{Wed 15 August 2007}   Are you for or against democracy?

There is a heartfelt, rousing cry for people everywhere to choose sides in the battle between democracy and theocracy in the article Time to Attack by Avraham Burg in Haaretz today. I agree 99%, I have to say.

The 1%: I’m not sure I agree that physical death and “democratic and moral death” are exactly the same, because while there is physical life there is hope for change and rehabilitation. So although I do think that all the different theocratic fundamentalist leaders are dangerous, I think that those who advocate physical killing are more dangerous, because there is no possibility at all of undoing that act. I am aware that for many this is a very theoretical distinction, though, because for those trapped inside very closed “heart and mind” belief systems, there is no realistic prospect of change or rehabilitation unless some kind of trauma or crisis ruptures and challenges their structures. However, these challenges do sometimes occur and opportunities arise for thinking differently, and in the meantime people can grow and develop and obtain some satisfactions from the many positive elements of their traditions. This clearly cannot happen at all if the person is dead. Therefore, I do see those religious who declare their territory to be hearts and minds only and who leave physical death to God as marginally more advanced than those who believe they have a right to take physical life in the name of their religion. This does not mean I think we should leave any of them to continue teaching poison without challenge.

Although I would love to live in a world where nobody ever killed anybody, I accept that this would only be possible if a critical mass were mature, loving and responsible at all times, were able to prevent violence against everybody always, and were able to offer adequate material and emotional support to all disadvantaged people always, and this is not likely. I don’t think we should ever kill as punishment, but we are likely to have to kill for reasons of self-defense or protection of others sometimes, and to make hard choices between possible deaths sometimes. But those choices should be governed by the evidence and the individual circumstances in each case, not by the idea that some religious Authority who cannot be proven to exist says that it’s OK to kill anybody who doesn’t believe as you do.

I think it comes down to differentiating between respect for the person and respect for the person’s beliefs. I respect people. I respect their right to choose their beliefs. I do not necessarily respect the beliefs themselves. I expect people to accept the civil consequences of and limitations on the beliefs they choose. I expect to be free to challenge their beliefs. I welcome their challenge of my beliefs. Beliefs that are valid to hold until good information requires them to change are those that concern issues that cannot be examined or proven scientifically. Where it can be proven scientifically that a particular belief is wrong (such as: the earth is flat; all black people are stupid; all women are inferior; all women are better at housework than men; all men are better at providing for and protecting a family than women; all women are natural mothers; all homosexuality is a matter of choice; all humans are either male or female; all men are better leaders than women; covering women prevents sexual infidelity by men or women; AIDS is best cured by noshing on beetroot and garlic…), the belief should be robustly challenged by the institutions of government, not “respected” in a misguided attempt to celebrate diversity. And don’t start on that rubbish that “science is just another form of belief”! Just because some scientists are as misguided and misleading as some fundamentalist leaders and create mythologies to fill in the gaps between things that can actually be proven, this doesn’t invalidate the scientific approach.

I don’t think that democracy is “perfect” or without risks, or that all Western laws are right, moral or ethical, or that existing non-religious civil structures should be accepted without question or challenge, but I see more potential in this route for the evolution of mankind than in closed theocratic systems. I’m for democracy.

Bonime says:

Hi Tia,
I just arrived here, so if this is all old stuff, please forgive me.

First, science is not a belief system as you point out: It is a well tested methodology. It has the absolute best track record of attaining true knowledge that is testable in the real world. It is not perfect, but it is the best there is. Nothing else comes close. Nor is science a body of knowledge. Yes, there is a body of scientific knowledge, but that is just what falls under the topic and has been subject to scientific methodology. What science takes as true is temporary. Science believes in only one thing: That there is order in the universe. Other than that, it relies on a rigorous system of proof, disproof and utter skepticism (in the colloquial sense – not the classic sense in which nothing is knowable).

Second, as regards democracy, It is the best system of governance when large numbers of individuals need to operate in some sort of harmony, but it, too is flawed: It relies on a population of educated and thoughtful individuals. It has the potential to be very good at this, but it is totally dependent on its individuals being rational. Only when a civilization’s individuals are rational can they make judgments that are best (not perfect) for the group as a whole. Irrational people can be manipulated and a de facto tyranny results. We are perilously close to this situation in the U.S. Almost beyond redemption.

There is no political system that is 100% perfect. Democracy can only go as far as it has taken us without starting barbaric world wars that threaten to return man to the caves. As a Muslim I believe Islamic Shariah Law is the ideal way of life (not the one that Muslim countries are trying to implement today) but judging by history it tends to corrupt and become materialistic very quickly. The Islamic Caliphate for example governed 40% of the world’s population for near on 700 years, it has been called the Golden Age of Islam, there was an exhibition on recently about the inventions made in the Islamic world during this period.

Tia says:

Rehan, your comment led me to look up Shariah Law on wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharia_law This an amazingly detailed entry which makes interesting reading, especially as regards the fact that there are so many different opinions as to what actually constitutes Shariah law (which would make it very difficult to implement as a universal system), but overall, it left me even more convinced that theocratic systems are oppressive and dangerous. The idea that a system (or in this case, systems) believed to originate from one religion’s god could fairly be applied to others who don’t believe in that religion or in that god is startlingly arrogant. And the idea that women should be treated as inferior to men in any aspect of any system is of course anathema to me. In a democracy, there are ways to work against discrimination and to uplift the oppressed, but in a system which decrees “from above” that discrimination is a good thing, it is very difficult to effect positive change, because the “believers” are held in thrall by religious authority and are too afraid to challenge injustice in the here and now for fear of losing their possible heavenly rewards.

Shariah Law is not a universal system nor can it be universally applied. Women are not inferior to men. If you’re thinking of the commonly cited Quranic verse regarding the testimony of one man being equal to that of 2 women. There is no such verse, the verse actually states that the testimony of one woman should suffice but that there should be another present to remind her if possible, as women do not govern the financial affairs of a society in most countries of the world. In the UK, for example I guess there are more women in finance than there are men so this proposition would not apply here. Nowhere does it say in the Quran that there should be 2 women testifying and that the testimony of the 2 would be equal to that of one man.

The other verse that is commonly given is the one about men being stronger to women. Again the actual verse states that ‘most’ men are physically built stronger than ‘most’ women, generally. That is a biological fact, imagine, for example women taking part in a wrestling tournament against men. Who do you think would win? Generally it would be the men, there could be odd exceptions where women could be win. This is not really discrimination. As far as the rights of men and women are concerned Islam gives them both equal rights.

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