Democracy and atheism: two peas in a pod

The problem with traditional religion, on my view, is its epistemology. (As I’ve said before, here, here, and here.)

The legitimacy of a claim comes not from its being grounded in Scripture, the will of God, or whatever, but from being grounded in experience. Of course, what it means for a claim to be ‘grounded in experience’ is a matter of some debate. But debates about what counts as expertise in what field shouldn’t obscure the fundamental fact that traditional theism has been discredited, and with it, any claim to authority over any area of life. Knowledge about how the world works beyond the sphere of human existence can be gained only by running careful experiments on that world, over and over again, and scrutinizing the results from every imaginable angle. That’s what the physical sciences aspire to do. And knowledge about how to live life can be gained only through experiments in living. The results of these experiments are compiled in the various human sciences, and in the writings of reflective individuals from all walks of life, the world over.

This empiricist epistemology, in my opinion, has radical political implications. Think of how natural it is for a hierarchical religion predicated on ‘special revelation’ from God to (some) humans to fit into a hierarchical political structure. The position of the people at the top, in such a system, is a function of their closeness to God. If you have a special line to God and others don’t, after all, why not use it to run the world? And if you already are running the world, what better way to justify it than by claiming God’s seal of approval?

But if you reject special revelation, you reject with it the idea that religious people have some sort of special insight into how to create good or just laws. It turns out they’re just people too. As far as I can tell then, atheism fits hand in hand with some kind of democratic ideal. This isn’t to say that everyone is equally intelligent, or has the same insight into life or economics, or whatever. But it is to say that no one has any occult knowledge handed down to them from God. That doesn’t level the field completely. But if you’re coming from a theocracy, it goes a long way in that direction.

More to the point, it empowers ordinary citizens to demand justification for whatever laws get passed. Lawmakers can’t hide behind an aura of ontological superiority, or behind their ‘God said so’s.

There are, I will readily concede, many other ways in which lawmakers can maintain unfair and unequal power structures without appealing to God. But taking God off the table has the virtue of bringing the justifications of lawmakers into the sphere of verifiability and falsifiability. That is all I mean to emphasize.

This is, I think, part of why the U.S. Republican presidential candidates this year have made a big deal about traditional religion. They can’t make the case against gay marriage or against global warming (or against whatever else they’re against) from science or from practical wisdom. And so instead they engage in all sorts of religious posturing, claiming God’s blessing on “traditional” heterosexual marriage, on the Earth (because, you know, God promised Noah he would never flood it again), and so on. And they claim that they’re being persecuted–that there’s a “war on religion”.

Well there is no “war on religion” in the U.S. But I for one think there should be. (When I say “war”, I’m speaking metaphorically, for the record–as in ‘war of ideas’.) The private (‘revealed’) reasons behind conservative religious policies must give way to public reasons, available for all to scrutinize. This is a profoundly atheistic (or, if you prefer, “secular”) perspective. It is also fundamental to achieving our democratic ideals in this multi-faith, multi-cultural world.