Religion and Democracy

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There are no democratic nation states where religions have been at the forefront of the introduction of democracy and some of the most undemocratic countries today are religiously governed. It is therefore natural to ask whether democracy and religion can ever be reconciled.

The pragmatic answer is: "They have to be!"; simply because it is unrealistic to want to deprive more than 90% of the world's population their faith or insist that they must not practice it. Even if it were possible, how democratic would that be?

Can't democracy and religion enrich one another? Do they just have to exist side by side out of necessity?

It's not a good thing when one single system gets to take power on its own or even become totalitarian. It's pluralism in society which ensures our freedoms. This means that there are many ways to live one's life and that we recognise each other's right to live and to be different. It is therefore necessary for a democracy to leave room for something other than itself if it doesn't want to become totalitarian. As long as religion can be practised according to the same principle, there should be no conflict between religion and democracy.

It is often argued that religions based on law, Islam in particular, are incompatible with democracy because, for orthodox religious practitioners, religious law takes precedence over democratic law. This is a real dilemma, but it is not insoluble and the different religions offer different opportunities to be both religious and a democrat.

Finally, one can make the argument that a secular democracy where religion does not play a political role is the form of government that is most compatible with all religions. Religions emphasise personal conviction and the observation of a particular set of rules for living; if one's religious life is one's own private responsibility, and the state does not interfere in it, does that not indicate a far greater religiosity than if the state had used its power to make you practise a religion?

If your priests argue against democracy and say it is against your religion, ask questions about why - and keep asking questions. Ask why democratic societies have fewer poor people; why they have better protection of the weak, better medical care, and more schools and hospitals, than religious societies. Ask why all the new medicines are invented in democratic societies.

Next chapter: Judaism and Democracy