Monday, June 25, 2007

The fruits of theocracy

From the New York Times, June 24: Iran is in the throes of one of its most ferocious crackdowns on dissent in years, with the government focusing on labor leaders, universities, the press, women’s rights advocates, a former nuclear negotiator and Iranian-Americans, three of whom have been in prison for more than six weeks.”

Theocracy is incompatible with democracy. In the midst of so much debate about the place of religion in public life, it is essential to understand this. State religion has nothing to do with faith, or even with the relationship of humanity to God or to the Divine, despite all protests from fundamentalists and other religious zealots to the contrary. It has only to do with the control of people’s lives by those wielding power in whatever religion dominates the state. The absolutist nature of religious doctrine makes it impossible to tolerate differences. Inevitably, therefore, state religion will seek to suppress labor (autonomous workers), education (independent thought), and the press (free communication). Most significantly, it will repress women’s rights. The domination of women is the primary form of domination from which all other authoritarian forms are derived.

“The country’s police chief boasted that 150,000 people — a number far larger than usual — were detained in the annual spring sweep against any clothing considered not Islamic.”

State religion persecutes people on the basis of cultural norms that are often quite trivial, such as, in this instance, types of clothing. The purpose is to control the lives and behavior of individuals through fear. When it comes to state-sanctioned murder, torture, false imprisonment, or other government action against its perceived enemies, the authoritarian religion does not object at all. The religionists support all these atrocities, or at best remain silent. The assumption of moral authority is completely baseless—state religion is based solely on the exercise of power by one group over another. The absolutist nature of religious belief provides the perfect excuse for hatred, cruelty, and oppression, while the oppressor feels justified behind the conscience-proof wall of his religion.

As a rule, the religious groups that oppose state oppression are those that teach a spiritual relationship to the Divine characterized by love and compassionate action. These groups are open to differences in culture and belief. They usually end up being attacked as well, often by the public religionists who claim to be of the same “faith” as those they repress.

It is remarkable how similar Iran’s use of shame, humiliation, and violence mirrors the practice of communist dictatorships such as China and the Soviet Union under Stalin. These supposedly “left wing” systems simply projected the same absolutist tendencies onto their secular doctrines that the authoritarian religious groups employ in their belief systems. It’s not that communism is a religion, as has been falsely maintained, but that both practice authoritarianism with claims to absolute validity.

What we commonly call “religion” today is just another method of social control. The key element is that human beings are conceived as means to an end. Therefore, anything is justified in order to attain the end. Anything.

The truth of human life as an end in itself, not subject to the absolute demands of any belief or doctrine, is an essential truth of spirituality, and should always have been central to religion in its proper role. But although it remains, by its nature as subjective relationship, as part of spirituality wherever it is practiced, that has not been true of religion, because religion always involves community. From time immemorial, community has been undermined by the power principle. No matter how fervently religious people may have been, the public structure of religion has been vulnerable to exploitation in the interests of one group dominating another. This is the dilemma of religion. Any member of any religious faith who fails to address this dilemma in some way is lying—lying to everyone else and to himself. Because humanity will never be united into one set of beliefs, and the quest to achieve this unity produces nothing but death.

How easy it is to feel superior to these Islamic fundamentalists who oppress their own people in the name of God! But we risk the same fate if we continue to allow our own Christian fundamentalists and authoritarians to blur the distinction between religion and state. The founders were anxious to avoid the bloodletting that state religion had invariably produced in Europe. Only by maintaining a secular democratic form of government that was not allied with any church or religion could the United States avoid the tragedy of religious oppression. Nothing that has occurred since in American history or the history of the world has shown them to be mistaken. The same groups that the Islamist state targets as enemies—women’s rights advocates, intellectuals, labor unions, journalists—are attacked by the so-called Christian right and their neo-fascist allies on a regular basis. The fact that they also attack Muslims should not be surprising. A hater is most afraid of his own reflection.

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