Here’s an improvement on democracy

By Peter Watson (THE TIMES, 01/12/07):

If Gillian Gibbons, the British schoolteacher, was not incarcerated somewhere in Sudan, the whole Teddy Bear called Mohamed incident would be comical. But it serves to remind us once again that fundamentalist religion and Western values do not sit together. And it rubs in that we should spend more time promoting secularism around the world and worry less about spreading democracy.

Consider some dates. Native Americans got the vote in the United States in 1924. Spanish women were given the same privilege in 1931, French women in 1944. Lords of the Realm in the United Kingdom could not vote in parliamentary elections until 1999. Although democracy began in Athens two and a half thousand years ago, it was for centuries a fragile flower and has blossomed only recently.

Democracy, we tell ourselves, is a hallmark of “the West”, the treasure that the rest of the World envies and that accounts for the pre-eminence of Europe and North America in economic progress, intellectual dominance and moral freedoms.

But it’s not the case when you examine the chronology. The rise of the West had much less to do with democracy than with the rise of secularism. The West’s advance was chiefly related to the decline in the influence of religion that sought the truth by “looking in” to see what God had to say, and its replacement by looking out, deriving authority from observation, experimentation and exploration.

The original figures to draw attention to this were Bishop Robert Grosseteste, early in the 13th century, the first person to imagine the experiment, and his contemporary, St Thomas Aquinas, the first man to imagine a secular world, a world without God directing everything. Secularism is not the same as atheism, of course — both Grosseteste and Aquinas were priests. But they helped us to escape from the overbearing medieval view that the world has meaning and pattern only in relation to God.

Building on that came the Florentine bankers, funding the expeditions to Africa, the Far East and the New World, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, showing that even the heavens were rationally organised, culminating in the first Industrial Revolution and the steam engine, the spinning machine, modern chemistry and electricity and the second industrial revolution, mainly in Germany and Britain at the end of the 19th century, that gave us pharmaceuticals, the motor car, aniline dyes, movies and atomic energy.

These innovations owed little to democracy. They most certainly had to do with new thoughts about liberty and psychology (Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature), and with the belief that men and women from the lower classes have abilities commensurate with those of their social “betters”. But they were unrelated to the formal extension of those liberties in the form of suffrage.

Prosperity, initiated by science, fostered yet more secular thought, more thought about liberty and human nature, in a virtuous cycle that led to democracy. That prosperity was not the fruit of democracy. Britain became a world power in the 19th century at a time when only one man in seven and no women had the right to vote. German science made great advances when the country’s Chancellor and his Cabinet were not elected at all, but appointed by the king/emperor.

This is not an argument against democracy; it is an argument about priorities. At a time when the world is calling for elections in Pakistan, this basic truth is being overlooked. Forcing Pervez Musharraf, a dictator but a relatively benign one, and most importantly a secular ruler, into elections that radical — or openly political — Muslims might win, risks a replay of Iraq, where the West deposed a secular ruler, a brutal one it is true, but nowhere near as threatening as the risk that will exist if radical Islam gains the day.

The same is true of Turkey, which has elected an Islamic party whose Prime Minister, according to The Times’s own accounts, is taking the country surreptitiously into an intolerant Islamic — and inherently anti-Western — stance. Look at what democracy has produced in Iran, Palestine and Zimbabwe.

The inconvenient truth is that the West should be exporting secularism around the world before it exports democracy. Democracy implies not just one person one vote but —

no less important — that the political process proceeds by rational means, by argument, by persuasion, and is based on knowledge that is as objective, as scientific, as one can make it. The objective knowledge has to come first.

In China, at the moment, every member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the central bastion of power, is a trained engineer — every one. There is not a religious figure in sight, the country is going from strength to strength, former Maoists have seen the light, recognising rationally the prosperity that technology can bring; and elections are simply not the issue there that they are in Pakistan. Prosperity comes from secularism, and where you have prosperity you have political and social stability. Only once you have stability can you start thinking sensibly about elections.

Peter Watson is the author of A Terrible Beauty: The People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind, and Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud.