europe, North America and Australia/New Zealand has been the pioneering leader in democracy. This western world has also been mostly Christian in religion (Protestant or Catholic) for many centuries.
Central and South America have also been Christian (Roman Catholic for the most part, but with an increasingly Protestant minority in the 21st century.) ever since Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century.
Much of the non-western world of the Middle East, southeast Asia and northern Africa has been Islamic in religion since the early Middle Ages, 1500 years ago..
In the far east, China and Japan have had a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Islam, and other folk religions for many centuries.
India has had a mixture of Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and other folk religions for many centuries.
Much of Africa, Oceania, and other more isolated areas of the world have long been polytheistic including a rich variety of nature religions..
The map today that shows the geography of this religious variety.
This map shows the geography of democratic states in the world today.
Note the similarities.
Is there a connection then between Christianity and Democracy? Is there a disconnection between Islam and Democracy? And what about the connections, if any, between Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, polytheism and democracy? Scholars debate these questions today and, as so often happens in history, there are no certain answers.
Nevertheless, let’s start by trying to get a rough idea of just what religion is and why it is so important (and so controversial) in almost every human society.
Religion, like capitalism, like science, and like democracy, had its origins in the remote past of the human species. Our Homo sapiens ancestors of 100,000 years ago lived in caves and rough shelters and survived by hunting and gathering wild foods. Anthropologists have been able to learn quite a bit about these ancestors by analyzing bones, tools and other remains in burial sites as well as by studying tribes still surviving today in remote regions of the Amazon, the South Pacific and Africa.
One thing they found was that violence was the norm, not the exception. On average about 15% of the people (25% of the men) living in hunting/gathering societies died a violent death at the hands of other human beings. If modern humans in the U.S. and Canada had this same rate of violence, you could expect 50 million of us (85 million men) would die from violence—and before the age of 30.
Partly because of this high rate of violence, but also because of high rates of starvation, malnutrition, disease and accidents, they found that the average life expectancy was less than 30 years.
And yet, surprisingly enough, they found that people then had more leisure than most people do today!
Homo sapiens individuals of 100,000 years ago had minds pretty much like ours today that could make subtle connections between events. They had a consciousness that made them special in the living world. They used this consciousness and mind to invent tools like fire, spears, bow and arrows, better kinds of shelters, and new ways of hunting, fishing and gathering wild foods. Science and technology were born.
And they used this consciousness and mind to help satisfy human desires to know, to understand, to experience awe and beauty, to banish fear, and to communicate in language and gesture. Religions along with the arts were born.
All human societies then and now have had science and technology and they have all had religions and the arts. And there has been a rich and bewildering variety.
Religion and the arts must have meant a great deal to early humans. Among other benefits they helped make more rich and humane the relationships between members of the tribe. They helped to hold paralyzing fear at a distance. They helped unify tribes in defense (and offense) against other tribes. And all of these desires and benefits (and defects) are no doubt still in operation today.
Most of the natural religions of our early ancestors have not survived.
Closer to our own time, when the agricultural revolution began some ten thousand years ago, religions that had their beginnings then do survive today. Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism all had origins in early agricultural civilizations in the Middle East and Asia.
Then a little over two thousand years ago the two monotheistic religions with the most world-wide adherents today had their beginnings. Christianity came first and then about six hundred years later – Islam – came onto the world stage.
All of these agricultural age religions have not only survived, they have all blossomed into many variations, and all of these variations as well have changed significantly over thousands of years. And they are still changing today.
Religions of Asia like Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism and all their variations tend to either be polytheistic (have many gods) or like Buddhism and Confucianism to dwell more on thought and behavior rather than on faith in a god or gods. They center on the eternal cycles of life, contemplation, moral codes, ways to cope with desire, disease and death.
Christianity and Islam, with their strong roots in Judaism, also stress moral codes and ways of coping with desire, disease and death. But in addition, they promote ideas and values like justice, progress, a personal God, individual rights, individual salvation and a promise of life after death. As we will see, these differences mattered then and matter today.
All agricultural civilizations had a rigid class structure. A tiny minority (less than two percent of the total population) were at the top and the huge majority (all the rest-some 98% of the population) were at the bottom. The tiny elite at the top included kings and queens, priests, warriors, artists, intellectuals, architects, engineers, story-tellers and bureaucrats. The huge majority at the bottom were peasants, serfs or slaves. The elite’s job was to govern, to enhance, to protect the society. The mass of people at the bottom, the peasants, serfs and slaves, did the agricultural, animal husbandry and artisan work needed to provide food, shelter, weapons, and indeed all the material needs of the society.
