C.S. Lewis, Hammer of the Theocrats

A comment on the Friendly Atheist site had a marvelous quote from C.S. Lewis. I ran it by Victor Reppert to make sure that it was genuine and to get its source. Victor verified that it is from the essay “Equality” in Lewis’s collection Present Concerns. It is the best succinct critique of theocracy that I have read:

I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber barron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.

And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme — whose highest claim is to reasonable prudence — the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication. – C.S. Lewis

Brilliant. Such intoxication now reigns in many state capitals, and, increasingly, in Washington D.C.

One very insightful sentence was “A metaphysic held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign.” Note that a theocracy is defined, not by a government’s dedication to religion per se, but by its dedication to any metaphysic (or, we might say, “ideology”) held with the force of a religion. An atheistic ideology, Marxism-Leninism or Maoism, say, could be (and has been) held with religious intensity. Thus, the Soviet Union, in its pre-Glasnost and pre-Perestroika days, and China under Mao are rightly viewed as a theocracies. Hence, the tired old polemical warhorse, regularly trotted out by religious apologists, about “atheist atrocities” can be stood on its head. The victims of communism were victims of theocracy.