26 September 2007

Reflections on Burma, Democracy & Faith

"For what is the faith of democracy in the role of consultation,
of conference,
of persuasion, of discussion, in the formation of
public opinion, which is the
long run self-corrective, except
faith in the capacity of the intelligence of the
man to respond with commonsense to the free play of facts
and ideas
which are secured by effective guarantees
of free inquiry, free assembly,
and free communication? I
am willing to leave to upholders of totalitarian
states of
the right and the left the view that faith in the capacities
intelligence is utopian." ~ John Dewey

A group of monks sit in protest after being halted
by riot police and military officials as they headed
towards the Shwedagon pagoda.
Photograph: STR/Reuters.

Riot police block a monk's path to the Shwedagon
pagoda in Rangoon. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters.

I do not consider myself a religious man, having had any illusions regarding divinity and holiness beaten out of me in the course of a half-dozen years in Catholic schools. My support for the opposition among Burmese monks and others stems not from faith in God, but from faith in democracy. I admire the courage the monks are displaying and identify with their commitment to democratic reform. Is that enough to restore something of my faith in religious conviction? I tend to agree with Richard Rorty's assessment of the role of religious leadership in politics. Here is Rorty in an interview:

"Whether the possibility of rearing new Martin Luther Kings is worth
the risk of rearing new Jerry Falwells is a matter of risk management.
To my mind the advantage of getting rid of the Falwells is worth the
risk of getting rid of the Kings. But I have no knock-down argument
to bring to bear. I suspect that the continued existence of the churches
is, by and large, more of a danger than a help to the rise of a
global democratic society."

The prevalence of religious intolerance and fanaticism throughout the contemporary world seems, to me, to represent a standing hindrance to the operation of democratic practices and institutions since the latter truly require a commitment to fallibilism, the idea that even our most deeply held and cherished commitments will turn out to be false or mistaken. It may turn out that my own faith in democracy is mistaken. To the best of my knowledge, no religious faith embraces such a basic commitment to un-certainty.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm misreading your intentions here, but this story is a rather peculiar context for injecting one's objection to religious faith, especially as it seems directed towards those who are currently losing their lives in their struggle for freedom. Are your comments on the dangers of religious leaders meant to qualify your support for the struggle of these Burmese monks? Or, are you suggesting that their struggle for democracy may be in vain because religious faith so greatly hinders the possibility for democracy?

I'm a staunch atheist myself, but I don't see the benefit in conflating "religious faith" with "religious intolerance and fanaticism," as you have done so here. Falwell was a repugnant creep, and religious fundamentalism in the US has done much to serve undemocratic ends, but the great thing about religious leaders such as King or Gandhi was that their religious faith was neither intolerant nor fanatical. In fact, Gandhi was famous for trying to bring Hindus and Muslims together, preferring inclusiveness over exclusiveness, and advocating a path of "truth pursued" over "truth possessed" -- all practices that demonstrate a rather pronounced rejection of infallibility.

Nevertheless, I enjoy your blog. Our projects share much in common.

26 September, 2007 13:03  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


My view is that the Monks out in the streets aer risking their lives in the face of a truly repugnant regime. As I say I admire their courage and share their commitment to demcoracy. But my resasons are not that their religious commitments afford them any specific stature. My solidarity with them springs not from religious commitment but from a democratic one. That said, much of the time the religious leaders are indeed creeps; in this instance the chief Monks in Burma are, to the best of my knowlwedge, siding with the regime. (That from listening to reports on npr.) Moreover, I think that the religious commitments of many "pro-democracy" advocates to often eventually lead them to subordinate their commitment to democacy to their commitment to this or that religious belief. None of this is to say that religious invariably are bad news - as you point out King, Gandhi, erc. On the other hand the authority they claim - divine authority based on scripture or some such - is hardly democratic and their leadership is not democratic either.

All that probably just complicates things. But maybe it helps?

Thanks for the response. Jim

26 September, 2007 14:50  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gandhi was only tolerant toward his own people-unless. He displayed open contempt toward Africans calling them barely human savages. In Johannesburg, where he once worked, he is detested and labeled a racist for the vile things he has said against blacks.

26 September, 2007 21:40  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gandhi was only tolerant toward his own people-unless the belong to the so-called "untouchables" sect. He displayed open contempt toward Africans calling them barely human savages. In Johannesburg, where he once worked, he is detested and labeled a racist for the vile things he has said against blacks.

26 September, 2007 21:41  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well so much for the much touted liberating power of citizen journalism via technology. The Burmese junta shut down their capital's internet network, sent in the army, and, within two days time, put an end to the reformers' enterprise. Viva revolution.

28 September, 2007 14:32  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is "religious conviction"?

I can be convinced that the sky is green, the earth is flat, and so what??

Belief is not fact.

And it doesn't deserve any credulity or status beyond that.

04 October, 2007 16:40  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Anon, I have no idea what you are going on about here.

04 October, 2007 19:42  

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