Religion and the arts played major roles in all of these class-ridden societies, serving to reinforce the class structures, humanize them, unite the kingdoms (they also unfortunately sometimes splintered the kingdoms), defend them against enemies and only too often be a key part of the motivation to attack perceived enemies.
Religion alone also played other roles, some positive and some not. On the positive side, religious belief was often a prime mover in caring for the sick, in founding hospitals, in softening the harshness of serfdom and slavery, in providing comfort to survivors, in restraining lusts, in providing moral codes, in inspiring art and architecture and in general in promoting a more humane and just society in societies that were for the most part not very humane or just.
On the not so positive side religious zeal often led to extreme emotional passion in support of bloody wars as well as fiendish torture and terrible death for people of a different religion, or of heretics within a given religion.
A king of England, Charles 1, for instance, claimed that “The true glory of princes consists in advancing God’s glory, in the maintenance of true religion and the church’s good.” Unfortunately Charles, a Catholic, had his head chopped of by Protestant rebels precisely for his insistence that his, and only his, was the “true religion.”
Religion was also often a force opposed to trade and to inquiry, rejecting contacts with the enemy and rejecting reasoned inquiry into nature (science that is) in favor of revelation and tradition (sacred books and inherited lore).
An early 6th century Christian bishop and philosopher in North Africa, later canonized as Saint Augustine, cautioned his followers:
“There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity... It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.”
The Christian religion had its most dramatic growth when the Roman Empire dominated the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. At the beginning Christians were a tiny minority and were persecuted by the Roman elite but in 325 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, made it the state religion and vastly increased the number of communicants..
Once Christianity became a state-sponsored religion, it became richer, more bureaucratic, less mystical and more subject to corruption. Soon after Constantine’s conversion, the Roman Empire itself collapsed (some historians think the change of religion had a role in that collapse).
In the 5th and 6th centuries AD the collapsed Roman Empire splintered into a multitude of small feudal states often at war with one another. There followed a serious decline in living standards—for the elite rulers. The peasants, serfs and slaves had always had a subsistence life of course, but even that life became more precarious in what followed, the Medieval Time of Europe from the 5th to the 13th century.
Around the Mediterranean and in Europe during that long period of over 1000 years there were changes in economics, in politics, in science and in religion. One of the most important changes in religion came in the 7th century when a merchant in Arabia named Mohammed founded a new monotheistic religion called Islam. His followers became known as Muslims.
Actually Mohammed and Muslims did not and do not consider Islam a new religion. Muslims then and now consider Mohammed to be the true and final prophet in a series of prophets going back to Abraham, Moses and Jesus. They believe that the Jewish Old Testament and the Christian New Testament reveal true words of God. But they also believe that God (Allah) revealed his final words to his final prophet, Mohammed. These words are preserved in a sacred book called the Koran.
Very soon after Mohammed died in 632 AD Islam split into two often warring factions, Shiite and Sunni. The split was caused by a dispute as to who was the rightful successor to Mohammed. The split led to bitter wars between the two Islamic factions, wars that still echo today in Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria and Palestine.
The Christian world as well had a major split (called the Great Schism) in the 11th century. Eastern Christians, centered in Constantinople (Istanbul in modern Turkey) and mainly Greek speaking, split away from western Christians (mainly Latin speaking), centered in Rome. The Schism centered on the role of the Pope whom western Christians revered as the successor to St. Peter and the supreme ruler of all Christianity. The eastern Christians (called Orthodox Christians) revered the Pope but denied his supremacy.
In the 11th to the 15th centuries the Christian world and the Muslim world fought each other in a series of wars, called Crusades in the West, that also still have strong echoes today. Led by Mohammed and his followers after his death Islam spread its message by both the sword and the pen. The Christians wanted to regain control of territories lost to aggressive Muslim invaders, especially the Holy Land of Israel and Palestine, a land that was also sacred to both Christians and Muslims.. The Muslim world from its inception was aggressively expansionist and repeatedly not only defended their territories, but in return attacked Christian communities all around the Mediterranean for many hundreds of years. Much of Spain as well as much of eastern Europe was for a time brought under Muslim rule.
So too similar splits, disputes and wars were common in Buddhist, Hindu, African, American and Asian religious kingdoms throughout agricultural ages of the past five thousand years.
