I have just finished reading a short HuffPo piece by Victor Stenger on the incompatibility of science and religion, but it’s hard to miss the fact that democracy and religion are really incompatible too. This is not often mentioned, because obviously politics is simply drenched in religion practically everywhere you look. What would American politics look like without religion? What would the Malaysian government do without Jews to hate? What would the Tory party in Britain do without its religious nut-cases like Jeremy Hunt, who has the audacity to set back, by decades, the rights of women, and then to say that it has nothing to do with his Christianity, which, he adds, simperingly, he does not broadcast? But just as you can be a scientist and go on believing in sky fairies without apparent conflict, even though religion and science really are incompatible, you can also be a politician and proclaim your religion from the housetops, even though religion and politics, at least politics that regards human rights with any respect, are really incompatible.
The point is this. Governance, just like science, should be based on reason and evidence, and not just on one’s personal prejudices, because one’s personal prejudices have no place in the making of laws, which should be blind to religious belief. If they’re not, this means that laws are being made that are supported only be those who have the current religious beliefs, and that’s not politics, that’s tyranny. Why is it becoming increasingly acceptable for people to voice their religious opinions in the public square, and seek to base laws upon those opinions, when it can be known, simply by a survey, that either a majority, or a significant minority, of constituents do not hold the religious opinions upon which so many members of legislatures are quite prepared to base their lawmaking? How is this different from simply flipping a coin, and deciding for laws based on a simple rule of “heads” for the passing of laws, and “tails” for their defeat?
Just consider, once again (I promise, I’ll let him go soon), Jeremy Hunt’s proposal that the limits for abortion on the United Kingdom should be lowered to 12 weeks gestation (the first trimester, as they say). There is absolutely no scientific basis for this change, as the experts have been quick to point out, wondering where on earth the Health secretary, who has just taken over the role, gets his information. Not only is there no evidence in favour of such a move, there is plenty of evidence that it would be nothing short of a catastrophe for many women. But Hunt doesn’t care a fig about women or women’s rights. This should be amply clear by now. He doesn’t care about women. He doesn’t care about their lives. He has no interest in them at all. All he’s thinking of, even though he claims not to be doing so, is his religious revulsion at the thought of abortion itself, and that’s all he needs to make an arbitrary declaration that the cut off for legal abortions should be the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. See — just like flipping a coin! And then, of course — you can see it coming, can’t you? — others will say 20 weeks, and people will think they’re making a compromise, even though there is no more reason for drawing this line either, but at least popes and archbishops will approve.
So, as I say, the same thing goes for the alternative suggestion, to have the limit placed at 20 weeks instead of 24, even though it is well-known that the viability of the foetus at 20 weeks is practically nill, and of those that do survive, a great number go on to live lives seriously compromised by disability. So, the 20 week limit has no justification in the facts either. And is the issue of viability even relevant to the issue of women’s rights regarding their reproductive decisions? Like any other line 20 weeks is simply an arbitrary line drawn in the sand, the only reason for which, even with Maria Miller (the Minister for Women, of all things!) protesting that it is the “new feminist” thing to do, because it will prevent women from making a decision which will have serious psychological repercussions. But this, again, has nothing to do with feminism, and why shouldn’t women be allowed to make their own decisions, even if they do have psychological repercussions? Once again, it has to do, fundamentally, with religion, even though almost no one is saying this. There’s no reason for doing it; it’s just that conservatives, even when they are simply unaware of it, are still being tugged around by their religious presuppositions, and that the “miniature person” at the heart of all their deliberations is as much a person as you or I, because — what other reason could they possibly give — God has endowed it with a soul.
Now let’s move to another political scene, the one where the afflatus of the past year has died down, and no one is talking about the “Arab Spring” any more. Instead, people are beginning to talk of an Islamic winter, with uneasy “democracies” — as people insist on calling them still — wrestle with the question of how prominent Islam should be in the shape of their future. Women, who played such a huge role in the Egyptian “revolution” are now being put back into their place, and denied a role even in political parties that were founded by women! And this, we are being told, is democracy in action.
