September 28, 2009

Jefferson's Republic

As this blog approaches its 300th entry, I thought it was time that I wrote a retrospective. The last three years have been a journey of discovery for me, about my self, and about others. Time and again, when writing an article, I have been surprised to learn how similar my views on law, politics, and religion are to those of Thomas Jefferson. Only Ayn Rand comes any closer.

To Jefferson, as they are to me, the inalienable rights of the individual, the rule of law, and a life by reason, assumed primacy over everything else in his republic. Quoting Montesquieu, Jefferson noted in his Commonplace Book:

In the state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal; but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of the laws.
--- Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Spirit of Laws, Book VIII (3).

Law, however, lies within the domain of the state. What protects the people from the tyranny of the state? Noting the potential for the abuse of law by the state for its own benefit, and not that of the public, Jefferson added his own caveat to Montesquieu's rule of law:1,2

No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.
--- Thomas Jefferson to Francis Gilmer, 1816. ME 15:24

I concur. In this blog, I have argued, and I will continue to argue, for rejecting unreasonable codes of conduct imposed on individuals by any collective — be it political, religious, or social — that have nothing to do with preventing them from transgressing the lives of others. Individuals have rights; the collective has none, only an obligation to secure and protect the individual's rights.

Apart from the state, few institutions have had the power to control our lives as had religion. Historically, there has been a symbiotic relationship between state and religion. Religion could thrive only under the state's overt or covert sponsorship. Whatever may be the its claim of divine origin, revelation, etc., without the endorsement in the laws and their enforcement by the state, religious restraints have at best weak teeth. As a quid pro quo, religion has legitimized monarchies around the world for centuries. The kings derived their authority and power over their subjects from the gods. Romans 13:1-2 states:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

The nexus between state and religion has survived the advent of liberal democracy, too, with religion motivating political correctness at the expense of integrity and honesty. Life becomes cheap, and the religious votes, priceless, as it does often in India, and increasingly, elsewhere in the world. Jefferson mocked this nexus between the state and the religion:

What a conspiracy this, between Church and State! Sing Tantarara, rogues all, rogues all, Sing Tantarara, rogues all!

Jefferson believed that reason, and not religion, should inform good government. As a leading proponent of a "wall of separation" between the church and the state, he was the author behind the incorporation of Establishment Clause in the First Amendment.

No such wall of separation exists, though, in the constitutions of the Islamic nations, theocracies and democracies alike. The transition between the state, the laws, and the religion, is almost seamless in these nations. It's a mistake to think that terrorism is the only problem with Islam. The overarching objective of this religion is to impose on everyone — not just Muslims — an arcane system of laws, Shariah. Islamic Shariah is unlike any other system of jurisprudence in today's world. There are few, if any, parallels to its discriminatory, misogynistic, and regressive laws, suffused with cruel and unusual punishment for deviation.

Jihadi terrorism is not the only means by which Islam seeks to achieve its objective of a world ruled by Shariah. For example, a concerted effort in 2008 by the Islamic countries helped pass an anti-blasphemy measure in the United Nations. The measure provided a much needed cover for many of the draconian laws in Shariah, severely restricting criticism thereof. Another example is the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights. Signed by the members of the Organization of Islamic Conference, the only international organization of its kind for any religion, this Declaration states:

The Nineteenth Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (Session of Peace, Interdependence and Development), held in Cairo, Arab Republic of Egypt, from 9-14 Muharram 1411H (31 July to 5 August 1990) ...
Agrees to issue the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam that will serve as a general guidance for Member States in the Field of human rights ...
In contribution to the efforts of mankind to assert human rights, to protect man from exploitation and persecution, and to affirm his freedom and right to a dignified life in accordance with the Islamic Shari'ah. [emphasis added by me]

It should be obvious to anyone who is casually glancing at the news stories on crime and punishment that emanate from the Islamic countries every day, what a dignified life in accordance with Islamic Sharia is!

When faith is in, reason is out, and liberty will quickly follow. "Freedom [is] the first-born daughter of science", Jefferson had informed Francois D'Ivernois, and as a firm believer in the power of education to foster reason and science, ended his letter to Thomas Paine with, "Go on then in doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword: shew that reformation is more practicable by operating on the mind than on the body of man". We the people alone can ensure that reason, and not religion, prevails in governance. And that, only when we choose to educate our minds and those of others through the labyrinths of reason.

Finally, fear is a friend of religion and an enemy of reason. It's the weapon of choice in the religious indoctrination and regimentation that begins at birth. Strict religious upbringing of a child under the threat of eternal damnation in hell, presages many of the social ills that we see in our adult lives, such as female infanticide, honor killings, and homophobia. Richard Dawkins has likened this religious upbringing to mental child abuse:

... the mental abuse constituted by an unsubstantiated threat of violence and terrible pain, if sincerely believed by the child, could easily be more damaging than the physical actuality of sexual abuse. An extreme threat of violence and pain is precisely what the doctrine of hell is. And there is no doubt at all that many children sincerely believe it, often continuing right through adulthood and old age until death finally releases them.

I am all for inculcating a spirit of inquiry and an open mind, but not so open as to let the mostly untenable and fear-mongering stuff in the Bible, the Koran, or the Manu Smriti, to crash into a child's mind. Responsible parenting is not where anything and everything goes. Responsible parenting is to let prevail a mind without fear, guided by clear reason. The future of Jefferson's Republic will be safe only with such a mind:

I hold it... certain, that to open the doors of truth and to fortify the habit of testing everything by reason are the most effectual manacles we can rivet on the hands of our successors to prevent their manacling the people with their own consent.
--- Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804. ME 11:34

1Several of Jefferson's quotes in this post are from the Thomas Jefferson Digital Library at the University of Virginia.
2Photo of a quote from Thomas Jefferson on the National Academy of Sciences building, Washington, D.C., courtesy / CC BY-ND 2.0
  1. Thank you for the summary of the cornerstones of your blog.

    In case you missed it, I moved An Unquiet Mind to my own domain some time back.

    I consider myself fortunate to have like-minded bloggers like you with whom I've had the pleasure of enriching myself. Your scholastic approach shines the beacon of reason into many ethical quagmires.

    I do hope you continue to write. All the best.

  2. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mahendra. I have noted your domain change. Will locate your new site and subscribe. We will continue to exchange and enrich each other's views.


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