In all of these bloody disputes religion was important, but it was not the only issue. In all agricultural societies the economy was for the most part a zero-sum one with rigid class structures dividing the population into haves and have-nots . Since there was only a limited amount of wealth (land, animals, serfs and slaves) the only way for one group to get wealthier was to steal from another group. The Crusaders (and the Muslims) were not ignorant of these facts, nor shy about taking advantage of them. Nor were the elite in other agricultural societies.
Genghis Khan, for instance, was a warrior prince from eastern Asia who led a fierce group of Mongolian warriors on horseback in a series of savage wars that eventually conquered territories larger than the Roman Empire in the 13th and 14th century. Like all groups, the Mongolian warriors had a religion (they worshipped a “sky god in the eternal blue heaven”) that unified and motivated them but the opportunity for increasing wealth through conquest was probably of more importance. Unlike most religious societies, they did not discriminate against people with other religions. On the other hand they were also indiscriminate in their massacres when they conquered a city, Christian or Muslim, killing all the men and raping all the women.
Genghis Khan himself could have been speaking for warriors of all persuasions in zero-sum agricultural societies when he is reputed to have said, “The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies, and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.”
(It has been shown through DNA studies that a surprisingly large percentage of people in Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe still today carry genes that give tell-tale signs of having been descended from Mongol warriors, many millions from Genghis Khan himself!)
Both the Christian and the Muslim worlds of medieval days were sometimes only marginally less violent and brutal than Genghis Khan in their warfare and atrocities. Beside the battles of the Crusades against Islam, feudal communities of Christians in western Europe engaged in bloody wars with fellow Christian communities, often over land and wealth but sometimes also over doctrinal disputes. Was the mother of Jesus a virgin without sin? Was Jesus equal to the father or not? Was God unitary or a trinity?
Heretics (those who believed differently than the current orthodoxy in any given society) were often not tolerated. To put it mildly. Often they had their tongues cut out to keep them from spreading their heresy any further. They might then be tortured or burned alive. The rationale for the burning was that since heretics were destined to burn forever in hell, perhaps during the burning on earth they would repent and thus escape eternal damnation.
In Christian communities, Jews especially were persecuted and often driven from one community to another, denied rights, and sometimes murdered when they resisted or refused to convert..
Many Islamic communities did much the same. Some Islamic scholars taught that the Koran itself recommended killing infidels if they did not convert and acknowledge the supremacy of Allah. In practice though, there is evidence that in medieval times Muslims, especially Muslims in India and Persia, were more tolerant of Jews and Christians in their midst than Christians were of Muslims and Jews in their midst. Muslims called Jews and Christians “people of the book” since they came from the same Judaic Biblical tradition.
This difference in tolerance may have been due to a richer and more advanced cultural life of the Muslim World in much of Medieval time. While most of Christian Europe was illiterate, Muslim scholars in Africa, in the Middle East and in Asia, were doing important work. They were the ones who translated classic Greek and Roman writers into Arabic, saving them from extinction. Muslim countries in North Africa, Spain, India and the Middle East also had more schools, more hospitals, and a higher level of art and science than was achieved in the chaotic blend of Christian, Roman and barbarian culture that was early Medieval Europe..
Unlike the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, and unlike most Asian, African and American civilizations, both Muslim and Christian religions at their best did teach the dignity of the individual, whether rich or poor (even if they often did not honor this teaching in practice). This emphasis on individual dignity would have important consequences for future political evolution in the world.
In Part 2 we will discuss some of these consequences for our modern 21st century world.
Part 2: Religion in the Modern World
There were and are important differences in the two dominant monotheistic religions, Islam and Christianity. Despite the chaos and poverty, the Christian world of western Europe had things the Muslim world did not have. (nor did any other culture of that time).
Both slavery and polygamy (along with the prevalence of harems and in general an extreme subjugation of women) were accepted practices in the Islamic world, sanctified by the Koran. Feudal Buddhist and Confucian societies in China, Japan and Southeast Asia were also known for brutal slavery, for huge harems and routine subjugation of women. The world of Hinduism in India not only had slavery and polygamy, it also sanctioned child brides, an especially rigid caste system, and the burning of widows.
The Christian world inherited the practice of slavery from the Roman Empire. Spurred by Christian doubts it was gradually abolished, however, until for the most part it disappeared in western Europe by the late medieval times. Like all feudal societies the medieval Christian world was male-dominated. However it did not sanction or practice polygamy, child brides, burning of widows or routine and extreme subjugation of women.
