Religion and the Future of Democracy

(971 words)

Religion does not need arguments. Otherwise, we humanity would not come up with a word which is meant to be different from philosophy.

The connection between divine commands to rules of human mundane life is directly and arbitrarily proclaimed by religion. You either accept it or not. If accepting it, you are rewarded in whatever form of rewarding prescribed by that religion. You will be called a believer, and the community of peer believers will be a church. If not accepting it, you will be punished and excluded from the community. I like the term “excommunicate” because non-believers are literally shut down, and thus, lose any foundation of further communication with another part of humanity.

The Western world was operating on this conceptual framework for a long time, and only after the period of Protestant reformation and Western colonialism, situations changed under the pressure of newly discovered realities: religions clash each other not only within one tradition, such as Protestants vs Catholics, but also between traditions, such as Christianity vs Hinduism. So, how can we deal with religious clashes from the perspective of social management and government? The solution provided by enlightenment and Protestant thinkers is the separation of church and state, which means individuals choose whatever religion makes sense to them in their private life. But publicly, the state should have no concern to promote any individual religion, and thus, no right to dictate any religion to individuals. In other words, the religious identity of an individual is separated from his or her nationality and potential patriotism. Therefore, the concept and practice of “religious freedom” in the West.

However, it is not possible to segregate religion from politics, since life is always lived by individuals as a whole, no matter how separately theorists conceive of it. What we have witnessed, and continue to do so in the U.S. is that voters frequently refer to divine commands, in whatever commands revealed by their religions, to justify their election. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, the connection between divine commands and mundane rules is fairly arbitrary. If a voter can justify their choice relying on a set of divine commands, another one can justify equally a polar opposite choice per exactly the same set of divine commands. For example, “love your neighbor as yourself” can be utilized to welcome or refuse immigrants to the U.S., depending upon whether a biblical believer sees them as neighbors or not. In other words, since religion cannot be argued, using religion to approve or disapprove of any policy initiative will be equally irrational. As consequential to this electoral practice, the supposedly rational nature of public debate, which is so essential to the ideal and well-functioning of liberal democracy, will vanish.

The above several passages comprise the major reasons for me to doubt whether it is good, as many theorists (such as John Locke, Kant, etc.) have endeavored, to argue for the necessity of religion from its consequences. Yes, religion promotes morality, but it promotes it in a fairly arbitrary and random way. With equal arbitrariness, it also promotes bad morals with “badness” here defined in a humanistic sense, that is, these morals will create fractures and divisions of a society, and bring irrationality and disintegration to the social fabric.

So, what is the solution to this conundrum? The ideal of liberal democracy in its modern era is so sublime that as a critical thinker, I really believe in its glory and high accomplishment, especially when we compare it with other non-democratic regimes that exist in the global world. No matter economically how powerful an alternative regime (such as China) could be, for instance, its lack of fair government of law will generate great uncertainty and insecurity of individuals’ life in that society. This also leads to a fact that in a strikingly disproportionate fashion, nowadays, still more Chinese immigrate to the U.S., rather than the other way around. So my wish here is to perfect, rather than denying, Western liberal democracy.

In my humble view, to sustain and improve liberal democracy, the only solution in the realm of religion is to nurture a new kind of human spiritual life that never arbitrarily avers the connection of a set of divine commands to concrete mundane rules. This means that it will fulfill humans’ ineluctable longing for the meaning of life in a broader context, while never contradicting human reasoning in any conceivable fashion. So far as my knowledge goes, this implies that all “mystical” traditions with a central humanistic emphasis will be the best type of spirituality that is needed by a sustainable democracy. In this form of spirituality, what overwhelms people of faith is not any determinate divine command, but a silent, ineffable feeling towards the cosmos and the all-encompassing realm of being as a whole. Then, these people of faith can use their best efforts to cognize and realize this felt ultimacy in a purely naturalistic approach: anything they contribute to sustainable democracy in particular, and human civilization at large, will be the decisive proof of their spiritual transformation. And this also means that “non-rationality” is different from “irrationality”: the mystical commitment to what is ultimately real is always non-rational in the sense that no language or symbol can fully capture it; however, in order to capture or get united with it, humans need to continually polish, revise and perfect their languages, symbols and discursive reasoning, as human sciences are always doing.

But where can we find this “humanistic mysticism”? Since my readers may not be unfamiliar with my previous writings, you may already know the answer. But I will furthermore emphasize that no tradition so far is so perfect as to entirely match what I am talking about here. However, all traditions need to rediscover and enhance this element, if it does exist in the traditions, for a common, noble cause.

This is the future of democracy.