Freedom, democracy and religion

Freedom, democracy and religion

Freedom consists in a constant and eternal Love of God.

Baruch Spinoza

  1. Democracy and religion

Of course, democracy has as many definitions as there are researchers of political thought, and perhaps even politicians themselves. However, it’s the same with religion. It also – as argued Fr. I. M. Bocheński – can’t be defined in the same way as you can’t define „vegetables”. It has been believed for quite a long time (and some still believe it) that it’s easiest to build democracy without religion and to exclude all religious content from the public sphere. One of the greatest philosophers of politics, John Rawls, also believed it, and changed this view only towards the end of his life. At that time, it seemed that the two dimensions of existence which they reveal and which they relate to cannot be reconciled. The first (democracy) relates to the horizontal dimension of our existence, the second (religion) relates to the vertical dimension. They are so incongruous that it would be better for a democratic system to completely remove the vertical dimension along with religion. Religion was thus excluded from the formation of the public sphere and participation in democracy, and was found to be antagonistic to it. Consequently, freedom from religion have become the slogan, and the conviction that it will disappear by itself, and that the wall of separation should get higher and higher. Moreover, it seemed that the only way for religion to be present in a democracy was somehow for it to be pushed into the private sphere. And for a long time we had a world of democracy without religion and… religion without democracy. The result is – experienced today– the degenerate democracy and the lost religion.

  1. The crisis of democracy without religion

Contrary to these statements, democracy and religion create fullness, and the vertical and horizontal dimensions of our existence not only don’t negate each other, but also combine into a whole of kind. Religion is also essential for the condition of a democratic state and for the fate of democracy. Democracy, in turn, is also essential to religion as it protects it from destructive fundamentalism. Each of these elements seems necessary to protect and enhance the other. It’s indicated by the degeneration of democracy, and by a distortion of religiosity alike, if there’s a radical separation between them. Today, it is increasingly recognized – even by Jürgen Habermas – that democracy may not survive if we reject religion and exclude it from the public sphere. But when democracy is lacking, religion is falsified as well. Attenuation in one area causes disturbance in the other. And it’s not only about the weakness of mechanisms of representations. Democracy without religion can easily turn (and does) into party tyranny, which turns the democratic system into a mere game of interests as the party elite seizes power over the entire political system. Turns out then, that those who have the power and make the law also have less and less in common with those they were supposed to represent. The people are only supposed to justify the legality or legitimacy of power, not really to exercise it. The party elites themselves become political sovereigns and only during elections do they strive for the opinions and votes of the people. All views that do not agree with the will of such an „elite” are marginalized, ridiculed and discriminated against on ideological grounds. The existential crisis of democracy is undeniable today and it’s increasingly recognized that the will of the general public does not fall within the limits of what is acceptable by party systems (Sloterdijk, 2011, p. 214). On the one hand, the question then is how to be protected against the tyranny of the majority – the tyranny of the will of the people, as Mill said – (Mill, 1959, p. 132), that is, a situation where the majority is wrong and is guided by their own selfish interest, but has won the election? On the other hand, how to save the democratic system so that it doesn’t serve to strengthen privileged political and financial groups? There’s no doubt that the judicial control system serves this purpose (Mounk, 2019, p. 96). Sometimes, however, even it is not enough, because judges are only people and they can’t help isolating the entire system from the will of the general public. Such a falsified democracy, which turns into an ideology of destroying tradition, morality and religion, also desubjectifies people in favor of lobbyists, institutions, banks, ideologized parties, etc. And although they all talk about democracy, it’s only an imitation, because at its base there’s selfishness, which becomes „the key to a more nearly perfect social contract” (Wilson, 1988, p. 197). Then its artificial limitation from the outside is sought, which also weakens it. The seizure of power by party, financial, ideological, etc. elites in such a falsified democracy leads to some contempt for person, making them only a voting machine at the appropriate times of elections. To restore democracy to its value, therefore, means to restore people’s subjectivity and to ensure that there’s as little contradiction as possible between the general will and the rights of the individual.

Not only, however, de-subjectification is a threat in democracy when, instead of a relationship with religion, it’s permanently associated with lobbyists, institutions, banks, ideological parties, etc. Then there is also a threat that can be described as a crisis of ideas, values, and approval of axiological nihilism. Democracy, devoid of any connection with religion, ceases to be ideological and reveals its destructive role in the area of values, or – in a milder form – can’t guarantee the foundations of the applicable values. Democracy then neither creates values nor enhance them, nor also justify the obligation of a specific action or human dignity. Instead promotes a pluralism of values and moral attitudes. Truth only becomes the consent/agreement of citizens and the will of the dominant majority, moral values are associated with political gains, justice means only that, what results from a judge’s decision, etc. All this reveals that such a degenerate democracy is neither ideological- nor value-creating, rejecting religious visions of good and truth, all it can offer is „a common choice”, while recognizing that such an election may (also commonly) be changed at a different time in the next elections. It can be said that in all this democracy uses the old, religious justifications, but at the same time „officially”, or politically, relies only on human relativism and the recognition that truth and morality are only the results of human desires and electoral voting. Thus, it emphasizes the primacy of the individual and their unrestricted freedom/lawlessness. The imperative of self-fulfillment becomes stronger than anything else.

