Domesticated Religion and Democracy

John Shook

Religion promises a rewarding relationship with some supreme reality. Neither naturalism nor democracy does that. How can religion function in a democracy?

Only religion hijacks one’s cognitive centers. Having committed to religious promises, people feel certain about the spiritual rewards. Religious people love certainty and detest doubt about their commitment, whether that doubt be internal or coming from other people. That is why religious people go to any lengths to silence or banish (or worse) any dissenters, heretics, or atheists. Religions are intrinsically totalitarian—given the opportunity, they will erect governments demanding conformity to religious edicts.

Many religious people would deny such statements. They would protest, claiming that they do not feel anxious or defensive about their religion, that they have no problem tolerating dissent, that they would never approve religious government, and that their religion is the friendliest and most pleasant worldview around. Those people are practitioners of “domesticated” religion—a kind of religion that can exist only under civilized, scientific, and democratic conditions. Here is how you can tell that you are dealing with believers in a domesticated religion:

  1. Believers describe their religious views as their “beliefs”—implicitly admitting the psychological reality that people can’t have certain knowledge. Yet they stay religious by wielding their beliefs with excessive confidence: their beliefs are at least as worthy as any other belief out there.
  2. Believers who justify their religious views as “very good for them” are implicitly using the humanist standard that people deserve worldviews that benefit them. Yet they self-righteously assume that their religion is best for everyone.
  3. Believers defend their religious views as their “right”—implicitly applying the democratic principle that people can’t be forced to surrender their consciences. Yet they stay religious by frequently complaining when their religion can’t get even more rights.

Domesticated religion exists only because some believers admit that their brains don’t have any supernatural powers to know things that others cannot, and they admit that they are better off with a democratic and secular government that does not favor religion.

For its part, democracy endures because people understand that they are smarter united than divided by faith or creed. Democracy stands because people grasp that compromise is sometimes necessary—even compromise regarding one’s deepest commitments. Democracy survives only when religion has been domesticated, and democracy is strengthened as religious commitment devolves into fidelity to the humanistic ethos.

Yes, many religious people have little clue how their religion would destroy democracy if it could. Perhaps we should keep them in the dark. Perhaps we should make sure that domesticated religion stays committed to democracy and to secular government. Wild religions flourish in our midst. Too many faithful are convinced that they have supernatural cognitive powers, that they know the one true religion that is best for all, and that they’ve got a righteous recipe for the perfect government to rule over everyone. If domesticated religion gets too friendly with the wild religion still inhabiting these lands, democracy is doomed.

John Shook

John Shook is an associate editor of FREE INQUIRY and director of education and senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He has authored and edited more than a dozen books, is coeditor of three philosophy journals, and travels for lectures and debates across the United States and around the world.


Religion promises a rewarding relationship with some supreme reality. Neither naturalism nor democracy does that. How can religion function in a democracy? Only religion hijacks one’s cognitive centers. Having committed to religious promises, people feel certain about the spiritual rewards. Religious people love certainty and detest doubt about their commitment, whether that doubt be internal …

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