Democracy and Atheism do not Always Mix

In almost every country atheists are a minority. We need to start functioning as one if we are to expand our rights in representative governments.

In countries where the majority makes the rules and can determine policies of tolerance and political and social rights, minorities have typically been given fewer rights than the majority. This has been the norm throughout history in almost every culture. Minorities frequently need to fight for the rights that appear to be granted to them under the lofty language of a country’s governing Constitution [1]. Unhindered majorities in a democracy are free to trample on the rights of minorities which are deemed competitive, disruptive or dangerous. Atheists are considered by many believers to fall within all three categories. So beware. Constitutions won’t save you, only raw political power can.

What does it mean when we talk about democracies?

First, let’s be clear about our terminologies when discussing political systems. A democracy is where the people who are entitled to vote actually vote upon and pass the laws by which they govern themselves. A democracy makes no claims as to whether there is equitable voting participation, which is an issue of suffrage, so a democracy can exist where, for example, less than 5% of the total population is entitled to vote.

If the characteristics of the suffrage laws, formal or informal, are so limiting as to restrict those with an ability to vote to a consistent static minority (think of the UK’s House of Lords) or their ability to elect persons from outside a controlled pool is constrained (think of the recent call for representative elections in Hong Kong), we call it an oligarchy [2]. The prevalence of dynastic tendencies is strong evidence of corruption in the political system or characteristics of oligarchic mechanisms in the political process’ machinations. Often, this oligarch influence is focused through the institution of established political parties.

We probably have no true democracies anywhere in the world today, although the Isle of Man comes close and takes its strong democratic culture from the Norse tradition of the “Thing” which has been functioning continuously since about 979 AD. Some cantons in Switzerland retain a strong democratic tradition as well, although it’s debatable where this particular tradition stems from.

Interestingly, Switzerland only granted the right to vote to women in 1971, so consider that next time you put Switzerland on a list of “progressive” countries.

Most countries today which lay claim to the Greek mantel of being “democratic” are actually closer to the Roman Republic system, with the American system with its electoral college as a prime example. A true democracy is a practicable impossibility, even in classical Greek city states. Legislation and regulation of any complex society is a full time job, to say nothing of adjudication. [3] Democratic Athens was a cruel and wholly undemocratic ruler over lesser city states through its authoritarian Delian League. Athens also earned distinction as the democracy which voted to put Socrates to death in 399 BC. It was hardly a tolerant or what we would now call “liberal” society, but it did afford its citizens an effective voice in their own governance, which is more than can be said of the other autocracies of the day.

Our modern political traditions come more directly from the Romans, both in the period of the Republic, which lasted nearly 500 years, from 509 until 27 BC [4]. But although subsequent rulers held authoritarian powers, the concept of an overarching legal code remained, and for most roman citizens the rule of law was what impacted their ordinary lives rather than the caprice of tyrannical rulers far away in the Roman capital. The Romans were the first to institute a right of citizenship that any qualified person could become a citizen and therefore fully benefit from the laws available to Roman citizens which were superior to those afforded to non-citizens. [5]

During the Roman Republic, which had many forms over its extensive history, the principle was that certain people (the classifications varied, but generally was broadened over time to allow greater participation) were entitled to vote for other people to hold office. The powers, rights and duties attendant upon each office were as determined by the law codes and were remarkably consistent for extensive periods.

Voting sounds good, but what about the people I don’t agree with?

As you would expect, and not dissimilar from our own societies today, during the Roman Republic certain wealthy families dominated the process. Despite the ability of a wide range of people to run for office, money and influence remained a highly determinative factor. When people with views anathema to the interests of the traditional ruling powers came into office and actually tried to pass their proposed reforms, say land reform, then they would usually end up dead. [6] It was only towards the end of the Roman Republic when the lower classes were pressing for greater rights (which has come down to us as a depiction of the tyranny of mob rule) that this system showed unequivocal signs of potential collapse and impotency. So one of the richest and most patrician of families ultimately came to power, through Gaius Julius Caesar, and then refused to go (the Julio-Claudian dynasty) which ended the world’s longest running rule by elected officials (cf. Isle of Man).

