Democracy or Theocracy?

The other day I stumbled across an intriguing website with an intriguing premise – the site is called ‘Against Democracy‘, and it lists several arguments against democracy as a form of government (I have not so far read what the site’s author regards as a good alternative to democracy, so I’m not clear what the endgame is here). Who is the author? It’s someone we’ve met before – Paul Williams of Blogging Theology.

To better understand both democracy and the alternatives, it’s worth doing a little research. Firstly, what is democracy?

The dictionary definition simply defines democracy as a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives. It’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea. People vote in elections for a political party, or to be more precise, their local representative of that party. Many democracies have both local and national elections, deciding both regional and national government. The party with the majority (and it has to be a clear majority in most cases) is considered to have a mandate and works – sometimes ineffectively (but that’s a different matter) to carry it out. Some people might consider a democracy as ‘majority rules’, but it isn’t as simple as that, as built into the legal and political systems of most democracies are rules to protect minorities. A vote cannot determine whether or not to expel all members of a particular religion from a country, and votes cannot undermine or erase civil rights.

This isn’t to say democracy is a flawless system of government. The recent vote here in the UK to leave the EU highlights how a slim majority can have a huge impact on everyone else, and the way in which voters can be manipulated into emotive decisions in vital circumstances can have a crucial impact on the outcome of referendums. However, the success (or failure) of democracy is not inherent to the idea of democracy itself, but other factors (such as cultural values).

So what are the alternatives to democracy, and are any of them actually any good? The first one we’ll be taking a look at is the theocracy.

A theocracy is defined as a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god. The most prominent examples of theocracies in today’s world would be Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, though there are others.

In Iran, all laws are derived from Islamic criteria. The Head of State is a scholar of Islamic law and carries more power than the President. It is the Supreme Leader’s responsibility to appoint people to several influential posts, including military leaders and the Chief Justice.

How does a country like Iran compare with a country like the UK?

Average Life Expectancy (one indicator of the strength of healthcare services)- UK: 80 years. Iran: 70 years.

Human Development Index (click on the link if you want to know about what that is – the higher the number the better the standing) – UK: 0.942. Iran: 0.777.

GDP (Gross Domestic Product) – UK: $37,300. Iran: $12,800.

Literacy Rate – UK: 99%. Iran: 77%.

So a cursory comparison of the UK to Iran suggests the UK performs stronger economically, does better in terms of healthcare, and better on education. It might be unfair to land this strictly on the basis of form of government, so what else can we look at?

Human Rights – Iran is well-known for clamping down on freedom of expression and the treatment of some segments of society in Iran seems entirely arbitrary. Iran is second only to China on the number of executions carried out, including the execution of the entire adult male population of a village for drugs offences. Imprisonment for opinions that run against the established theocratic form of government (such as improved womens’ rights) is common. The common denominator here is the form of government, which restricts laws and rules to those founded on the basis of one religion, at the expense of whatever anyone else might believe. Such a system (if Iran is taken as the benchmark) is restrictive by its very nature.

This is why (in my view at least) a theocratic form of government just doesn’t work. It focuses power on a small group of people (namely the religious leaders) and there is little or no representation. If that religion calls upon certain groups to have certain roles (for example, women are excluded from certain sectors) then there is no opportunity for this to be challenged. Minority rights are high restricted (the punishment for homosexuality in Iran ranges from imprisonment to execution). It seems clear to me that democracy is superior to theocracy.



  • Commenter's Avatar
    Totally Not Me — January 24, 2017 at 8:39 am

    “A theocracy is defined as a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god. The most prominent examples of theocracies in today’s world would be Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, though there are others.”

    This is absolutely not the case. There are no “ruling priests” in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or even Iran. And just to clarify Islamic governance does not accept theocracy. In fact, Islamic governance is in total contradiction with any form of modern governance based on nation states, as correctly argued by the Palestinian Christian professor of Islamic Law Wael B. Hallaq in his monumental book The Impossible State.

  • Commenter's Avatar
    davidt — November 9, 2018 at 10:19 pm

    Theocracy is not defined by Islam or by who rules. see the following link:

    I do not think you understand Islam very well. Mohammad designed the religion so that the religion could not exist without civil laws and vice versa. Which is why Muslims cannot live in a democracy and why they advocate that the democracies follow Sharia law.

    Your conclusions concerning a theocracy are terribly biased and influenced by only 1 religion. That distorts the issue and validity of a theocracy. They are also influenced by your personal views where you disagree with many of the laws religions have. Those laws are only bad in your view.

    You have yet to show how your perspective and opposition to those laws are correct or superior to religious laws.

    • Commenter's Avatar
      DarthTimon — November 12, 2018 at 7:58 pm

      My conclusions about theocracies are based on how they have historically acted. Yes, the page in question was initially about one particular religion, because it was in response to another page. A Christian theocracy has not technically existed (unless you count The Vatican or Mount Athos), and these are both extremely small states that do not compare to a country like Iran in any meaningful way. One could argue that monarchies were indirect theocracies, as in theory Christianity was a major driving force behind how rulers acted. The Spanish Empire in particular was heavily influenced by the Catholic denomination of Christianity.

      Which brings me to an important point. Theocracies, as with monarchies, are highly subject to the interpretation and whim of whomever is in power at any given time. With absolute rulers (particularly in monarchies), there can be radical and sweeping changes to laws and interpretations of those laws from one monarch to the next (you need only look at England during the Tudors and Stewarts to see how this can affect a country). There are no guarantees of representation for minorities and anyone who is not a part of the ruling faith.

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