By Adam Lee | 19 March 2012
For the vast majority of human history, the only form of government was the few ruling over the many. As human societies became settled and stratified, tribal chiefs and conquering warlords rose to become kings, pharaohs and emperors, all ruling with absolute power and passing on their thrones to their children. To justify this obvious inequality and explain why they should reign over everyone else, most of these ancient rulers claimed that the gods had chosen them, and priesthoods and holy books obligingly came on the scene to promote and defend the theory of divine right.
It’s true that religion has often served to unite people against tyranny, as well as to justify it. But in many cases, when a religious rebellion overcame a tyrant, it was only to install a different tyrant whose beliefs matched those of the revolutionaries. Christians were at first ruthlessly persecuted by the Roman Empire, but when they ascended to power, they in turn banned all the pagan religions that had previously persecuted them. Protestant reformers like John Calvin broke away from the decrees of the Pope, but Calvinists created their own theocratic city-states where their will would reign supreme.
Similarly, when King Henry VIII split England away from the Catholic church, it wasn’t so he could create a utopia of religious liberty; it was so he could create a theocracy where his preferred beliefs, rather than the Vatican’s, would be the law of the land. And in just the same way, when the Puritans fled England and migrated to the New World, it wasn’t to uphold religious tolerance; it was to impose their beliefs, rather than the Church of England’s.
It’s only within the last few centuries, in the era of the Enlightenment, that a few fearless thinkers argued that the people should govern themselves, that society should be steered by the democratic will rather than the whims of an absolute ruler. The kings and emperors battled ferociously to stamp this idea out, but it took root and spread in spite of them. In historical terms, democracy is a young idea, and human civilization is still reverberating from it — as we see in autocratic Arab societies convulsed with revolution, or Chinese citizens rising up against the state, or even in America, with protesters marching in the streets against a resurgence of oligarchy.
But while the secular arguments for dictatorship have been greatly weakened, the religious arguments for it have scarcely changed at all. Religion is very much a holdover from the dark ages of the past, and the world’s holy books still enshrine the ancient demands for us to bow down and obey the (conveniently unseen and absent) gods, and more importantly, the human beings who claim the right to act as their representatives. It’s no surprise, then, that the most fervent advocates of religion in the modern world are also the most deeply inculcated with this mindset of command and obedience.
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