Religion, Morality and Democracy

In a few days there will be an international gathering of atheists in Melbourne. Richard Dawkins and many other misotheistic heavyweights will be there. I suspect it will not be unlike so many other religious gatherings, complete with revered leaders, sacred texts, official orthodoxies, denunciations of outsiders, and fanatic followers. The zeal and fervor on display there will undoubtedly match that of any church meeting.

And they are most welcome to gather there and hold their little pow-wow. After all, that is what democracies are all about: allowing those of differing opinions and worldviews to freely assemble and discuss their faith. But the ironic thing is, while democracy allows these atheists the freedom to assemble, it is by and large what atheists so dislike which seems to make democracy possible.

That is, there has long been noted the connection between faith and freedom; between religion and democracy. Many intellects and analysts have noted how democracy really needs a moral foundation in order to successfully operate. And many have noted that morality requires a religious foundation to successfully operate.

Thus there is a strong, historic connection between religion, morality, democracy and freedom. A number of authors have discussed these connections. One thinks of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 classic, Democracy in America for example.

The French writer and historian was greatly impressed with the American experiment at the time, and noted in his work the strong role religion played in the life of the young republic. Indeed, he contrasted Europe with America, focusing on the importance of religion to the new nation.

Many other key commentators have written about these interrelated aspects. Michael Novak has written extensively on such themes, including his quite important 1982 volume, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. It is a masterful treatment of how democratic capitalism is really a three-legged affair: a democratic political system; a free market economic system; and a moral/spiritual cultural system.

Other volumes worth pursuing here include John Hallowell, The Moral Foundation of Democracy (1954), and Claes Ryn, Democracy and the Ethical Life (1978). In addition to these newer writers, other older thinkers can also be mentioned.

Consider a famous letter British politician Lord Macaulay sent to an American friend on May 23, 1857. In it he stated that the average age of the world’s greatest democratic nations has been 200 years. Each has been through the following sequence:

From bondage to spiritual faith.
From faith to great courage.
From courage to liberty.
From liberty to abundance.
From abundance to complacency.
From complacency to selfishness.
From selfishness to apathy.
From apathy to dependency.
And from dependency back again into bondage.

Can we escape this fate?

He was quite right to note the moral/spiritual underpinnings of freedom and democracy. Indeed, this is not a very new insight. The history of Ancient Israel, especially as found in the book of Judges, reveals this very same set of connections. When Israel forgot about Yahweh and slipped into sin, they always ended up in bondage and judgment. Freedom was restored only when they got their moral and spiritual priorities sorted out.

My secular and atheist friends will complain however that it is not just the Judeo-Christian worldview that made democracy possible. What about the ancient Romans and Greeks? Yes and no would be my reply. Yes, any nation which has had some sort of religious basis will have a greater chance of both lasting, and lasting with a modicum of freedoms.

In that sense I think philosopher Peter Kreeft is right to argue that the most durable societies have been the most moralistic, while our recent officially secular societies appear to be rather short-lived, whether fascist or Marxist. Says Kreeft:

“The longest-lasting societies in history were all highly moralistic, the Confucian (over twenty-one hundred years), the Islamic (almost fourteen hundred years), and the Roman (about seven hundred years). The longest-lasting moral order in history has been that of Mosaic law: it has structured Jewish and then Christian life for thirty-five hundred years (though not as a continuous civil society).”

He cites Charles Colson who says that a community’s longevity is proportionate to its morality. To which Kreeft adds: “And to its religion, for no society has yet existed that has successfully built its knowledge of morality on any basis other than religion.”

As to the ancient Greeks and Romans, they were certainly a mixed bag in terms of freedom and democracy. They were a far cry from a modern democracy, with perhaps the majority of their own people being slaves. Historian Rodney Stark discusses this matter:

“While the classical world did provide examples of democracy, these were not rooted in any general assumptions concerning equality beyond an equality of the elite. Even when they were ruled by elected bodies, the various Greek city-states and Rome were sustained by large numbers of slaves. And just as it was Christianity that eliminated the institution of slavery inherited from Greece and Rome, so too does Western democracy owe its essential intellectual origins and legitimacy to Christian ideals, not to any Greco-Roman legacy. It all began with the New Testament.”

You can pursue his thoughts on this further in his important 2005 book, The Victory of Reason. But let me finish by noting some other voices on this connection between democracy, morality and religion. Benjamin Franklin said this: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

Edmund Burke put it this way: “The only liberty I mean is a liberty connected with order; that not only exists along with order and virtue, but which cannot exist at all without them.” George Washington noted that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible supports.”

