Democracy and Referenda

In our recent referendum I was basically on the side of ‘Remain’ partly because on the economic side I had realised that compared to when we were last ‘out of Europe’ we had the Commonwealth, the remnants of the former British Empire, still rather geared for trade with us, and we don’t have that any more, and partly because I’m quite worried by some of the narrow nationalism and even sheer racism of many on the ‘Leave’ side. Lots of attitudes there I’m not comfortable with….

But this was a case where there wasn’t really an obvious ‘Christian’ answer on the issue, especially for an Anabaptist with no desire to be bossing the state around. This item is more on the topic of democracy itself.

It is well known that the Greeks invented democracy. And like lots of ‘well known’ things, that’s only a part truth. For starters, it was basically the Athenians, not all the Greeks, Greece back then was rather like Germany before Napoleon, or Dark Age Britain – a collection of small independent states, usually based on a city. And even Athenian democracy wasn’t much like ours. To start with, only Athenian citizens could vote. Adults only, like us; but NOT women, and NOT slaves – so only quite a small minority to begin with. I’m not even sure it was all the men – ancient societies often only recognised a man as adult when his father died or he married and had his own household…. And although Athens ruled quite a wide area and even had an overseas empire, most of the people of the empire couldn’t vote, and even most of those in the mainland Greek bit of the empire wouldn’t be entitled. On top of which, voting only took place in assemblies physically meeting in Athens – so even citizens could only vote when they were around to attend the assemblies, and in an age without phones and internet etc., many decisions would be taken before some citizens even heard about the issue….

And Greeks didn’t, in fact, regard democracy all that highly. Plato, an Athenian himself, really despised it and preferred something we’d regard as pretty much ‘Fascism’. He probably did realise that his hypothetical alternative of ‘philosopher kings’ was idealism a bit outside real world probability….

Why was democracy thought bad? Well basically, because it wasn’t like our system, electing representatives to turn things; rather, it was like having an endless series of referenda, mass public votes in an assembly of thousands gathered together. And the problem was that it could all too easily turn into a nasty kind of ‘mob rule’ with decisions being taken thoughtlessly, irrationally, very heat of the moment and carried away by not always desirable emotions; and often by only the day after they’d have changed their minds and realised the problems of the decision – but it might be too late to correct it. One story has them deciding a brutal punishment for a rebellious place in their empire, and the next day having to send a fast galley to catch the messengers of the first decision and prevent the punishment…. Yes, the people got their say – but at the expense of a lack of stability, and sometimes the unleashing of the nastiest aspects of human feeling.

I’m not suggesting that our system is perfect – it very much ain’t! But our ‘representative’ system is a quite good compromise that avoids much of the faults of Athens’ democracy, and gives some of the good points of other systems but moderating their bad points. We get many of the potential advantages of kingship or aristocratic rule – but with ‘kings’ who are accountable to the wider citizenship through the electoral process, not just selfish ‘autocrats’.

But a referendum sets that aside….

One of the problems is that in the UK we don’t have the kind of formal written constitution that many countries like the USA have, carefully written down to provide all kinds of ‘checks and balances’, including for example the provision for a ‘Supreme Court’ to review our parliament’s decisions to check whether they’re constitutional or not. Our arrangements have evolved in a more ad hoc kind of way and much of it is a matter of ‘convention’ which doesn’t really have any legal binding force and could in theory be overturned by Parliament tomorrow.

Written Constitutions tend to recognise that some rights, for example, should be stable and long-term and not able to be easily changed perhaps on a day when many MPs are absent or some such – or indeed generally changed by a short-term majority. Changing the actual Constitution and the long term rights it enshrines will generally require much more than a simple majority vote. Typically the change will require both that a larger than usual quorum of MPs must be present, AND that even then a larger majority than ‘50%+1’ must vote for the change; and something like a referendum may be required as well, and again with a significant majority required, not just a few. A typical phrasing might be that change requires “Two thirds of those present and voting”. In other words there’s a serious effort to ensure that the change requires pretty much a true majority in the country positively voting for it, as opposed to just the votes of a party that may have been elected by the votes of only a quarter of the country….