The Christian world of medieval days also had the beginnings of a new idea—the separation of church and state. Jesus had said “give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” In matters of religion the Pope was supreme. But in matters of all else, the feudal king or queen (even though ruling by “divine right”) was supreme. And the king’s law owed as much to the precedents of Roman law as it did to Christian church law..
In Islam, on the other hand, there was no distinction between church and state. They were the same thing and had to be governed by the same laws, the laws of Sharia, as written down in the sacred book, the Koran, and codified and interpreted by Islam’s clerics.
Another great divide between the two monotheistic religious cultures opened up in the 14th to the 18th centuries, just a few hundred years ago. The western Christian world went through a Renaissance, a Reformation and an Enlightenment. The Islamic World did not. This western road was the one that led eventually to modern free-market capitalism and liberal democracy. The Islamic road has so far made only limited progress in moving beyond feudal economies and religion-dominated states.
What happened in the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment that was so important to democracy today?
Differences between Islam and Christianity intensified in 14th century Italy in the beginning of what is called the Renaissance. Scientists like Galileo, Copernicus and Vesalius made dramatic progress in astronomy, physics and medicine. Merchants in Venice, Genoa, and Milan made dramatic progress in trade and financial management. Artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli and Leonardo DaVinci made dramatic progress in the visual and architectural arts. A little later writers like Dante, Cervantes and Shakespeare laid foundations for modern western literature.
Paradoxically, they made this progress both building upon and in spite of their Christian backgrounds. I say “building upon” because they did inherit a rich medieval Christian tradition of individualism, of technology advances, of separation of church and state, of respect for women, of rejection of slavery, of advances in logic and reasoned argument in the universities, and the beginnings of a kind of Christian capitalism in the monasteries of medieval Europe.
I say “in spite of” because often the church hierarchy was intimately entwined in feudal politics, was a major player in the dominant elite class, was the major landowner in feudal Europe, was often corrupt and was usually opposed to trade with enemies and in general to changes in the status quo. The church was also content to have the people illiterate and thus dependent on the clergy for knowledge and guidance in all religious, scientific and political matters.
In 1517 the church hierarchy had a severe jolt when a monk named Martin Luther nailed what he called “95 thesis” onto a church door in Germany. It was the beginning of what is called the Reformation. Reacting and rebelling against what they considered enormous corruption within the Catholic Church, leaders and groups all over northern Europe split away from the church and established what came to be called Protestant churches.
In reaction the Roman Church launched a counter-reformation and the stage was set for long-lasting violent conflicts. Over the next century northern Europe especially was savaged in a long series of religious wars between Protestant and Catholic villages, cities, and feudal kingdoms. One of the worst was a Thirty Years War in what is now northern Germany when mainly mercenary armies, some on the Catholic side, some on the Protestant side, led to the deaths of up to one-third of the total population and the devastation of the human environment..
This Reformation, violent as it was, did bring some new ideas into the western world, and just as important, found a new way to get them distributed. That new way of distribution was the invention of movable type and the printing press.
Before the printing press Bibles (indeed all books) were rare and treasured items, only available in a few monasteries, churches and universities. A book cost more than a house. Cambridge University, one of the richest universities in the world, owned a total of 122 books in 1424. And before the printing press most people in Europe (and elsewhere), including kings, queens, priests and nobles were illiterate.
The first book printed on the new invention was the Christian Bible. Within a few years there were printing presses in more than 110 European towns and cities. Protestant reformers printed and distributed large numbers of Bibles, encouraged people to learn to read, and then to read the Bible for themselves. Protestant’s central message was a return to early days of Christianity where it was the individual’s relationship with God that mattered, not his or her relationship with the traditional church.
Along with this religious message, Protestant thought and practice eventually led to a gospel of individual authority that encouraged the further development of nationalism, of humanism and of capitalism in the western world.
This message was especially potent in the new world of the United States and Canada. As were the messages derived from a major happening in the 17th and 18th century western world called the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was centered in England, and northern Europe, and then a little later in the new world of what would later become the United States of America. It was led by a new breed of intellectuals. Philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau in France, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and John Locke in England, Immanuel Kant in Germany (he was the one who coined the term “enlightenment”), and Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton in the new world of America.
These radical new thinkers disagreed about many things but were united in their rejection of feudal politics and of other-worldly religions as guides to human governance. Instead they put their confidence in human experience and in natural reason as the keys to happiness and to a just society.