Historian Will Durant made this observation, “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.” Or as US General Douglas MacArthur once said, “History fails to record a single precedent in which nations subject to moral decay have not passed into political and economic decline. There has been either a spiritual awakening to overcome the moral lapse, or a progressive deterioration leading to ultimate national disaster.”

Such thoughts can be repeated at length. But let me conclude by returning to de Tocqueville who rightly said this about the US: “America is great because America is good and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

That is true of all modern democracies. Morality seems to be essential to freedom and democracy, and religion seems to be essential to morality. That case needs to be argued for more fully, but it does offer us something to think about as our atheist friends enjoy the freedoms Australia now offers.

[1135 words]

40 Replies to “Religion, Morality and Democracy”

  1. It would seem as though democracy’s been stood on its head. Rather than the will of the majority we now have a situation where minority groups appear to direct society with tacit approval of the majority. Is this because of apathy on the part of the majority? In other words are we allowing this situation because good people remain silent?
    Mondays Q&A on the ABC will be interesting.
    BTW Bill your column here is doing a wonderful service to further the cause of our democracy.
    Gerry Van Hees

  2. Fads come and fads go, from the recent, “save the planet”, to “accept gays and lesbians” to “free love” during the sixties……… and so it has gone on through history. What is the next fad approaching us on the horizon? Guarantee there will be something, but I also guarantee that the preaching of Jesus Christ will also carry on, constantly, just as it has for the last 2000 years. No matter how much darkness Satan brings, the light of Jesus Christ in his people will only shine brighter.
    Geoff Chubb

  3. Hi Bill, A great article. By “religious”, of course, you mean Christian. Democracy did not come out of Islam, or Hinduism or paganism. Schaeffer explores this, the delicate balance between “form and freedom” in his DVD series “How then should we live?”.
    Tasman Walker

  4. Hi Bill,

    Where do people like Richard Dawkins get their hatred from? A Rabbi Shmuley Boteach back in May 4th 2008 in the The Huffington Post wrote an open letter to Dawkins when compared to him Hitler. Dawkins denies in his response four days later on May 8th, saying to the Rabbi that just he yells and shrieks like Hitler, then throwing other examples into the mix with peole like Dinesh D’Souza. Does Richard despise other points of view other than his own that much? I want to love and pray for all people, it is just so hard.

    But reading Dawkins God Delusion book, I just can’t believe the hatred and so on. I had to read that book first before reading any critics like Alister Mcgrath’s, Andrew Wilsons, or D’Souza works, otherwise I would have just been closed minded. What can I say to any of my friends who don’t believe in God. I just want to just worship and to continue to refine my Christian beliefs so I have good reasons for what I believe and be left in peace. I should ask what are good reasons for believeing and what are bad reasons. But now I fear I will have to stand up and defend them and it is hard to know what to do.

    Carl Strehlow

  5. It is interesting to watch the way miso-theists and their ilk love to attack the very things that give them the freedom to behave like they do.

    What is to be done ? In the long run God knows what he is doing and I trust He will make it all shake out in the long run.

    Although that is no reason for us to go down without a fight.

    Jason Rennie

  6. I think the simplest response to this Dawkins character is a very basic analogy I use when debating the existence of God in the course of witnessing. It goes like this: You want proof of God’s existence – take the human eye for example – you can see 3 attributes supporting the existence of a creator – 1. Design 2. Order and 3. Consistency. Consider what happens if you throw sand in a person’s eye – the person will blink, then the tear ducts start the process of flushing the foreign body out. Come back again a day later and do exactly the the same thing – what happens? The same process all over again. You see the order of things in that the sand has to hit the person’s eye first before the tear ducts can swing into action to flush the sand out. Design is evident in what the tear ducts do – they do not operate until a foreign body has lodged there. Then consistency – the exact same process all over again when you throw the sand in a person’s face. Design, Order & Consistency are three attributes that can never be functions of chance.
    Steve Davis

