Another abortive comment, or, history still matters

So, here’s another case where I started to comment on a blog post, and then thought better of it. Al Steffanelli is a good guy, but he suffers from the same historical, linguistic and literary blindspots as so many FtBers. In an otherwise thoughtful blog post, he writes:

The United States of America is not a Democracy. We are a Democratic Republic . . ..

And then a few paragraphs later:

Religion clouds the judgment of the believer and distorts the already unbalanced concept of Democracy – “majority rule” – by reinforcing it with a divine rebar.

So, what’s my problem:? Democracy has never, ever, in the history of forever, ever been defined as “majority rule.” Throughout history, democracies have been of two types: Athenian democracies, where suffrage is limited to citizens, who make up a distinct minority of residents, and Constitutional democracies, in which the rights of minorities enjoy legal protection. The United States is a democracy of the second type.

The whole “majority rule” thing is a slippery-slope fiction invented out of whole cloth, first by monarchists like Thomas Hobbes, and later by glibertarians looking to win closing-time discussions at the bar. When I see the “political compass,” I reach for my gun. When I hear “America is not a democracy,” I punch in the codes that activate the red button.

“Majority rule” (or more traditionally, “mob rule”) is a pernicious lie, totally unsupported by history, and frankly, you won’t even find it in dictionaries. Fucking dictionary definitions! Is that what we’re reduced to?

History is your friend, accuracy matters, and never let the bad guy define the terms of the argument.


Why history matters

I started to reply to this post from Daniel Fincke, and then realized that I’d veered seriously off-topic. But it’s a little mini-rant I’d like to save and refer back to, so here’s the comment I elected not to submit:

I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the lack of historical perspective from a lot of atheists. It’s frustrating to hear an atheist claim that theology hasn’t come up with a new argument since Aquinas, while at the same time offering the same arguments as Lucian. Clearly, rehashing centuries-old arguments isn’t going to be productive.

And the so-called Bronze Age beliefs of today’s religious people are at most 20-25 years old. (Remember when Jimmy Carter was the quintessential evangelical Christian? Remember when the Middle East was dominated by Socialists?)

The more I learn of history — quite recent history — the more I realize just how ephemeral and plastic religious beliefs are. And this means that history is atheism’s friend, because history tells us that the particulars of religious belief are beside the point.