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Top world religions intertwine with democracy differently, profs say


Faculty members representing several world religions spoke Thursday night at the Stanford Humanities Center about how different faiths – including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism – can interact with democratic institutions. The event was a part of a larger year-long program by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies titled, “We the People: Islam and U.S. Politics.”

Professor Richard Madsen from the University of California, San Diego kicked off the talk by discussing his area of expertise, Buddhism. While Buddhism is not the primary religion of any democratic world power, Madsen said the religion can still play an important role in democratic societies.

“Buddhism doesn’t have a political philosophy, but it creates certain kinds of cultures…which I think are politically relevant and can provide a good foundation for a viable ongoing democracy,” Madsen said.

He added that there were two main types of Buddhism that are currently getting involved in democratic return. The first is called “socially engaged Buddhism,” and the second is called “humanistic Buddhism.”

One famous “socially engaged Buddhist” is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar. Madsen said that her famous essay entitled “Freedom from Fear” describes how fear is an example of a Buddhist worldly attachment.

“It was also in Myanmar that Buddhist monks rose up and were brutally crushed,” Madsen said.

After Madsen, Rebecca Lyman, professor emerita at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, talked about how Christian traditions have a complicated, at times contradictory, relationship with democracy.

“Christianity has a flexibility to it that has allowed it to be part of different political societies,” Lyman said.

She emphasized that although people often think of Christianity as a menace to the ideals of democracy, Christian organizations were driving forces behind the democratic movements of abolition and civil rights.

“Christianity can be both radical and conservative,” Lyman said. “It can own slaves, and also be part of the abolition of slavery. It can declare the divine right of kings, and it can hold itself up as an outline for democracy.”

Next spoke Mohammad Fadel, an expert on Sunni Islam from the University of Toronto.

According to Fadel, the biggest concern in politics is not religion, but rather institutions that discourage individual thinking.

“I think concern about religious involvement in political decision making goes all the way back to early modern political philosophy, for example John Locke,” Fadel said.

Fadel said that he does not see any inherent problems with Islamic Law. It is merely another way of determining a society’s morals.

“Non-religious reasoning can also become dogmatic,” he added. “Finance is equally potentially subversive of democracy.”

The final professor to present was Steven Weitzman, professor in the religious studies department at Stanford, who discussed the relationship between Judaism and democracy, commenting that, “for Judaism, religion and politics have always been intertwined.”

Weitzman explained that many aspects of Judaism, including the Passover Seder itself, which celebrates the Jewish people’s freedom from slavery in Egypt, are essentially democratic. However, there are certain areas of Judaism that are not entirely compatible with democratic ideals.

“There are Jews who, to this day, struggle with their belief in a democratic society, and their belief in a pre-democratic patriarchal society,” he said.

Yanshuo Zhang, a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Studies who attended the event, said that she thought the talk was “very relevant in today’s world, especially with a lot of young people not knowing a lot about other cultures or religions.”