Only Domesticated Religion Can Work With Democracy

September 5, 2011

Religion promises a rewarding relationship with some supreme reality. Neither naturalism nor democracy does that.

Only religion hijacks one’s cognitive centers. Having committed to religious promises, people feel certain about the spiritual rewards. Religious people love that certainty and they detest doubt about their commitment, whether that doubt be internal or coming from other people. That is why religious people have gone to any lengths to silence or banish (or worse) any dissenters, heretics, or atheists. Religions are intrinsically totalitarian — given the opportunity, they will erect governments demanding conformity to religious edicts.

Many religious people would deny such statements. They would protest, claiming that they feel plenty smart for being so religious, that they don’t need to feel so certain about their religion, that they have no problem tolerating dissent, that they would never approve religious government, and that their religion is the friendliest and most pleasant worldview around. 

What those people have is “domesticated” religion — a kind of religion that could only exist under civilized, scientific, and democratic conditions. Here is how you can tell that you are dealing with believers in a domesticated religion:

1. Believers who describe their religious views as their “beliefs” — implicitly admitting the psychological reality that people can’t have certain knowledge. Yet they stay religious by wielding their “beliefs” with excessive confidence that their “belief” is at least as worthy as any other “belief” out there.

2. Believers who justify their religious views as “very good for them” — implicitly using the humanist standard that people deserve worldviews that benefit them. Yet they stay religious by self-righteously assuming that their religion is best for everyone.

3. Believers who defend their religious views as “my right” — implicitly applying the democratic principle that people can’t be forced to surrender their conscience. Yet they stay religious by frequently complaining when their religion can’t get even more rights.

Domesticated religion exists only because some believers admit that their brains don’t have any supernatural powers to know things that others cannot, and they admit that they are better off with a democratic and secular government that does not favor religion.

For its part, democracy stands because the people understand how they are smarter united than when they are divided by faith or creed. Democracy stands because the people grasp how compromise is necessary sometimes — even compromise over one’s deepest commitments. Democracy survives only where religion has been domesticated, and democracy is strengthened the more religious commitment devolves into fidelity to the humanistic ethos. 

Yes, many religious people have little clue how their religion would destroy democracy if it could. Perhaps we should keep them in the dark. Perhaps we should make sure that domesticated religion stays committed to democracy and to secular government. Wild religions flourish in our midst. Too many faithful stay convinced that they have supernatural cognitive powers, they know the one true religion best for all, and they’ve got a righteous recipe for the perfect government to rule over everyone. If domesticated religion gets too friendly with the wild religion still inhabiting these lands, democracy is doomed.