Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Would God be a democrat?

One of the things I like about democracy is that it is anti-utopian. Not in the sense of being dystopian but, rather, in not requiring, or even denying, the possibility of a perfect political system where the sun will shine everyday and everyone will always be smiling. It is primarily premised upon the idea of muddling through, i.e. finding generally acceptable solutions to problems we are currently faced with. Also, it does not call for superhuman, heroic deeds but, rather, it requires normal everyday effort, the effort necessary to maintain a civil society. No bright tomorrow, just an OK today; no glory in death, just being interested and relatively active in local affairs. It is a very human political system. Not surprisingly, the two nations’ cultures where the system has grown to maturity have a strongly pragmatic character (though in one of them, fundamentalist views are very much in the ascendant recently).

As such, democracy seems to run counter to the tenor of any religion, given their focus upon not just the superhuman but the supernatural. Indeed, the conflicting characteristics of religion and democracy can be piled higher and higher. Democracy is based upon the idea that the right to govern is founded upon the consent (and contribution) of the governed while, in the case of the Christian faiths, we are presented with the image of God as the epitome of an absolute ruler, one whose word is law – quite literally! The Catholic Church is organised on a completely centralised basis with the Pope’s absolute power being channelled through the various levels of the hierarchy of cardinals, archbishops, bishops etc, in a close mirroring of the imagined choirs of the archangels, angels and various other puti (as well as demons, etc). The whole Catholic metaphysics is premised upon an absolutely hierarchical world-view that, of course, is actually nothing but a congealed reflection of the political status quo that held in the late Roman Empire in which much of the machinery of Catholicism was constructed and which, in the real world, has long gone.

Yet, the paternalist conception of God is not the only one that one can meet among Christians. Some of the more liberal Churches seem to have a more grown-up (as opposed to child-like) attitude to God. They treat him more like an adult treats their parents – assuming that their relationship actually works – than the child’s attitude that standard Catholic ideology calls for. While this is, of course, a far more preferable view, I am not sure if it is any longer a truly religious one. Allow me to explain.

A while ago I considered the question of whether a religious person can behave truly morally, ‘knowing’ as they do that they will get their fair rewards sooner or later. I argued there that, if God did exist, his existence would be the most significant moral fact to be aware of. But, perhaps, this is not the only way to see things. Assuming that God is not the source of morality – as I think one has to even if one thinks God does exist – it may be argued that his existence has no impact upon our morality at all. We should help other people (being all-powerful, God does not require our assistance), regardless of whether there is an all-powerful being that likes it when we do this or one that actually loathes it. Doing the right thing, after all, is not about being rewarded for it – the question of whether the reward would be in this life or some other is irrelevant. If God does exist, in this case, he has less right to punish or reward us than our parents have once we are adults. He isn’t even a member of our community and, therefore, may not participate in its law-making. His existence is to a fair degree marginal to our lives, even if we do go to visit him with the kids on the weekends. Indeed, the only moral thing for God to do once he’s created the bloody mess we’re in, is to stay the hell out of our lives and let us be the self-determining adults that we are.

So, here’s my suspicion. I suspect that to the degree that one is a good democrat one is not a good Catholic. Pope Pious the somethingth was right when he condemned democracy as anathema in the late nineteenth century. It is anathema to Catholicism. All the worse for Catholicism.


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