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.