And that, I think is arguably the problem of our recent referendum; such a change should have required a greater majority endorsing it, to be a truly clear victory rather than a ‘close call’ that might have been different for essentially accidental reasons. (I’m not sure of the truth of this but I heard the other day that before the referendum Nigel Farage himself had said that a vote as close as 52/48 would be unsatisfactory!) As it is, it is likely to leave things unsettled for quite a while to come, and that’s bad in itself.

So one of the things I’m saying is that it may be time to have a firmer written constitution for the UK, with the necessary provisions to protect the constitution itself and the relevant rights, and provide a firm basis for referenda. Essentially – that constitutional change requires a truly decisive majority.

I’m generally in favour of democracy – other systems may be more efficient at times, but the flexibility and pluralism of democracy generally wins out. Yes, a dictator is more efficient – but what if the guy with that power is evil?

On the other hand, I don’t worship democracy, and I’ve a feeling that too many people in the West do effectively worship it. And democracy has its limits; there are many aspects of reality which simply can’t be changed no matter how often you vote for them to be changed. You can’t change 2 + 2 = 4 by voting for a different answer; the most you can achieve is to change the names of the numbers, which will nevertheless continue themselves to behave as they have always done. And the Earth will basically orbit the Sun like Copernicus said and that can’t be changed by a vote. (And BTW, yes I do know that technically the two bodies actually orbit their common centre of gravity – in this case the practical difference is minimal… and you still can’t make the old Ptolemaic system true just by voting on it!!)

Anyway, the above is thoughts inspired by the referendum. I think I’ll do a separate post on some other aspects, like how you get democracy to work if you also believe in a decidedly monarchical God….



This one is about use of language in the Bible – or one particular use, anyway.  It’s a follow-on from ‘A Brief Word on Biblical Interpretation’, one of my earliest posts.  In that I established that the Reformation idea of interpreting the Bible ‘after the literal sense’ didn’t mean dumb wooden literalism, but making full allowance for the Bible to use all kinds of figures of speech, literary conventions, etc.  Not special biblical stuff, but actually everyday use of language.  One such is what is called ‘phenomenal’ language. 

One example of ‘phenomenal language’ we use pretty much every day – and the Bible uses it quite often as well.  Consider this…

“Dear Television Company

I’m writing to you about your weather-persons.  I’m appalled that you employ people so out-of-date and unscientific.  Every day they give us the times of sunrise and sunset, as if it were the sun that moved around the earth, rather than the earth’s rotation on its axis that produces the movement of the sun across the sky!   Have these ignoramuses never heard of Copernicus??  Have them fired immediately and get us proper scientific weather-persons…”

If I actually sent such a letter, I don’t think the TV Company would pay much attention apart from laughing at my stupid pedantry.  But of course I am right – the sun doesn’t rise or set, it really is the earth’s own rotation that causes the effect – why do we continue using words that we all know are unscientific?  The basic answer is simply that, from before Copernicus worked out his theory, we humans have described the movements of the sun by how they appear from our perspective.  In the past, they actually believed the sun moved, now we don’t – but the words are still there as the everyday word.  This kind of language, describing how it looks regardless of the scientific theory about it, is called ‘phenomenal’ language – fitting the ‘phenomenon’.  Sometimes we do change our language when we learn better; sometimes we find it more convenient to carry on using the original words – that’s how language is.

Furthermore, there is some point to using such language.  It does describe exactly how things look.  Therefore for everyday purposes, it is useful.  I can tell a child who hasn’t yet learned about Copernicus that we’ll do something ‘at sunset’ and he’ll know what I mean without having to have a science lesson first!  Likewise (less often nowadays, of course) I can use such language with a primitive native up the Amazon, again without having to give that science lesson; and as most languages use words meaning literally sunrise and sunset, I don’t bother finding a special word to make things scientifically accurate, I just use their everyday word.  Only when it really matters do we bother being scientifically exact about this (and when we do, we find out how much more complex and unwieldy the more exact language can be).  Also in passing please note that the ‘phenomenal’ language usefully remains true even when theories are in flux; it could have been very confusing if people had kept having to come up with new words every time the theory changed while scientists were still arguing about exactly how the solar system worked.

