Religious extremists and their fear of liberal democracy

by John MacBeath Watkins

Two of the most important works of liberalism, were written by men (Thomas Hobbes and John Locke) in exile from their native country, and both men had reason to fear for their lives based on what they had written. Hobbes concluded that governments gain their legitimacy from the service they do for those they govern, rather than from God, and Locke realized that religious strife happens not because people believe different things, but because people try to make them all believe the same thing.

Both insights lead to a more secular state then has generally existed in human history.

If they were writing today, they would find that there are still parts of the world where expressing their ideas of the rational, free, and secular state can get you killed -- which is why so many of the surviving Bengali bloggers live in exile. Those still in Bangladesh risk being hacked to death for expressing secularist views.

People with views similar to those who hacked Bengali bloggers to death flew jetliners into the World Trade Center in Sept. 11, 2001 and blew themselves up after murdering random people in Paris in November 2015. In these cases, it is not what individuals have said, it is an attempt by fanatics to provoke the enemy they desire: Liberal democracies.

The reason they want liberal democracies to act as their enemies, and resort to such extreme measures to get them to act like enemies, is that in the natural course of things, such societies tolerate Muslims' faith without much difficulty. That creates a sort of gray zone, where Islam exists without dictating how people live.

In a statement after the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2014, the Islamic State argued that terrorism in European countries would "compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves. . . . Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize . . . or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens."*

Marxists used do something similar called heightening the contradictions in capitalism, which was supposed to make things better eventually by making them worse right now.

In either the case of an attack on an individual or an attack on a society, people who want religion to rule see liberal democracy as the enemy. And this has been the case, as long as the idea of a government whose legitimacy did not rely on religion has been involved in politics.

It used to be that pretty much all governments claimed to serve God or the Gods. The idea that the government should serve, instead, the people it governs, is a threat to those who arrogate to themselves the power to decide how God wants people ruled. And threats of death against those who proposed secular sources of legitimacy for governments have been a feature of public life since at least the 1640s, when Thomas Hobbes fled his former allies among monarchists in fear that they would kill him.

For centuries, it has served the purpose of those in power to make it seem that liberal democracies are a normal, ordinary, logical way of governance, and to obscure how radical its ideas were and are. But liberal democracy represents a clean break from most of human history, a new way of thinking about the legitimacy of governments. For most of human history, we have been ruled by faith, force, and custom.

Force is easy enough to understand. The man on horseback in the expensive armor, helped by his knights, could physically compel commoners into doing his will (and for most of history, it was men who held this role, especially in young dynasties where someone had to establish dominance.)

Faith is more complicated. Religion concerns itself with the greater questions about why we exist and how we should live our lives. It is also concerned with our concept of virtue more intimately than most institutions.

The question of virtue is the question of who is acting rightly. This is a position of great power, determining who shall be stoned to death in the public square and who shall be heaped with praise and rewards. Virtue addresses the question of who may act legitimately and how, and who, if they act, will be acting illegitimately.

It takes a lot less force to rule a willing people, so if the holder of force can get the arbiters of virtue to approve their rule as legitimate, the ruler will have greater stability and require less expenditure on force.

So, when someone comes along and questions the legitimacy of the Gods themselves, that person is a threat to both church and state in such a society. When Athens tried Socrates and executed him, the charges were impiety and corrupting the minds of the youth, because he questioned the accepted notions of justice, which were supposed to be passed down by the Gods.

I find it revealing that this happened during a period of Athenian decline, when they were being defeated in the Peloponnesian wars. It is when a society most needs a major rethink that those who have led it into decline are most eager to suppress those who would question their wisdom. Perhaps that is why we so often see this behavior in places where people fear they are weak, such as Germany during the Depression or the Islamic State, which considers Islam under siege from the encroachment of western civilization.

Part of the problem was that Socrates did not live in a secular society, and with no separation of church and state, there was every incentive for those who could use the force of the state to kill him to do so on behalf of those who were the arbiters of virtue. Socrates was a threat to religious authority not just because he questioned their judgment, but also because of the way he did it. He started from a position of doubt, and tried to determine the truth through reason.

Reason is not always a friend to power, and it has not been the dominant means of organizing society for most of human existence.

For most of the time there have been humans on this earth, living with their strange, symbolic world of language and culture, the world has been explained in terms of myth and metaphor. These things deal with truth in a very different way than reason does.

Consider the evolution of culture. Does culture need to be rational or even explicable in order to work? In theory, you could have the people of a culture believing things that are neither rational nor, in any logical or empirical sense, true, and those beliefs could get people to act in ways that produced an orderly, productive society that is able to perpetuate itself and produce generation after generation that hold those same beliefs.

Such a society might not be terribly adaptable or able to deal with a rapidly changing world, but as long as things are stable, this might be the best way for a society to function. For example, little changed in the 1,500 years of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms of Egypt. In such a society, kings were gods and priests were servants of God, and things went smoothly, all great and good fun until someone invents iron.

The Golden Age of Greece followed the Late Bronze Age Collapse, a dark age in which populations fell and knowledge was lost. The old ways stopped working, the new technology of iron was creating new winners in the world and the old Gods were falling. Doubt set in, and new thoughts flourished. When the old ways didn’t work, people had to find new ways of thinking. Until, or course, the vibrant new civilization started to get old, and to fear the questioning of its arbiters of virtue.

But it turned out the Greeks were real pikers when it came to fearing those who questioned the arbiters of virtue. Later Europeans made a regular practice of killing people who questioned the arbiters of virtue, and gained great power by this tactic. And great power led to corruption, and rebellion against corruption, and reformation. One of the things involved was a 30-year long war that killed off so many people that parts of Europe – Germany in particular – that they had a third fewer people at the end of it than at the beginning.

But does questioning the wisdom of an established religion cause violence? John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, argued that this is not the cause of violence, it is the attempt to prevent people from holding non-sanctioned views that begets violence. But that points to a society where religion does not dominate the state, and the state itself is not the ultimate enforcer of religious orthodoxy (such as when a judge in Scotland ordered Thomas Aikenhead to be hanged for making atheist statements in 1697, and an executioner employed by the government did so.)

Locke's insight still holds. If Islamic State hopes that a few terrorists can change the way the liberal democracies treat Muslims, and they hope this will make the very regime some of them are fleeing seem more attractive to them. Only if they can spread intolerance will they have a chance of being proved right.