The right of the people to elect their rulers largely went forgotten for much of the next 1,700 years. It was an ideal revived by many of the leaders of the European Enlightenment in the 17-18th Centuries (among whose luminaries are included a number of America’s “Founding Fathers”) despite the fact that many of them had a highly negative view of the Roman Republic populists, and viewed the average person with a substantial degree of suspicion. Much of America’s constitution is drafted specifically to prevent what was considered to be a risk of “mob rule.” [7] They were much more attracted to the ideals of Plato’s “Republic” and Aristotle’s “Politics.” The idea of the Constitutional Polity comes from Aristotle, who also argued that slavery was a natural state of nature. Any understanding of modern Western Governments [8] needs to start with an understanding of these two books to make any sense of the underlying presumptions and values that exist in our modern political systems.

Today, when we speak of democracies, we really speak of republics with certain elected officials. But most executive officers are not elected, these are the cabinet officers and appointed officials who far outnumber the few elected officials. [9]

Most minority protections are normally enshrined in Constitutions

Most countries which claim to be democracies, or more accurately, republics, start with a legal code based upon a Constitution (with the notable exception being the United Kingdom). Many (especially Americans) claim that this is a practice following America’s example, but as I’ve already noted, those sorts of people are the ones who failed to read their Aristotle. A Constitution is a sort of master law, from which all other laws and political offices derive their legitimacy (let’s avoid a discussion of sovereignty at this point). These are drafted by a select group of people, usually the self-appointed elite (or the military appointed elite, as is happening in Thailand at the moment, where I happen to live). Oftentimes, the “people,” which are the ones given the right to vote, are allowed to vote to accept or reject the Constitution. Not unsurprisingly, most constitutions get approved, although some need some serious repair before they are passed (which is how America got its “Bill of Rights”).

Most protections of minority rights are in a country’s Constitution or are derived from provisions within it. In some cases, these rights are expanded later after a Constitution’s enactment, but this is normally done on a narrow basis and more often results in an amendment of the Constitution itself. Constitutional provisions respecting the rights of religious minorities were often seen as part of the process of modernizing a country, like Turkey and Indonesia which both espoused a desire for secular governments which they saw as a key component to modernizing backward economies [10].

Why not trust the majority?

Atheists are a minority is almost every country, and even in those where they represent a significant portion of the population that is a relatively recent development. Please, don’t get me started on those supposedly atheist friendly Nordic states, such as Denmark, Norway, and Finland all of which still have State churches. Sweden only give up its State church in 2011 (when 69% of the population were registered members of a Lutheran church). Many Nordic States also maintain the abhorrent practice of common human subservience to undeserving hereditary elites known as monarchies (see here).

When elections are popular, we often get what the majority of the people actually want, which is dominance and homogeneity. The Iranian revolution was a popular uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt after a relatively fair popular election, as did the pro-Shia government that was recently replaced in Iraq. If there was not a law protecting minority rights at the Federal level, I am sure the American State of Texas would probably make atheism illegal, or at least kick all of them out of the State. Israel continues to violate international law (with impunity, thanks to American support) due to the fact that voters elect politicians who support further expansion of settlements on occupied territory. Pakistan’s more popular governments have routinely watered down the protections afforded religious minorities since independence; pandering to the popular will necessitates concessions to the prejudices and preferences of the majority, no matter how unenlightened it may be.

Popular Governments are popular because they appeal to the lowest common denominator. Does anyone really think that a popular Government in Syria would do a better job protecting the rights of minorities than the Assad regime? Dictators are the modern equivalent of Plato’s Philosopher Kings, and they don’t need to appeal to a vote to remain in power, but they do need international legitimacy and for that reason many of them tolerate human rights which are more consistent with Western standards as opposed to standards that might be more popular with the local populace [11].

Brussels may struggle with this issue very soon, as local Muslim politicians have promised to impose restrictions on alcohol, public dress codes, education, etc. once they come to power. And they could very soon be in the majority. Is it right that the majority’s desires are thwarted to protect a minority? The answer is totally ambivalent, as it depends on which minority you are talking about and how much political power they can exercise. Normally, the smaller and weaker a minority is, the more likely it is to be tolerated by the majority. Whereas if it is big enough to be a risk to the majority, then it is oppressed or even segregated into a separate country (as with Yugoslavia, India-Pakistan, and Israel-Palestine).

How big a risk is the minority?

Some minorities have political clout far beyond their numbers or economic power, such as the Parsis in Gujarat, the Chinese in Jakarta and Malaysia, and others. But even these relatively privileged minorities have undergone periods of repression and in the case of Indonesia and Malaysia, outright slaughter. Most minorities, defined according to mother language, ethnicity, cultural heritage, skin color, religion, political affiliation, or other self-defining distinction have “suffered” oppression of one form or another at some point in most countries. America and some other Western countries were noteworthy beginning in the1950s  for their comprehensive persecution and discrimination against those person with communist political affiliations, for example. Constitutional protections also didn’t save Americans of Japanese, German and Italian ethnic heritage from being thrown without trial into internment camps during WWII (my Great Grandfather was in one of these).

