All governments are theocracies?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:

Charlie Stross writes:

Justice-as-religion implies a seat of absolute authority from which judgements may be passed—naively, a God (or goddess, or symbol) of justice. (In reality, it’s a shared human cognitive process: the natural non-human world has no justice mechanism. But human-centric processes are, well, human-centric.)

…Governments embody mechanisms for creating and enforcing laws. It follows that all governments are theocracies.

He seems to be confusing his metaphor for reality. After all, where something comes from is interesting, but doesn’t tell you where it is now. Even if the law was initially justified by religion, things have obviously changed. One of the main themes of the last 200 years has been the secularization of the Western nations. It is meaningless to imply that the law is “really” religious because it was religious a few thousand years ago. The past is no more real than the present — the secularism of the present is just as real as the religiosity of the past. Most of our ideas about “God” giving birth to the law have been subsumed into the more general idea of “head of state”.

A head-of-government is a person who runs the military, and the day to day affairs of administering the government. The head-of-state is harder to define and more symbolic. The head-of-state seems to have had a religious origin. The head-of-state can be thought of as what a people are supposed to remain loyal to, even if defeated in war. For a long time, that was supposed to be “God” though in practical terms that meant loyalty to the priests. The Bible offers some nice examples of this. When Soloman turns away from Yahweh, he has betrayed the head-of-state and therefore rebellion against Solomon becomes justified.

People seem to have an innate understanding that head-of-state and head-of-government are two separate jobs. When head-of-state and head-of-government are joined together in one person, people seem to innately sense that they are living in an unfree dictatorship, even when their ancestors lived under the same system. Of course, the United States is famous for trying to do this in a democratic setting. We might jokingly say that all the governments of the world fit one of three patterns:

1.) separate head-of-government and head-of-state

2.) dictatorships

3.) the United States of America

But that isn’t quite true, because in the USA some of the mystical qualities that people want to ascribe to the head-of-state are now attributed to the Supreme Court.

Whether, in the past, notions of justice were always justified by religion is a subject that would take immense research. Is it true that there wasn’t a single tribe anywhere that had non-religious explanations of the law? There were almost surely some conquerors who justified their laws by might rather than by God.

It would be an interesting question to research, but whatever the answer would be, it would be a historical answer. It would not reveal much about the present. Even if it was possible to prove that our modern notions of head-of-state arose from a religious tradition, that wouldn’t teach us much about what our notions of head-of-state are right now. The present is different from the past. The past is not the whole truth of the current moment — it can reveal some interesting nuances, and some vectors into the future, but it should not be mistaken for some kind of secret, fundamental truth.