"Divine" legislation mapped: Religion blocks freedom and democracy across the globe

May 21, 2023

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"Divine" legislation mapped: Religion blocks freedom and democracy across the globe

In a new study, researchers from multiple universities have studied the historical role of religion in politics and how religion continues to be used to legitimize politics in some societies. The study shows that the past is hard to escape.

What the researchers say: "Societies that are historically characterized by belief in high gods are more likely to have current laws that discriminate or favor certain groups in society," said the lead researcher. "These could be laws that restrict women's rights or prohibit homosexuality. Or laws on blasphemy and privileges for religious organizations.”

During the research project the team collected data on religions in 1,265 pre-modern societies. The researchers compared this information with current data on the prevalence of religious laws in 176 countries.

"The wealth of information allows us to compare societies that belong to the same language group, have the same level of complexity, subsistence method and level of development – and are located on the same continent," the researchers explain.

Even among societies that are similar in all these parameters, inequality can be much higher in one society than in another.

"It is clear from the data that societies with greater social inequality are more likely to worship gods that are attributed with a dominant character. On average, moralizing gods are 30 % more likely to be present in societies with large class differences compared to more equal societies," said the lead author. "Moralizing and punishing gods are far more effective as a means of power, while spirits that cannot punish or interfere with human actions are useless for that purpose.”

The researchers have made another important discovery: in autocracies, where power is concentrated in the hands of a single person or a very small group of people, there is a clear tendency to institutionalize religion. An autocrat can legitimize his power by referring to the divine.

"The divine legitimacy of the concentration of power in a very small group of people may very well support the persistence of autocracy, because the small group of rulers receives its mandate to exercise power from above and therefore does not have to ask the people. In this way, the religious mandate of the autocrat is in opposition to democratization," the researchers emphasize.

The investigators see a world where religion and populist policies are gaining support in some societies. For this reason, they argue, it is becoming more important to understand the roots of such trends.

"There is a wealth of studies showing that religion can have a positive impact on people's general well-being and societal-level factors. Our study shows that this coin also has a flip side," explained the lead author. "Religion is many things. While for some it is a set of beliefs that provide comfort and personal strength, for lawmakers it can be a tool to gain unchallenged power."

So, what? The study contains a wealth of historical data to support the author’s thesis. The tendency has become more pronounced since the fall of the Shah in Iran in 1979, the demise of the USSR in 1989 and the election of DT as president in 2016.

The rise of the Christian Right in the US—and to a much lesser extent in Australia and other liberal democracies—and its links to populism and authoritarian-leaning political parties is worrying.

Modern authoritarian leaders—Erdogan in Turkey and Putin in Russia are prime examples—use religion to justify their anti-democratic rule.

In the US, states with Republican leaders and/or state legislatures use religion to justify book banning, restrictions on personal liberty and voting rights, often in the name of Christianity—or at least their interpretation of it. The majority of judges on the US Supreme Court are fervent Christians and their dedication is seen in their desire to roll back the constitutional order to earlier, more constrained times.

Perhaps we are slipping back into the Middle Ages.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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