Greek Democracy and Ours: On Reason and Religion

Bill Maher is often the most insightful and hilarious comedian to address political life. His strong stances expressed with clever quips can also be the most infuriating. What irks me most is Maher’s insistence that religion is the source of all evil and that Reason is the only Way. Last week on Maher’s HBO show, he and Dan Savage agreed that religion has no place in politics because our democracy is not at all religious, it is the inheritance of the Greeks, the founders of Reason.

I will refrain from blaming these men for what they do not yet know. While I am not yet capable of giving the subject justice, but I’ll point out a few relevant points.

First, Mr. Maher and Savage (and Hitchens, while I’m at it), don’t praise what you don’t understand. Only 10% of Greek individuals were considered citizens. The system depended on massive-scale slavery and excluded women from membership in the great polis. Owning property (including slaves) was a prerequisite for citizenship. It was the application of the Biblical idea of equality (with judicious techniques derived from Greek thought) during the Reformation by Zwingli, Erasmus, and Bullinger that began the expansion of legal inclusion which continues today.

Secondly, many basic rights of modern democracy are not evident in the Athenian polis. We are unlikely to kill Socrates. The Catholic Church preserved the principle of equality mentioned above, though Reformers accelerated its application in familiar ways. While the Catholic Church read Leviticus 19:6 “You are a nation of priests, a holy people” to refer to the clergy, Reformers interpreted all the people of the Lord to be included. First Amendment freedoms (religious expression & non-establishment, speech, press and assembly) derive from the recognition that God’s Word and Will are not held by the few, but to whomever among the people is divinely chosen.

Third, many of our freedoms received a boost from new Reformation forms of local congregational hiring, construction and financing. These contributed to habits of self-governance. Of course, these freedoms would not have been sustained without the legal system’s derivation from Catholic Canon Law.

Fourth, the issue of science and reason is complex. There is a great Greek tradition of logic and science to which we owe a debt. However, most of it developed prior the short lived Greek democratic era. Religion is not anti-science. The great works of St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century integrated Aristotelian logic with God’s law and being creating within the Church support and passion for scientific research well before the Renaissance trend of merchant patrons of the sciences (i.e. Medici and Da Vinci). The anti-science typical of the Evangelical Mind is a sad though predictable response to the complexity of modern life and the need for simple truths in our relativist age. Tocqueville suggested in the 1830s, 70 years prior to the creation of the Fundamentalist Christian movement, this pattern very concretely.

Lastly, the Reason espoused by many of today’s defenders is a pale, withered appreciation of actual Greek thought. Plato’s exploration of Reason in The Republic (see my Amazon review for a summary) demonstrates mortals reliance on a type of reason that proves its own prejudices for might, wealth, pleasure. What is often consider just by Plato’s interlocutors is simply justification of what they already do and think. For true reason to emerge, the soul must harmonize its warring impulses and follow Divine, not mortal, patters. Such Divine patterns are not transmittable but independently derived through the soul committed to the life-long path the seeks the death of mortal habits and desires and opens itself to the Gift of the Divine.

If Mr. Maher wishes me to respond to his accusation that Religion brings us Crusades, the Inquisition and incessant religious conflict, I will then do so.

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