Religion in a Democratic Society

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All religions are in an ambivalent relationship to democracy because, on the one hand, democracy contradicts religion and, on the other hand, it is precisely this political system that gives religious practitioners the best conditions because everyone can believe what they want.

However, democracy's relationship to religion is not necessarily less ambivalent. It is in the very nature of democracy to ensure diversity, including of religion, which is actually the antithesis of democracy. Religion is, at one and the same time, a worthy opponent to, and partner of, democracy, both as a bearer of culture and with its tradition of philosophy and ethical thinking.

In short, religion and democracy enrich each other, but only as long as both of them acknowledge each other's raison d'être and their own limitations.

Evolution and humankind

The Enlightenment defined humans as rational beings, but that is an inadequate description of us. We are much more than that.

When the text here on democracy-handbook.org surveys the birth of the individual and our common past as hunter gatherers on the African savannah, it is not without reason. It was our ancestors' culture on the savannah which formed our brains. Between 4 million and 7 million years ago, the ancestors we share with chimpanzees were alive, and through the evolution of such species as Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus and the archaic Homo sapiens, our own species Homo sapiens sapiens gradually emerged around 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. We have inherited the brain of these ancestors. A brain which was formed in a reality that was radically different from modern society.

Our ancestors had no written script or anything from all of the culture that arises from being able to store and retrieve information. The only form of collective memory our ancestors had was mythology. This meant that all of the practical information, for example, which plants were poisonous, or when it was wise to break camp and move to new hunting grounds, had to be passed on by other means, and so our ancestors developed myths and tales that made it possible to remember all sorts of practical details.

At the same time, our ancestors wondered about the world, just as we do: Where we come from? Why is there disease and death? Why does the sun shine and why does it rain?

Our ancestors interpreted intention into their surroundings, just as they learned that people have intentions towards each other. The earliest forms of explanations of natural phenomena were animistic: spirits and intentions were hidden in the world. These spirits and intentions could be influenced through correct behaviour, rituals, magic and mysticism; and myths were where people stored and retrieved information about these things. The myths explained the proper context of the world and how that world could be influenced; myths and rituals were what gave the world meaning.

Humankind and religion

Our brains have thus been developed in a context where the only form of library was the mythology of the collective, the only explanation for life was mythical, and the only possibility of influencing the world was was through mysticism, magic and ritual. In the meantime, we have learned much more about the world; we have discovered and cultivated reason, we have separated mythology and knowledge, and we have found out that rituals do not affect either the wind or the number of prey. However, we still have the same brains and the same need for meaning; meaning in the world and meaning in life. And we have the same need for ritual. In short: As humans, we need a mythology where we can include ourselves in the tale. We are ritualistic and mythological creatures, not least in connection with birth and death, and in other contexts where life manifests itself in greater joy or horror than we can accommodate.

Democracy and religion

Democracy is based on humanism, and religion does not necessarily exclude it. On the contrary, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and a number of other religions all have in themselves the seeds of humanism because they all relate to the individual and his or her relationship to other people - and to the divine; and a fellow human being in these religions is always seen as an individual.

Religion and democracy can give us different things and we as people and societies need all of it.

Humanist democracy can ensure a safe environment and a number of freedoms when in each other's company. Among other things, it can guarantee us the right to say no to religion, and it can guarantee us the right to practice religion, as long as it does not harm or threaten other people.

Religion can put us in touch with some deep roots in our culture and what it means to be human, and it can do it on an emotional level, which democracy, philosophy, reason and secular art and culture cannot achieve. Whether we are religious or not, we carry a cultural and biological heritage within us which is religious to differing degrees. As humans, we need to hear the great questions of our daily life formulated in mythical form. Art can do that, but it is also what religion does. In addition, religion provides us with the cult, that is, fellowship and worship of the great myths in ritual form. As humans, we are ritualistic creatures and we need a big emotional rush once in a while to notice that we are alive and to give our lives meaning. Religion can provide that but, in addition, it gives us the opportunity to delve into layers of our personality and our relationships with other people in completely different ways than logic and reason do.

Democracy and religion contain two very different aspects of being human and they don't need to take anything away from each other. In fact, culture and society are richest exactly in those places where tradition, religion, humanism and democracy have managed to live side by side and keep each other in check.

The republic which lacks a connection with its cultural and religious roots denies people a natural aspect of life, namely, the spiritual or religious. It doesn't root out religion; it merely substitutes the institutionalised and proven religion with superstition and new rituals and cults, simply because we humans - at least a large majority of us - need that kind of togetherness.

The religious society without humanism and democracy suppresses the individual and all the thoughts that set themselves up against religion. This makes both the people and the culture poorer - both intellectually and materially.

The richest society

The richest society, the most exciting culture and the biggest challenge is where religion, democracy, cultural heritage and humanism create a constant tension, where no system is allowed to stand alone, but where democracy, humanism and religion all have to reflect on their own values and behaviour. In short, where they have to be on their toes!


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