Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Theocracy

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 16, 2005

There's yet another story in the news today about the growing rift between the Christian right and their efforts to enforce their point of view on society. In this item, U.S. Democrats are being represented as being "against people of faith" when they block judicial nominees who use the Bible, rather than the law, as the grounds for their decisions.

It is probably already clear to readers that I would be classed among those democrats. In my own country, I stand opposed to what might be called the faith-based position on a number of issues: I support abortion rights, I support gay marriage and I support Sunday shopping, for example. But "against people of faith"? Nothing could be further from the truth.

To be sure, I am not religious. It's pretty easy to explain.

The stories are unbelievable - a woman created from a rib, raining frogs, the parting of the sea, the rising from the dead, and more: these stories required as fact myths that cannot possibly be true. Oh, I have no doubt there is some element of truth in each of them. The parting of the Red Sea, for example, sounds remarkably like what would happen just prior to a Tsunami - or even some pretty high tides.

The conditions are unreasonable - the requirement for entry into Heaven, that blissful state of enternal life after death (which is another of those implausible stories) is that you have faith. It doesn't matter how good a person you were throughout life, if you don't have faith, you don't get in. Yet at the same time, there has not been (in my life at least) a shred of evidence that would lead me to having faith. It seems to me that setting up a situation that resembles a con game more than it does a means of eternal salvation is not something a wise, reasonable or just God would do.

The central premise is immoral - The reason why you express your faith, the reason why you live a moral life and follow the scriptures, is so that you can go to Heaven. In other words, you are lured into following the religion by the promise of personal gain. This strikes me as contrary to any principle of morality, where the reason you would perform a right action is that it's right, not because you make a profit at the end of the day.

Now you may not agree with me. You are not required to agree with me. So far as I'm concerned, your spiritual life is your own business, and if you wish to sign up for that set of beliefs, it's fine with me. After all, I'm not in a position to disprove the basic tenets - that there is a God, that there is life after death - and, indeed, I think I'd be happier were they true (wishing, though, doesn't make it so).

Where you and I collide is precisely where your belief begins to intrude into my life.

The first and most obvious way in which this is expressed is in the realm of personal choice. If I wish to open a shop on Sunday, say, or to have a homosexual affair, that is strictly my business. My doing of these things does not intrude on anyone else's spiritual life. It's just me conducting my life within the framework of my own morality. When people start telling me what to do because what I do violates their faith, then they are trying to make their religion my own. And that's where I draw the line.

But more seriously is the premise that the laws of a particular religion ought to be the laws of the land. Now I happen to believe in law. I believe that it is fundamental to the creation of a just and civil society that the frameworks for interaction be known in advance, that when we commit an action we can predict in a reasonable way what the consequences will be. Law gives us a sphere of stability within which to lead our lives, protects us from the violence and intrusions of others, allows us, as the legal phrase goes, quiet enjoyment.

Laws are based, not on contracts (because a 'contract' implies an agreement, and manifestly most people in society never signed such an agreement) but on negotiations between the members of society. They lay out the conditions under which we agree to live together. They are, in effect, a truce or a treaty, parts of which may be negotiated explicitly, parts of which may be inherited from previous agreements. They may or may not be based on first principles; they may or may not embody over-riding cases such as statements of personal rights.

The argument that laws ought to be based on religious principles is the abrogation of all this. It is, in essence, the stipulation that those governed under law may no longer expect consistency in the law, may no longer expect the previous state of balance of interests to hold.

Because, the thing is, laws based on religion are inescapably ambiguous. The religious text needs to be interpreted. And the interpretation, if not placed under the scrutiny of a pre-existing body of law, becomes an excuse for arbitrary judgment.

The Ten Commandments, for example, is a set of principles some people hold to be the founding basis for law in a religious government, so much so that various people have demanded that they be displayed in courts, in classrooms, in government buildings. Leaving aside those that admit of no compromise at all (such as, "Thou shalt worship God but me"), even those in which there seems to be common agreement are suspect.

Take, for example, "Thou shalt not kill." This seems pretty uncontroversial; it expresses a principle I certainly believe in, and it expresses a condition that, in my mind, underlies stable societies and has in fact been the basis for most civil societies. Nothing could be clearer, right?

But there is a movement in the more recent forms of American Christianity to represent this stricture as "Thou shalt not murder." The theocratic basis for this new version is that it is more in accord with the original Hebrew. Well, this is debatable, and in any case, it did not seem to bother the writers of centuries of Bible translations, who translated the word consistently as "kill". I write more about this here.

Well the upside of this new translation for a country with the world's largest military and a hyperactive death penalty is obvious. But what it demonstrates is that when the law is governed by the word of God, the law is really governed by whomever translates the word of God, and hence, the law becomes the will of some person, an individual, an evangelical, a priest, a mullah.

Most, if not all, of today's Culture Wars debates are based, not on scripture, but interpretation. It makes no sense to say that eating shellfish is allowed but being gay is punishable, but that's what they assert. It makes no sense to say that abortion is wrong but bombing Iraq is acceptable, but that's what we are asked to believe. It makes no sense to say that grocery stores must be closed but that 7-Elevens can be open, but this is the sort of arbitrary rule we are forced to live with.

Theocratic rule is putting rule into the hands of individuals. And as Rousseau noted, when you put the reins of governance into the hands of a certain segment of society, they tend to abuse this power in favour of their own self interest. And it seems to me that putting these reins into the hands of Christians, people who practice a religion based on self interest, makes this abuse of power inevitable.

Certainly, history bears me out. We have seen over and over again through history the excesses of the church lead to corruption and injustice. The Popes grew rich while the people starved. The excesses of the Inquisition. The factional battles between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland. The abuses in Residential Schools. The hypocrisy of Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker. The ongoing abuse of young boys by priests. And in today's America, the sanctioning of unprovoked war and invasion, torture and arbitrary justice.

Finally, what makes this pernicious is that these religions are expansionist religions, which means that the faithful are bound to propagate their faith. What this means is that the teachings of doctrine that contradicts their faith must be suppressed. hence, we have the absurdity of the teaching of creationism (or 'intelligent design', today's reframing of this discredited argument) in the classroom. We even have such absurdities as a plaque, at the Grand Canyon, asserting that it was caused by the Biblical great flood.

So long as this sort of behaviour persists, then Christians and I will be at odds. So long as they practice this sort of 'anything goes' politics where even the rules of their own religion are subverted or recast in order to allow the imposition of their faith on others, I will oppose them. The minute they agree, however, to allow me and people like me to live our lives in quiet enjoyment, I will embrace them as friends and treat them as brothers and sisters.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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