Tuesday, October 03, 2006


There is much confusion these days about democracy, theocracy, philosophy, ideology, politics, and basic human rights. Our current administration has the noble goal of spreading democracy around the world, but considering the state of the world today, what could result is just as likely to be an authoritarian theocracy as a liberal pluralistic democracy like ours, that respects human rights. Given a choice, a deeply religious majority is more likely to vote for a government based on the tenets of their religion than one where interest groups vie for control and share power in a questionably stable way.

Our country was settled by people fleeing countries with a state religion, and persecuting those of other religions. At the time, almost all people were religious, having no scientific basis for explaining naturally occurring phenomena other than religion. Hence, it’s no surprise that this country was founded by people who had at least a rudimentary belief in a higher power that might be controlling things. But, it wasn’t long before people of the same religion were in control of the town meeting hall in Salem and burning witches, illustrating that once a single religion predominates over others, and controls the government, irrational behavior is likely to follow. If that example isn’t convincing enough, we only have to look to the Taliban in Afghanistan and the threat we are facing from extremists of the Islamic faith around the world.

Fortunately, when our country was founded, there were a few cooler heads that prevailed in spite of their religious inclinations. In secret, they came up with a constitution that called for freedom of religion, but restricted government interference in religion, a pretty wise decision by a bunch of not so old aristocratic, land owning white men. They enshrined these famous words in a declaration of independence, “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these are Life Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It makes no difference who the Creator was, most of us would all agree that, as individuals, we are entitled to certain inalienable rights which should not be infringed by government or any other voice of the majority. Today we call these human rights, and have enshrined them in our bill of rights and enumerated them in documents agreed to by almost all members of the United Nations.

We are now faced with a resurgence of deeply dedicated religious people. We call them fundamentalists because they believe and adhere to the fundamental teachings of their religion, as given in ancient texts which they consider infallible. These people value their religious beliefs higher than their own lives. When this condition exists, rational behavior based on evidence cannot be expected. There is no a priori respect for inalienable human rights as enshrined in our founding documents.

So we have some decisions to take regarding how we conduct our own affairs, and how we confront others who may threaten our way of life. We cannot confuse religiosity with ideology or political persuasion. We cannot confuse “democracy”, rule by the majority, with a government limited in its powers to curtail human rights. Can we rely on polyarchy, the rule by competing interest groups, to preserve human rights and prevent domination by religious majorities? I’m not very confident we can.

In the end, we may have to accept some measure of authoritarianism to protect human rights from infringement by religious majorities, as is now current policy in Turkey. After centuries of rule by caliphates and sultanates Mustafa Kemal Atatürk enshrined a Security Council of the military to ensure that a secular regime would always be in control, in spite of the fact that Turkey is overwhelming an Islamic country, and once was the seat of power of the Islamic Sultans. This structure is being challenged today by Islamic fundamentalists.

As a goal for our country, aren’t we better off championing human rights and structures to secure them, over democracy. It is impossible to be secure if the ruling authority is guided by irrational precepts of age old dogma, rather than a well founded faith in the goodness of human nature and the inalienable rights of individuals, which has served us well for over 200 years. To this end, we must not only be conscious of how other countries are ruled, but we must take great care to ensure that our own government doesn’t come under similar pressures to what Turkey now faces.

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