Is religion totalitarian? Some claim that religious faith demands obedience from human beings in a way that necessarily excludes any freedom of choice. As Sean Breen of the blog Atheist Republic recently argued:

Religiously enforced policies, top-down structure, harsh punishments and limits on freedoms all contribute to total control over a peoples — that’s what religion entails, and that’s what totalitarianism entails. Totalitarian regimes are modelled on religious dogma, and there is categorically no basis to the claim that atheism has made any contribution to the atrocities committed by such regimes.

We might find Mr. Breen’s revulsion to authoritarian regimes admirable; we might even look at the list of religiously-inspired violence that he cites, such as Christian crusades in the Middle East, and lament how easily religious passions have been mobilized for cynical, worldly ends.

But to then claim that religion itself is inherently “totalitarian” is to obliterate an important distinction.  It is true that religious leaders have sometimes worked hand-in-hand with cruel regimes, granting them legitimacy on loan from the heavens. But totalitarian regimes are a measure still worse: they recognize no authority beyond this world to whom anyone could even appeal.

Everything Within The State

The term “totalitarian” was created and endorsed by Italian fascists; it was defined approvingly by Benito Mussolini as a doctrine that required “everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Human beings have had governments of various forms for 9,000 years, but for most of that history, authority within governments has been divided between worldly rulers and religious authorities, who proscribed the limits of secular leaders’ rule. Some ancient rulers, such as the Egyptian Pharaohs and Mohammed, combined religious and political leadership. But most sovereigns have ceded theological concerns to others.

Among peoples of faith, kings and princes could not afford to ignore completely the edicts of clergy. A Hindu prince who ran rampant and defied the restrictions of dharma, or religious duty, would be easily unseated by any rival who demonstrated greater piety, and thus closer adherence to the principles of the cosmos.

But religious leaders also depended on worldly powers for security and withdrew support from them only in extreme circumstances. In medieval Europe, authority was divided between the pope and secular kings; both sides of the religious-secular divide maintained a careful balance between legitimacy and power that gave absolute authority to neither.

Losing Balance

Because religious authority has traditionally been paired with the worldly power in a system of checks and balances, we only see totalitarianism itself arise in cases where one of the two sides has been swept away.

Occasionally, religious authority has appeared to prevail over secular power. Saudi Arabia could fairly be described as a totalitarian state: since striking a pact in the 18th century, the Wahhabi clergy and the House of Saud have essentially fused into one religiously-inspired political force.

But in our age, the balance has usually tipped the other way, as secular states drain religious institutions of their influence. The self-proclaimed “totalitarians” of fascist Italy, like the Nazis in Germany and the Bolsheviks of the Soviet Union, either destroyed religions or pushed them aside. These dictators rightly understood that if a people believed in a source of moral authority outside the state, that authority could be cited in challenges to the state’s control over them.

The balance has shifted in favor of secular governments for a simple reason: for better or for worse, worldly governments no longer need religious authorities to grant them legitimacy. States now have an entirely secular source of authority to back up their power — the will of the people. In the modern age, rulers who can claim to represent “the people” have little reason to fear the condemnation of clerics.

Henry VIII pioneered such defiance when he cited the sovereignty of the English nation as reason to break with the Catholic church (and then to establish his own Church of England). Ever since, some have said, the nation has become “the God of modernity,” and religious institutions have retreated before the state’s advance. The horrors of fascism, nationalism, socialism, and Communism cannot be blamed on secularism; these crimes are the result of particular totalitarian visions. But it is still more unfair to claim that religion had anything to do with the crimes of states that had thoroughly eradicated religion as a check on their powers.

This is not to say that religion has no role in politics in the modern age: it obviously does. Poland would have never escaped the grip of the Soviet Union if the Poles had not found their Catholicism incompatible with Communist rule; Ayatollah Khomeini could not have overthrown the Shah of Iran had he not been able to convince the pious masses that Shia Islam needed to be restored to the Iranian state.

But these cases show that even religious politics is not uniformly authoritarian. True, the Iranian regime has abused its religious mandate, but the Catholic revolution in Poland led that country to democracy.

The Poles were lucky: the religious case for their nation’s freedom was cast in individualistic terms. Touring his native Poland before Communism’s fall, Pope John Paul II claimed that “the future of Poland will depend on how many people are mature enough to be non-conformists.” Far from being totalitarian, John Paul II’s faith helped undermine a dictatorship.

It’s foolish to pin blame for totalitarianism on any one factor — religion, secularism, or nationalism. If we want to find the foundations of dictatorship, we should look instead at how each of these factors are defined in a country’s political culture.

Is the faith imagined as a source of individual strength and dignity? Then it is unlikely to promote thuggish rule.

Is the nation defined as a collective in need of salvation? Then one leader will claim the right to abuse its citizens in the name of the nation’s restoration.

True totalitarians are celebrated as the embodiment of the people, so much so that they are granted the authority to shape those people from above, overriding any purported rights that individual persons might have.

If you fear totalitarians, don’t fear the priest; his influence is long diminished. Fear instead the person who claims to so perfectly represent the people that he can trample over them in their name.