The Bible, of course, constantly uses the language of sunrise and sunset and of the moving sun generally.  Indeed I couldn’t find a contrary example.  Does this mean that the Bible ‘teaches’ a geocentric solar system in which the sun moves round the earth, and that therefore a person who believes the Bible must reject Copernicus?  Or does it just mean that in giving his Word to people who didn’t have modern astronomy, God used their own everyday language and didn’t confuse things by telling them a state of affairs they couldn’t have checked and would have found incredible? 

A slightly more complex example is found in Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis.  In around 1500 he actually hadn’t quite got round to agreeing with Copernicus, though the principles he stated suggest that with adequate proof (not achieved till later) he would have accepted it.  But have a look how he deals with the passage in the Creation account about the heavenly bodies.  He rejects the idea of those bodies being intelligent beings, the ‘gods and demons’ of paganism, and emphasises that God portrays them as just ‘lights’, for our use.  That of course is a major point which in due course allowed scientific investigation and at least began to free people from superstitions about the stars.  But Calvin also makes an interesting point about interpretation.

Genesis refers to the Sun and Moon as the ‘two great luminaries’ (as the Berkeley version translates it).  By Calvin’s day, astronomy had sufficiently advanced that it was known that, in absolute terms, Saturn, despite appearing the smallest of the known ‘planets’, was actually larger than the Moon, just further away.  Is the Bible therefore wrong?  No, says Calvin, because ‘to the sight it appears differently.  Moses therefore adapts his discourse to common usage’ .  That is, in the terms of this essay, Moses uses phenomenal language.  He ‘wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand’.  OK, he also did so because he, Moses, didn’t personally know the astronomy we now do.  But the basic point is still sound.  God isn’t confusing the issue by giving Moses and the Israelites details they’d no way of checking, and which might even possibly have led them to reject the account as untrue.  God says, in effect, these are lights which are my gift to you, rather than the gods and demons which the pagans believe and are slavishly ruled by; there are two lights which, to your viewpoint on your world[i], are big lights – one giving you the brightness of day, the other bright enough to see by at night.  Their absolute size doesn’t matter in this account, what is in view is their usefulness.  Astronomers in their university ivory towers will eventually discover the sun to be small on the cosmic scale, and the moon to be small in the solar system – but that doesn’t change the everyday fact that on earth, they are the great luminaries.

I could produce other examples; but I’ve already got one friend who tells me my blog posts are TLTR – too long to read!!  So I’ll just leave it there as food for thought….

[i] Terminology changes; in pre-Copernican days ‘planets’ were ‘wandering stars’ compared to the other ‘fixed stars’, so far away that it takes centuries to see them move significantly.  In those days the Sun and Moon as they ‘moved’ were also considered ‘planets’.  I originally wrote ‘on your planet’ but realised that of course the ancient Israelites didn’t consider the Earth a planet!

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus….

… when he said the world was round”.  This belief is widespread; that the obscurantist Catholic Church believed in a flat earth and brave Columbus stood up for the new idea of a spherical earth and proved his point by his voyage to unexpectedly discover America rather than India – or ‘the Indies’ as he had thought.  It’s a good story, but it’s simply not true; in reality, Columbus had got it wrong and was very lucky America was there!

The sphericity of the earth had been known from some time BCE, and had its most thorough expression in the ideas of the astronomer Ptolemy.  In the Ptolemaic system the definitely spherical earth was the centre of the universe, with sun, moon, planets and stars revolving around the earth.  Though ‘pagan’ in origin rather than biblical, this was the system the Roman Catholic Church really believed through the Dark and Middle Ages of Europe.  In England Bede, centuries before Columbus, based his calculations for the date of Easter on the Ptolemaic system, and there is a point in his writings when he refers to the Earth as round, then realises that’s ambiguous and adds ‘that is, a sphere’.  At almost exactly the time of Columbus’ voyage, the Church was actually making the very different mistake of trying to defend the earth-centred Ptolemaic system against the new ‘sun-centred’ ideas of one Nicolas Copernicus!