“We hold these truth to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. “That all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Like the English Enlightenment philosophers who were Jefferson’s mentors, this was religion still, but it was a radical new variation of Christianity called Deism. Deism, while acknowledging a supreme being, and staying in the Christian tradition, strongly stressed human rights and values, and rejected theological dogmas. This was the religion of most of America’s founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. And it heavily influenced both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, particularly in the first ten amendments to the Constitution called the Bill of Rights.
All of these men attended Christian church services as most Americans do today. Their religious beliefs, however, differed from those of earlier Protestants and Catholics. Influenced by the English Enlightenment they believed strongly in humanistic Christian values like “love they neighbor as thyself,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” help the poor and downtrodden, comfort the afflicted, do good and avoid evil, nourish and protect the family, etc.
Just as important, however, they did not believe that heretics should be banned or burned. Nor did they believe that only one religion was the true religion or had a privileged path to God. They did believe in prayer and in life after death but they did not stress these aspects of Christianity. Instead they believed strongly in freedom of religion and in tolerance for all beliefs, including atheism. (Jefferson was accused of being an atheist, and Thomas Paine was an acknowledged atheist.).
They also believed in separation between church and state (“give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”) and wrote it into the Constitution in the form “Congress shall make no law restricting freedom of religion.” Jefferson went further in his writings, recommending a “wall of separation” between religion and state.
By no means did everyone in the new United States share this Deist religion and philosophy of the founding fathers. Many, probably most, held firmly to more traditional Protestant or Catholic views. While many had no religion at all.
This wall of separation has led to a remarkable flowering and an incredible variety of religious belief in the United States throughout its history, including today in the 21st century. There are still strong churches of Roman Catholic persuasion, many varieties of traditional Protestant churches, new mega-churches of non-denominational theology but charismatic and evangelical persuasion, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, Hindu temples, Scientology meeting places, Native American sweat lodges, and more.
And then the 20th and early 21st century has also seen the birth of some “near-religions” you might call them. That is, individuals and groups who believe passionately in causes that they look on as all-important, causes that for their true believers, like traditional religion, permeate, color and influence all their thought and behavior.
Among these secular “near-religions” of the 20th and 21st centuries would be Nationalism, Communism, Nazism, New Age religions of many varieties, Scientology, and some would add, Radical Feminism and Radical Environmentalism. Like major religions of the past, at their best each of these new “religions” offer grains of truth. But like major religions of the past, at their worst they also tend to foster absolutist beliefs that brook no disagreement, sometimes so all-encompassing that they cripple thought and lead to emotionally-charged action counter-productive to human progress..
In 1779 the United States was the first and the only liberal democracy on earth. To be sure it was seriously flawed. Slavery in the western world at least seemed to be extinguished in the Christian Middle Ages, but it made a serious and especially brutal comeback in the 17th and 18th centuries as Africans were kidnapped, crammed into the holds of sailing ships and sold into slavery in both North and South America. The US Constitution was ratified with a provision that slaves only counted as 3/5 of a person.
Some religious groups like the Quakers in Pennsylvania had long fought against slavery as an abomination against God. Other religious groups, however, argued that slavery had support in the Bible and was a part of the natural order of things.
And so it was with other social issues of the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States and in the rest of the liberal democratic world.
Where laissez-faire capitalism might allow callous exploitation of workers, religion-derived humanistic values would curb this exploitation and encourage laws to protect workers, to provide social security, unemployment insurance, and welfare benefits to the poor. Where laissez-faire capitalism might allow discrimination, religion-derived humanistic values have intervened to outlaw discrimination by race, color, or creed, or sexual orientation.
Again, to be fair, there are dark sides of some religious influence. Just as some religious groups in the 18th and 19th century supported slavery, so some religious groups in the 20th century have supported racial segregation and discrimination using arguments from the Bible. For the most part, few if any of these Christian groups still support racial segregation today. However, many Christian groups still support discrimination based of sexual orientation and many still adhere to a Biblical view of male supremacy..
So too in science, religion-derived humanistic values encourage inquiry today and support scientific investigation of the unknown even if it does not seem to have any practical economic value. On the other hand many traditional Christians oppose some areas of science that seem to challenge Biblical authority. Evolution is one important example. New work in biotechnology is also coming under attack from religious fundamentalists – as well as from some radical environmentalists!
Considering this long history of religion and democracy, what can we say about the connections today?
Let’s go back to the maps at the beginning of this program.
Here is the map of world religions today.
Here is a map of world democracies today.