Harmless minorities are usually tolerated, but they can become a problem especially when they grow in numbers and start competing seriously with the majority for scant resources. This is the case with the Rohingya in Myanmar, a people who on two principal occasions (the separation of East Pakistan from India and the creation of Bangladesh) fled what is now Bangladesh in large numbers to the next available country, which was Burma, now Myanmar. They were tolerated there but never granted citizenship (they are illegal immigrants or refugees, depending on your perspective), but two factors have now combined to create a problem: first has been a perceived unwillingness to mix with the locals in terms of language, diet, culture, and marriage (this is frequently a charge levied against minorities – “they do not want to be like us”); and second an explosive population growth rate. When the majority feels like they risk becoming the minority, they revolt. It’s not about religion, it’s about economic and political status, and most minorities are oppressed for this reason despite religion or race. When minorities do become a majority in a given location, they prefer to separate and become the majority in a country or polity of their own. Sometimes this works, like in Eritrea and sometimes it doesn’t, as with the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

If America were to draft a new Constitution today, I doubt that a clause as strong as the one currently in place for the separation of church and state would make it through the process. Frankly, there is little justification from any experience in any major country of a majority going out of its way to protect the minority, absent international pressure or the minority having some modicum of political or economic influence [12].

“Democracy is idiotic, it destroys itself” Giovanni Sartori (paraphrased)

Probability the best author on democracy and the consequences of majority rule is Giovanni Sartori, and I would recommend his “The Theory of Democracy Revisited” (1987). If a democracy is to be true to its principal of majority rule, then minorities will most likely end up being repressed, cultural uniformity will be enforced or promoted, and diversity will only be promoted in a superficial and non-threatening way. Even the best Constitutions can be changed by majority or super majority votes or legislation, or (as recently happened here in Thailand – yet again) military or civilian Government overthrow. Multiculturalism only lasts as long as you have a tolerant majority, once that has changed then the system will implode without a check from the outside, such as a military which is not aligned with the political majority’s perspective (as was the case in Turkey for many years).

At one point, following the Second World War and the perceived success of the Nuremburg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals, there was hope that international laws could emerge which would protect the rights of minorities even in countries where local laws failed to do so. The idea was that the persons who were responsible for the human rights abuses and violations of international law would be subject to international criminalization. But history has shown that very few violations of international law by politicians or military officers are ever prosecuted, and indeed there are probably far more cases of flagrant violations than of compliance [13].

So political scientists ask, when is toleration of a minority of benefit to the majority? The minority must bring a tangible benefit, as was the case with Indian and Arab minorities in Eastern Africa, as they promoted trade. But again, we saw that despite these tangible benefits, when populist governments came to power, these minorities were persecuted, killed or driven from the country, with notable declines in trade and economic prosperity as a direct result [14].

Where does that leave atheists?

Atheism is not tolerated everywhere and where it is, it is usually a minority with no pretenses of political or economic dominance. But as this changes, as atheists become more represented in society, it is likely that they will be subject to further attempts at control and regulation to curb any perceived threat to the majority. Atheism is only likely to grow in countries with Constitutions that are unresponsive to a voting majority or are ruled by “enlightened” dictators. Beware true democracies, as most people have never shown themselves to have outgrown the desire to oppress the minority. It must be in our genes.

As atheists grow in numbers, it is most likely that they will be viewed as a threat to the established majorities in most countries, and further prejudice through both legal and social means is likely to result. Atheists must become active in the political process in order to constitute a valuable element to the political class, in order to expect a modicum of reliable protection.

Reliance on the judicial system only lasts as long as the judges have not been appointed based on a litmus test of certain political positions, as is the case in America today over abortion, for example. To consider the judicial branch of any country, which typically lacks any enforcement powers of its own, as the guarantor of rights for atheists is to consign ourselves to the feeble security of past promises by dead politicians. As with any other minority which has suffered persecution in the past, atheists need to be organized and present themselves as a valuable component of the relevant political milieu. Absent that, there can be no guarantee that the majority will afford us any rights. Stop dreaming about someday being a majority, and learn to fight for your rights as a political minority, only in that way can you ensure your survival.