  7. Thanks Steve

    Of course they would simply reply by claiming that all this is mere evolutionary adaptation. Dawkins and others speak of the “appearance” of design. Yep, it sure looks like it was designed for a purpose, but it ain’t – it just happened that way. But it takes more faith to believe that than to posit the obvious: a designer.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. Thanks Bill.
    I recognise, and of course support, Steve’s simple design argument. But the evolutionary response is so glib, so slick, and yet so superficial that it explains nothing. There is vast difference between “explaining”, and “explaining away”, and the evolutionary argument has all the earmarks of the latter. How often do I hear how if an organism in a certain environment needs some additional feature for its survival, it simply comes up with it – but over millions of years. No-one has yet explained how the organism gets on in the meantime with that feature only half-evolved. Indeed, the question is never asked.
    However, to me a far more effective response to the misotheist attempt to dismiss design and a Designer comes from information theory, as follows:
    It may (I stress) be one thing to assert design without a Designer, or for that matter creation without a Creator, but how in the name of all that’s holy does one get information without an Informer?? And as Intelligent Design proponents have insisted the biosphere is riddled with the most mind-boggling, information-rich organisms. For instance, evolutionists will talk glibly about a “simple cell”. In truth THERE IS NO SUCH THING!!
    Murray Adamthwaite

  9. Bill & Murray, But isn’t it amazing that they will actually accommodate the term “design” in their discussions but not give the term the proper attention it deserves. To my small mind, a scientist who has actually studied the human body and all it’s marvellous interlocking functions, should be able to ask the question “Where did this come from”? This had to be designed as all the different parts work in with one another. To me this is enough of a push to get me to ask the most basic question about where we came from. I think scientists and others who have had the privilege of seeing these sorts of things are setting themselves up for judgement when it finally comes as they have been granted insights into things a lot of us have not been.
    Steve Davis

  10. Thanks Steve

    Yes it is amazing how convoluted their reasoning can be, simply in order to maintain their dogged philosophical naturalism. To avoid the obvious possibility of a creator, they will go to all sorts of extremes to come up with something else, including bizarre, faith-based speculation like Fred Hoyle’s panspermia theory (or Francis Crick’s directed panspermia theory), and so on.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Well, God love ’em, they accuse us of reducing all questions to “Godidit” but all they use to refute the argument from design is the argument “Evolutiondidit.”
    Louise Le Mottee

  12. Tasman said:-

    Hi Bill, A great article. By “religious”, of course, you mean Christian.

    I must admit this was the prevelant thought on my mind whilst reading the article.

    This is the problem nowadays that whenever Religion is mentioned in the context of democracy, freedom, morals and so forth, the immediate thought is the repressive totalitarian Islamic theocracy.

    Unfortunately more and more in the minds of the populace, I am finding that the fear of the Islamic theocracy is transmitted to a general fear of religion.

    Thus atheists and others “fear” any form of non-secularisation and because of this blinding fear can see no longer recognise, that they live with the benefits of a system formed by the influence of Christianity.

    Stuart Mackay, UK

  13. Not all atheists like Dawkins as a man or agree with his views. And there are some who find the Humanists’ and Skeptics’ obsession with “Fundies”, “creationists” and “Intelligent Design” quite tedious. Some atheists are private people who mind their own business and there are others looking for a fight who are just not going to leave Christian folk alone. Some would like to see all religion disappear into the dustbin of history. They especially like preaching against Christianity anywhere around the world. But they are astute enough not to picket mosques or denounce Judaism outside Dachau.
    John Snowden

  14. Hi Bill
    Do you post articles like this one on atheistic websites? Some will dismiss your reasoning and rush headlong in blind hatred but by the grace of God there must be some who may question their position. An article like this one may be God’s tool to bring them to repentance.
    Des Morris

  15. Thanks Des

    I tend to keep pretty busy with this site, and usually not to wade into other people’s sites. I probably get enough angry atheists here anyway.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. Steve, evolution is not driven by chance. Natural selection is the OPPOSITE of chance. Try reading up on the subject before pronouncing on it.
    Maurice Colbourne

  17. Some good points to make to evolutionary true believers are:

    Why after over a century of diligent research has life never managed to be created from non-life?

    No detailed viable mechanism (even in theory) has ever been found to show how any of the irreducibly complex structures in a living organism could have arisen by small cumulative changes.

    No unambiguous transitionary forms have ever been found in the fossil record.

    All examples of ‘evolution’ in the literature (e.g. changes to species through environmental pressure, selective breeding etc) are actually due to selection of the genetic information already present. These are therefore examples of loss or stasis of genetic information, not gain of information as the change from molecules to man would require.

    Surely when a theory fails to correspond with theory and reality to such an extent, it’s time to reject it, even if that means admitting that the creator God exists and he therefore has a claim on your life!

    Mansel Rogerson

  18. Thanks Maurice

    So when evolutionist and Noble Prize winning physiologist George Wald for example said, “We choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance,” he was wrong and you are right? I guess he hadn’t read up on his subject. And what was your Noble Prize in again?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  19. Hi Bill,

    I wouldn’t argue that way citing Nobel Prizes. After all, charlatans like Rigoberta Menchu, Yassa Arrafat , Al Gore, Paul Krugman and Barack Obama have all won Nobel prizes of some sort.