Alas, it is not so, and, whether Islam and democracy are or are not compatible, it seems that the future for Muslim majority countries is not going to be democratic, even though their “revolutions” were seeking self-determination, a self-determination that seems more and more under threat in Tunisia and Egypt, and where even democracies held to be functioning, like Malaysia’s, depend to such a great degree on antisemitism (see Robert Fulford on “Anti-Semitism without Jews in Malaysia“). The government even publishes sermons to be read out in mosques. As Fulford says:
Last March, for instance, the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department sent out an official sermon to be read in all mosques, stating that “Muslims must understand Jews are the main enemy to Muslims as proven by their egotistical behaviour and murders performed by them.” About 60% of Malaysians are Muslim.
Richard Bulliet, professor of History at Columbia, says, in a New York Times symposium, that
[i]f democracy is to be born in the Muslim world, religious political parties will be the midwives.
This seems so counter-intuitive that it almost amounts to a contradiction. Notice that he doesn’t say “Islamic political parties” (or even “Islamist political parties”) but “religious political parties,” but it is the ability of Islam to accommodate democracy that is in question. Indeed, another of the NYT symposiasts (and of course an ”expert” in Islam) tells us quite authoritatively that
Islam is not incompatible with democracy. Throughout South and Southeast Asia, Islamic and largely Islamic societies have experimented admirably with democracy.
(The qualification “experiented with” is a nice touch!) And one even suggests that Muhammad’s rule in Medina is an example of Islamic pluralism in action. She does not mention the slaughter of an entire Jewish tribe during Muhammad’s Medina period. Indeed, she tells us that
[w]hat the Islamic tradition does commend in the socio-political sphere is the practice and exemplification of certain values, including equality of all individuals, noncompulsion, respect for diversity and respect for the communal whole.
This is said by Jerusha Tanner Lamptey, who teaches Islam and ministry at Union Theological Seminary, but I find it very hard to find these values exemplified at any period in Islamic history. Indeed, the fact that in most of its stages Islam was something in the nature of a protection racket, extorting money from people in exchange for “protection,” even though the people so treated were socially oppressed, and subject to periodic outbreaks of what in India is called “communal violence,” a lesson well learnt by their descendents, among whom it is dangerous to live as a religious minority.
What I find completely bewildering is the way that Islamic experts tend to interpret Islam (as though they were ever put into practice) in terms of a few cherry-picked verses from the Qu’ran and other authoritative sources. Christianity, by these lights, is a paragon of virtue, love, forgiveness, and long-suffering. But the teachings of religions are largely irrelevant to an understanding of what they stand for in practice. Religions are always concentrations of power, and just as power in the hands of communists, whose ideology of “from everyone according to their ability to everyone according to their need” seemed so forward-looking and hopeful, concentrations of power will be misused. That’s simply the way power works. This is not about the teachings of Islam, which, like any religion, can so easily be cherry-picked for product control. In those terms, Islam is almost quietist, full of compassion and mercy. But, as Tom Holland points out, if Islam is, as it is most likely to have been, the product of empire, it is to this imperialism that we should look to discern its nature, just as Christianity is best known in terms of its repression of dissent, rather than in its emphasis on love and mercy, given its period of formation as the religion of the Roman imperium.
And that is why religion and politics are incompatible. In the end, religions simply cannot compromise as politics demands. They are absoloutisms, even though they typically sugar coat themselves when they put themselves on show for the delectation of others, but when they are in power, they use power to dehumanise and control. That’s what power unchecked does, and that’s why religion and politics should be kept far apart. For religions are, at their very heart, totalitarian, especially in their monotheistic forms, though ancient polytheisms are not immune to the lure of power. Religions have beliefs which they think everyone will benefit from holding and, if not holding, being held to. And that is why religion in politics, whether in the democracies, or the new and experimental Islamic forms of democracy, is incompatible with human freedoms, and human rights. Religions are simply not to be trusted, for, like all ideologies, they aim to become the dominant expression of their cultures. Christians like Jeremy Hunt will continue to think of Britain as a Christian country, even though only a minority of Britons believe in God, and, because it is a Christian country, he will go on believing that it should have Christian laws, regardless of the evidence. It’s the way that religions function. Religion is as incompatible with politics — certainly democratic politics – as it is with science.