Humanism and Democracy
As we just celebrated our nation’s independence, I thought I would devote my column to the link between Humanism and Democracy. We Humanists love Democracy. This is because Humanism is the philosophic foundation on which all democracies are built. You simply don’t give power to the people unless you believe that people are basically good and can manage their own affairs. This is the fundamental starting point of the Humanist philosophy.
If, on the other hand, you believe people are basically evil and need to be controlled, you tend to set up governments to control them such as dictatorships, monarchies, and various forms of theocracy. From a Humanist perspective democracy is the best form of government as it provides the best guarantee of individual freedom.
But to get back to the underpinnings of our democracy, our nation was founded during the Age of Enlightenment and is a product of that time. Humanist thought dominated the Enlightenment. The people of the Enlightenment valued reason and science and were willing to challenge traditional dogma to improve their lives and the lives of their fellow man. Individual freedom and liberty are considered essential rights, because without them people are not free to use reason and science to challenge the status quo. We Americans still hold these values as central to who we are as a people and how we view our relationship with our government.
From a philosophic standpoint, The Enlightenment grew out of the Reformation, which was essentially a Humanist revolution in Europe. The reformation transformed people’s relationships to their official churches. Basically, if a group of people wanted to kick out their church and therefore their local government, they claimed their Humanist right to think and decide religious matters for themselves without the oppression of a religious hierarchy to decide those matters for them. The central value of our American democracy, freedom of belief, is firmly rooted in the Humanism of the Reformation.
Nowadays the Humanist underpinnings of our Democracy are not as well understood as they once were. There is a growing movement that wants to revise our history to claim that we were founded not as a secular democracy that guarantees freedom of belief for all its citizens, but as a democratically elected Christian theocracy that treats everyone who isn’t a member of the established church as second class citizens. This idea is abhorrent to all Humanists.
The reason Humanists are so adamant about the separation of church and state is because we prefer to live under a democracy that guarantees our right to not believe as others do to a theocracy that does not. The problem with theocracies, even democratically elected ones, is that if you disagree with your religious leaders, you are necessarily disagreeing with your government. In other words, in a theocracy exercising your freedom of belief can easily make you an enemy of the state.
From a Humanist perspective, the best form of government is clearly a democracy that guarantees freedom of belief.