3. The distortion of religion without democracy

It’s easy to notice that democracy is not served by the philosophy of materialism, let alone relativism and nihilism. Excluding rational religious reasons from public life clearly disturbs it. An ideological democracy de-subjectifies people and threatens values. At the basic level of its existence conditions, it grows out of freedom. And if it’s absent, or if it appears in false forms, e.g. lawlessness, it turns into a destructive system of ideology. From this separation also loses religion, which without the idea of democracy turns into a dangerous fundamentalism and removes the community dimension of its existence. Religious faith is then reduced to ideology and subordinates to itself politics, economy, culture. Fundamentalism grows out of such a religion, in which truth receives absolute sanction. A religion that develops into a democratic system however may limit this transcendent dimension of the possessed truth and to state, that instead of possessing it (today, here, now), it includes only striving for it and is oriented towards such an absolute truth. Thus, democracy limits the fundamentalist pursuit of religion. Without it, there’s a danger, that an absolutistically oriented religion, becoming the enemy of freedom, will spread intolerance and aggression. Without this relationship between religion and democracy, the entire religious sphere of a person is also excluded from the possibility of free choice. The problem of religious fundamentalism, that appears more and more often today, doesn’t arise therefore from religion itself, but more from falsed religiosity and falsed democracy. You may say even more; it’s the lack of democracy and a false democracy in which a untrue image of a person appears that creates the possibility of religious fundamentalism in which freedom of conscience is not respected and religious freedom is not recognized. Religion without democracy also doesn’t accept the separation of political and religious power, but tends to identify them with each other.

4. Religion as a concern for human freedom and subjectivity

If religion determines such area in the life of a religious person that can be considered the most important for them, a certain paradox arises when it’s pushed into the private sphere and removed from the public area. by making choices, and thus participating in political and social life, and removing religion from public life, a religious man is forced to make such choices without being able to relate to what is most important to him. Namely by making choices, and thus participating in political and social life, and removing religion from public life, a religious person is forced to make such choices without being able to relate to what is most important to them. It’s assumed that all their moral, metaphysical, ideal and the like beliefs must remain „outside” of theit choices as a private matter. Then a „paradox of democracy” is created: the most important are choices, but what is most important for a religious person can’t be involved in them. Only democracy, which is not afraid of the presence of religion in the public sphere, de-privatizes religion, that is, restores its lost dimension and helps to regain freedom.

Democracy is based on people’s freedom and rational behavior. The necessary condition for its maintenance, development and protection against degeneration is, first of all, enhancement of beliefs about human freedom and subjectivity. John Paul II wrote: „the value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes” (John Paul II, 1995, No. 70). However, it’s not about some abstract freedom, which is mentioned in political treaties, but about the freedom of a specific person. You may say that it’s about the personal freedom of an individual, or the freedom of a person. Religion provides the basis for enhancement of such beliefs. It guards human dignity, opposes any instrumental treatment of a person and any approach of freedom to lawlessness. Human freedom is not primarily social and political, but axiological and metaphysical. And only from this dimension can it be understood and transferred to the sphere of political choices. It’s precisely this freedom that religion realizes and is concerned about. In this way, it helps democracy to re-subjectify a person, prevents them from being de-subjctified and leads to the necessary reflection on the normative structure of society. Therefore, it’s easy to notice that it often becomes an element of criticism by all those pseudo-democrats for whom a person is only an instrument of career, wealth or power. But it’s also easily rejected by those who equated their freedom with lawlessness.

Of course, not every religion is conducive to the subjectification of person and the strengthening of freedom. Often, in political science, the freedom required by democracy is opposed to the enslavement of man, who must fulfill God’s will, as the goal of religion (Leisner, 2008, p. 98). It is then overlooked that it’s the religious principles of the equality of people as children of God that have been transformed into democratic human rights. You may say that the measure of the development of religion is the idea of freedom present in it. That is, if the God of a certain religion demands slavery of a person, their dependence, demands that they are a slave, then it’s certainly at a low level of development. It follows that democracy should not associate its future and development with every form of religion, but only with one in which God demands freedom of a person and in which they become aware of independence and are taking responsibility for themself. Only this religion restores to democracy a specific person who lives in a certain place, has their own interests, specific values and relationships with others. While reduces the idea of a universal man, neuter and indefinite, which is dangerous to democracy itself (but also to culture). Of course, the point is neither that religion is a complete remedy for the crisis of democracy, nor that it’s a treatment for overcoming all its problems, including freedom. However, it’s certainly an indication of the universal, meaning-creating dimension of human existence, without which not only democracy, but humanity in general can’t survive. Religion reveals, without – as Habermas said – „what is missing” (Ein Bewusstsein von dem, was fehlt) (Habermas, 2007) we’re neither able to live with dignity, nor create a healthy social structure. In that the principles of freedom, equality, and solidarity were first revealed, as deficiencies that needed to be supplemented in the real world, and which became human rights in a democracy. Forgetting it serves neither democracy nor freedom.


Habermas J., Ein Bewusstsein von dem, was fehlt, „Neue Züricher Zeitung”, 10 February 2007.

John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (1995).

Leisner W., Gott und Volk. Religion und Kirche in der Demokratie. Vox Populi – Vox Dei?, Berlin 2008.

Mill J. St., Utylitaryzm. O wolności, M. Ossowska, A. Kurlandzka (trans.) Warszawa 1959.

Mounk Y., Lud kontra demokracja. Dlaczego nasza wolność jest w niebezpieczeństwie i jak ją ocalić, K. Gucio (trans.), Warszawa 2019.

Sloterdijk P., Gniew i czas. Esej polityczno-psychologiczny, A. Żychliński (trans.), Warszawa 2011.

Wilson E. O., O naturze ludzkiej, B. Szacka (trans.), Warszawa 1988.


Prof. dr hab. Marek Szulakiewicz

Nicolaus Copernicus Univeristy

Autor: Mateusz Ruta
Date: 7 December 2021
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