    Jason Rennie

  20. To Maurice Colbourne, I never even mentioned evolution in either of the 2 comments I submitted so I think you must have me mixed up with some other guy!
    Steve Davis

  21. Bill,
    Regarding Jason’s point, all those persons you mention won the Nobel Peace prize, did they not? Certainly none of them won a Nobel Prize in any scientific discipline, which is the issue under discussion now.
    Yes the the Nobel Peace Prize has become horribly corrupted by the ideological/political Left, but the scientific prizes (Physics, Chemistry) are to my knowledge still awarded on merit.
    Murray Adamthwaite

  22. Hi Bill,

    No, you are misattributing the quote. George Wald is presumably talking about abiogenesis, how life started originally, not about evolution, which is only concerned with how living organisms adapt once life has got started.

    NO evolutionary biologist, nor anyone who understands the subject, thinks evolution or natural selection a process driven by “chance”.

    Steve, I was referring to your post of 8.3.10 at 3pm.

    Kind regards,
    Maurice Colbourne

  23. Did anyone end up watching the Q&A with Richard Dawkins?
    Sorry but Senator Fielding would have done himself a favor and stayed at home.
    Though I had given up on Q&A as a dead loss I watched this one. Interesting panel with Dawkins, three believers, (all politicians) a young female Jewish rabbi and a psychiatrist.
    Seems they were all comfortable with the idea of a god and that evolution is credible science but intelligent design is a religion.
    An evasive Fielding when pressed reluctantly admitted he was a creationist but no way would come out and say he believed the earth was no older than ten thousand years.
    Oh (sigh) for a Jonathan Sarfati on the panel.

    See Q&A here.First ten minutes says it all.
    http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s2831712.htm?clip=rtmp://cp44823.edgefcs.net/ondemand/flash/tv/streams/qanda/qanda_2010_ep05.flv

    Robert Withall

  24. Thanks Maurice

    Yes we are aware of how neo-Darwinists toss around terms like ‘random’ and ‘chance’, and of the different meanings they assign to such terms. But that is not our real concern here. It is more about how the naturalistic worldview looks at life as a whole. We are not impressed with it. Dawkins for example could put it like this (speaking on a related issue): “…if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

    But this post was not about evolution, but democracy, freedom and the like. So I really prefer getting back on topic here!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  25. Thanks Bill.

    Don’t forget that Dawkins has regularly said that he would hate to live in a world governed by Darwinian principles. He is not advocating the above quote as a worldview or how he would wish to organize society, but simply stating what is the case.

    Sometimes scientific truth is ugly, but that doesn’t make it go away. That humans by and large don’t base societies along the process of natural selection is something we can all be grateful for. You may read the divine into that. Personally I don’t. Like you say, democracy in action!

    Go well.

    Maurice Colbourne.

  26. Dawkins own webpage shows how afraid he is to debate creationists see ‘Why I Won’t Debate Creationists’ http://richarddawkins.net/articles/119 .

    He states that he is afraid of being challenged to present evidence for his belief in punctuated equilibrium, and the lack of intermediates in the fossil record.

    He says creationists crave the publicity, ironically, that he, Dawkins so desperately craves. ‘They need the publicity. We don’t.’
    Dawkins sees the public as ‘gullible’.
    He says that to debate a creationist is to give them credibility, by ‘sharing a platform with a real scientist.’
    As though the Creationist scientists are not real.

    “Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation you will be accused of cowardice, or of inability to defend your own beliefs. But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science.”

    Here he states he would rather be a craven coward unable to defend his beliefs [note: he says beliefs, not science!] than to be peer challenged!

    Yes, Jonathan Sarfati and others would enjoy the challenge, but more importantly, they would only want for the truth to be given an opportunity to be examined. Something Dawkins fears.

    The end result, he says, is the gullible public will think, “There must be something in creationism, or Dr So-and-So would not have agreed to debate it on equal terms.”

    Dawkins does not even know what ‘equal terms’ means!
    His bias is so evident that Tony Burke, a Labor politician, was so infuriated with Dawkins’ paternalistic, snobbish, despising attitude toward ‘religious people’ (particularly Christians) that he gave Dawkins a serve.
    Poor Steve Fielding was backpedalling. He should have just stated his Christian position, took the ridicule, and then tried apologetics. [Although he just may not know how to defend his faith.]

    Shalom
    Michael Evans

  27. Robert,

    The example you have given of Senator Stephen Fielding’s pathetic performance on ABC TV’s Q & A against Richard Dawkins, is a call for the Christian community to practice the requirements of Ephesians 4:11-12, where the ministry of the apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry.”

    In our robust Australian democracy, we have many opportunities for defense of the faith in the public arena. Stephen Fielding showed how he is not equipped for the job of defending the faith in a public context against one of the most articulate atheists in the world. Surely, he should be able to say to the TV producer, “I’m not the best person for such a show, but I’d recommend Jonathan Sarfati or [some other local defender of the faith].”

    Thanks for posting the link to the program. I’m embarrassed to be identified as a Christian with what Fielding said. A pastor friend emailed me about this program and said:

    “Did you happen to watch Questions & Answers on ABC last night – Richard Dawkins was on the panel so most of the questions were related to his field. But on the panel was Steve Fielding, the Family First Senator who (I presumed) is a born-again believer. He was absolutely abysmal, truly appalling – what an opportunity to take a stand for the Bible, for God and the Gospel. I could hardly sleep last night, going over it – just devastated. It was a ‘field day’ for the atheists. It appeared that a fair percentage of the audience were Uni students, who evidently admire Dawkins. The best guy, and I don’t know if he is a professing Christian, was the Labour politician and Minister for Agriculture.”

    Spencer Gear

  28. Maurice,
    In reply to your comment dated 9/3/10 @ 7pm – refer to my first reply to you dated 9/3/10 @ 11am.
    Steve Davis

  29. Evolutionist Gordy Slack said about the likes of Maurice Colbourne:

    “I think it is disingenuous to argue that the origin of life is irrelevant to evolution. It is no less relevant than the Big Bang is to physics or cosmology. Evolution should be able to explain, in theory at least, all the way back to the very first organism that could replicate itself through biological or chemical processes. And to understand that organism fully, we would simply have to know what came before it. And right now we are nowhere close.” [What neo-creationists get right—an evolutionist shares lessons he’s learned from the Intelligent Design camp, The Scientist, 20 June 2008.]

    Also, the origin of life is commonly referred to as “chemical evolution”. For example, the September 1978 issue of Scientific American was specially devoted to evolution, and one major article was ‘Chemical Evolution and the Origin of Life’. This stated:

    “J.B.S. Haldane, the British biochemist, seems to have been the first to appreciate that a reducing atmosphere, one with no free oxygen, was a requirement for the evolution of life from non-living organic matter.” [Emphasis added]

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  30. Thanks again Maurice

    But people like Dawkins (and maybe yourself) simply want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to insist that the world has no inherent meaning, purpose, value or telos, yet we should somehow live as if it does! Sorry, I just am not buying it. It seems far more plausible, coherent, logical and sensible to posit a moral, personal, intelligent creator to account for morality, personality, and rationality, then to try to somehow dig that up from an impersonal, amoral, aimless naturalistic system. I am afraid it takes far more faith to believe in that kind of foolishness than in the biblical account.

    But as I say, evolution is not quite the main topic at hand here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  31. Forgive me Bill, but you never mentioned John Adams, the second president of the United States of America who put it well when he said:
    “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
    “Our Founders had a better answer than government or even education. God is the answer. God is the moral compass of America. Or He should be, if we ever want to restore morality in our homes and civility to our land. Our Founders believed morals flowed from one’s accountability to God, and that, without God, immoral anarchy would result.”

    Davdi Skinner, UK

  32. Another good one Bill, makes me hope Abbott gets in, or at least that Rudd gets out.
    Lawrie Mcnamara

  33. This appelation “miso-theist” is absolutely right. I have long thought that Dawkins et al are not so much atheists as anti-theists, and anti-theism, opposition to God, is the oldest human emotion there is; it caused “the fall”.
    John Thomas, UK

  34. Regarding Fielding’s performance on Q&A, I think he was ambushed but even so that doesn’t entirely excuse his performance. He didn’t appear to be informed on the subject at all. I think it’s partly due to his party’s philosophy which actively avoids being seen to be promoting an exclusively Christian view of politics, law and morality.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  35. Probably the main reason Dawkins won’t debate Creationists anymore, is because of how soundly he was beaten by the late Dr A. E. Wilder-Smith back in 1986 at the Oxford debate.
    Glen Grady, Brisbane

  36. “If there is no God, everything is permitted” -Doestevesky
    Julian Desouza

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