The nations with Christian backgrounds (both Catholic and Protestant), as you can see, are for the most part democracies today. The United States, Canada, the British Isles, all of Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand. All of these nations came to democratic political structures with their accompanying electoral politics, civil liberties and civil rights, liberal values and free market capitalist economies through the historical paths cited here.
Some of them, like Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal suffered through a desperately painful and shameful periods in the 20th century called Fascism and Nazism in which religious values, indeed all human values, were denied and trampled upon. And sad to say, religious leaders of all major religions in Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal for the most part did not distinguish themselves in defending human dignity.
Some other Christian countries like Russia, Cuba, Poland and Hungary suffered through a desperately painful and shameful period in the 20th century when a secular religion called communism came to power and proceeded to trample upon humanistic religious values, indeed all human values.
Other countries too, like the United States and much of South America, had to pass through shameful times before they abolished slavery and gave equal rights to African-Americans. In this case leaders like Abraham Lincoln, the many abolitionists in the 19th century, and Martin Luther King and his followers in the 20th century were motivated in great measure by strong humanistic religious beliefs..
As our maps of world religions compared to world democracies today show, there are some democracies today, however, that do not have a Christian history. Two major non-Christian countries, Japan and India, are vibrant democracies today. Many smaller non-Christian countries in Asia, Africa and Southeast Asia also have democratic governments today.
Some analysts think the largest non-Christian country of all, China, is moving in that direction. China has embraced free-market capitalism, is progressing economically at an unprecedented pace, but is still governed by a communist party that is not democratic in idea or practice.
Muslim countries for the most part are not democracies, though there are exceptions here too. Indonesia, for instance, has more Muslims than any other country and is democratic, even if shakily so. Pakistan and Afghanistan are Muslim in religion and haltingly moving toward democracy. India has a large Muslim population and is solidly democratic.
Why has democracy proved so powerful and why is it spreading so rapidly in the late 20th and early 21st century, even to countries that had little or no experience with Christianity, nor with the Renaissance, Reformation or Enlightenment?
Good questions. No one knows for sure. Here is one answer.
As stated in the beginning of this program, democracy has three principal supports: science, capitalism and humanistic religion.
Religion is the most universal, the most controversial and the one most difficult to evaluate. Throughout human history religious beliefs, rituals and behaviors have been the inspiration for some of the world’s greatest art. Dance, theatre, poetry, music, literature and architecture have all been closely allied to religion in all cultures, in all regions and in all ages..
Throughout human history religious beliefs, rituals and behaviors have also been the inspiration for some of the world’s greatest humanitarians. Hospitals, care for the young and the elderly, comfort for the afflicted, hope for the despairing, relief for the poor and disabled--all these and more have been triumphs of religious compassion.
Unfortunately, religious beliefs have also supplied motivations for some of the world’s worst atrocities. In almost every case these religious beliefs did not stand alone, nor were they the only causes, but they did add a critical ingredient of passion and commitment that made the atrocities all the worse. Heretic burnings, Crusades, Thirty Years War, Jewish persecutions, Shiite vs Sunni, Catholic vs Protestant, Christian vs Muslim, Christian vs Jew, Communist vs Fascist, Islam vs the West. In every case the passion that powered these atrocities seemed to come from a conviction that only one way is the right way. Only one religion is the true religion, Only one way of life is the right way of life.
Democracy has flowered when the humanistic versions of religion (like our founders Deism) have been stronger and the absolutist versions, often based on literal readings of books like the Bible, or the Koran, have been weaker. This kind of absolutism also includes secular “religions” like Marxism, Nationalism, Nazism, and Fascism.
Who will prevail in the 21st century? No one can be sure.
The weight of evidence from the past and the overwhelming surge of the present seems to many of us to point to the eventual world-wide triumph of humanistic religion, free-market capitalism and liberal democracy. But the weight of history also shows it will not be simple or easy and may take a while. Maybe a long while. And without question there could be serious and long-lasting reversals as there were in the past century when secular religions like Communism, Nazism and Racism caused such human misery and catastrophe.
As to how democracy will triumph?
Again, no one came be sure, but some scholars point to modern tools of communication as the key agents of change. Just as the printing press played a major role in the birth of liberal democratic ideas in the Reformation and Enlightenment in Europe, so the revolution in communication technology today—radio, television, computers, cell phones, Internet – seem to have favored democracy in the past century and will also in the long run, in the opinion of most experts, favor the spread of science, of capitalism, of humanistic religion and of democracy in the 21st century.
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