[1] In the two largest “democracies,” just think of the past travails of people with some African ancestry and Native Peoples in the United States and of lower caste peoples in India.
[2] By a number of measures, some significant governments today are probably informal oligarchies. One indication of this condition is the prevalence of families which consistently produce political leaders which exceed what would be expected from a statistical perspective. There is no gene for political prowess, nor is statesmanship an inherited trait, despite what the media and certain political parties (especially the Congress Party in India and the regime in North Korea) would have you believe. Some countries even go so far as to elect the spouses of political leaders, which means that people somehow believe that political prowess is passed on through sexual congress in some fashion.
[3] The democratic age of Athens was heralded into existence only in around 508 BC, by Cleisthenes, an aristocrat who broadened the right of participation in government to all male citizens who had completed military training. The system functioned, with some notable interruptions, until the Macedonians took control in 322 BC. During its heyday, the democracy of Athens was notable for a disastrous war with Sparta (the second Peloponnesian War, from 431-404 BC) under the rather foolish, but now revered, figure of Pericles, who gave a great speech but his people would have been better off without his visions of military grandeur.
[4] Although a good case can be made for its ending in 44 BC when the Senate granted Julius Caesar the title and authority of dictator for life.
[5] But this was given limited scope until 212 AD when the “Constitutio Antoniniana” was issued by Emperor Caracalla granting all free males of the Empire citizenship and all women the same rights enjoyed by Roman women.

[6] Gaius and Tiberius Gracchi are the most notable of these, in 133-121 BC.
[7] America’s mostly wealthy Founding Fathers would have hated the land distribution policies of the populist Roman Republic Gracchi brothers.
[8] Asia, through the works of Confucius from around 500 BC and Mencius who was active about 350 BC (I have used their Westernized names here), went in an even stronger direction towards dictating that the ideal was rule by an elite segment of the population. Like Plato’s Philosopher Kings, the Chinese, and other States which modeled themselves on the Chinese system, established the concept of accomplished merit as the qualification for senior political office. Obviously, this did not apply to the most senior of offices, which were reserved for those who ruled through what has sometimes been called the Mandate of Heaven (the Asian equivalent of Divine Right). Through this process, political participation was limited to those who were “qualified,” and part of that qualification was undoubtedly a loyalty to the current tenants of the ruling regime. A more universal suffrage or degree of political participation never achieved any degree of philosophical or practical integrity anywhere in Asia until the economic and colonial success of the West came to be admired by Asian nations, which then undertook an examination of Western practices.
[9] In the American system, this is probably the most extreme, where the only elected executive officers are the President and Vice President (although there is no separate vote for the Vice President, so in essence there is only one elected executive officer). Even then, most Americans don’t understand that they are not actually voting for the President anyway, they only vote for members of the Electoral College (whose names don’t even appear on election ballots anymore) which vote for the President. In many ways, American is one of the least democratic or representative of Governments claiming to be “democratic” today.
[10] Interestingly, many of the countries today moving towards more autocratic or theocratic regimes are doing so not only for the religious element of post-death salvation, but because of the perception that such doctrines will be economically beneficial. Aceh in Indonesia and Brunei are two examples of this, as was much of the political advertising of the Muslim Brotherhood in the first post-Mubarak election in Egypt. This attitude was also present in the movement to oust the Shah of Iran, albeit more in the form of obtaining economic results through the elimination of endemic corruption.
[11] A contrary point is the Sultanate of Brunei which recently imposed more rigid Sharia law standards, perhaps as a popular response to public knowledge of massive fraud by members of the royal family.
[12] America’s position on Latino illegal immigrants today is more a result of emerging Latino voting power than of a fundamental change in American attitudes towards immigration. Philippinos coming illegally to the US are not going to be welcomed with open arms anytime soon. It’s basically an amnesty granted to past law breakers or a statute of limitations applied to the immigration laws, in response to the large number of people (potential voters and voting friends and relatives) who would benefit from such largess.
[13] Indeed, there are numerous instances of leaders being elected despite a documented record of human rights abuses (Modi in India, Netanyahu in Israel and Prabowo Subianto who narrowly lost the recent Presidential election in Indonesia, being the most recent and more controversial of these).
[14] Minorities are often persecuted for the wrongs of the past (real or imagined), and this was true with the post-WWII Germans in the Sudetenland and Prussia, the Boer in South Africa (principally under the British), and ethnic European farmers in Zimbabwe.

Photo Credits: Joe Hall - Flickr

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