The real objection in the Spanish court was not because the church taught a flat earth.  They believed in a round earth just as much as Columbus did – the problem was, they knew how big it was….  I can never remember whether it was two centuries before or after Jesus, but a clever Greek-Egyptian mathematician had calculated the circumference of the spherical earth.  He had heard that away south of Alexandria there was a place where on a certain day at midday the sun was absolutely straight overhead shining down a well.  On that day, he set up a pole so that he could measure the angle of the sun at Alexandria; then he had professional distance-measurers pace out the distance between Alexandria and the town with the well – after that simple geometry enabled him to calculate the circumference.  I understand he was right to well within ten-per-cent of the modern value.

And the trouble, which it appears Columbus’ opponents had realised, was that if the earth was that big, then Columbus wouldn’t get to the Indies by sailing westwards – the voyage would be so long he and his sailors would die of thirst or starvation weeks before reaching any known land.  They thought the Pacific and Atlantic were the two sides of the same ocean, and they knew it was big!!  And indeed they were right; by the time Columbus made landfall his supplies were running short and he might well not have been able to return home but for resupplying in what we now call the West Indies.

That being so, how did Columbus persuade the Spanish royalty to support his apparently doomed voyage?  Well the next bit involves some speculation even today, but it seems that in fact Columbus knew that there was a land there – it’s just that he wasn’t quite imaginative enough to envisage a whole ‘New World’ and therefore he reasonably but wrongly believed that land was India.  How did he know?  He knew because it had already been discovered – more than once!

The earliest example with any real certainty is the Irish legend of St Brendan, who set off with fellow monks in a sea-going curragh – a kind of super-coracle with a leather skin over a longship style frame.  Tim Severin has fairly convincingly reconstructed Brendan’s voyage to show how the various islands he describes fit, though a bit exaggerated,  with the real islands you would meet on a voyage across the North Atlantic – the Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland/Labrador.  Other Irish accounts are more fanciful but may have some truth behind them.  Wales has the legend of Prince Madoc founding a colony in America (though ‘Portmadoc’ with its famed Festiniog Railway is named after an early 19th Century Mr Madocks).

Definitely historical, the Vikings have the ‘Vinland Saga’ of a discovery of Labrador c1000CE.  The colony they established has been found archaeologically at ‘Lancey Meadows’ (actually ‘Jellyfish Creek’ from the French ‘L’Anse aux Meduses’) and lasted quite a few years before, like their colony of Greenland, it was made unsustainable by a medieval ‘Little Ice Age’.  The Scottish kingdom of Albany had an account of a New England colony – there is apparently an anomalous (though disputed) medieval tower in one coastal town.  And fishermen from Bristol had long been taking cod from the Grand Banks and may occasionally have gone to the land beyond.  Columbus, it seems, had traded in England and Northern Europe and heard these stories – so he could reassure his royal backers the journey would not be fruitless, even though he’d guessed wrong about the land these northerners had found; he probably thought Labrador was somewhere around Northern Japan/Eastern Siberia.

On the other hand, if the Spaniards wanted to lay claim to their discoveries, it wouldn’t be wise to be too open about that prior knowledge – that would cede a prior claim to those earlier discoverers.   So confusion remained.  Columbus’ discovery meant the opposition looked silly, though as I say in a way they were right apart from the unexpected new continent!

Where did the ‘flat earth’ story come from?  Apparently it came long after Columbus from 19th Century American author Washington Irving, better known for Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; and it’s not clear whether he really believed his version – but he certainly intended to write anti-Catholic or possibly anti-religious propaganda.  When Irving’s account got attached to that catchy song quoted in my title, it became widely believed.

I am no great supporter of Roman Catholicism and its claims of authority.  It was bad enough that they got it wrong about Copernicus’ theory in a way that held back science in Catholic countries for centuries, and their treatment of Galileo was appalling and must cast serious doubt on the validity and the usefulness of the claim of supposed ‘papal infallibility’.  Bad enough also that they had an unbiblical place of privilege in states which enabled them to force their views upon people against the evidence.  But I’m far from happy to see a false account of the Columbus episode put about as anti-church propaganda and causing serious confusion for people’s understanding of those times – and indeed of earlier times, as people who have fallen for Irving’s travesty will also fail to realise how advanced science and knowledge was even back to ancient Greece.  As a Christian, truth should be paramount because Jesus himself is the Truth.   Lies are of the Devil even when they are attacking and mocking my enemies.  There is plenty for which the Catholics can be legitimately criticised, and no need whatever to make up false stories about them.  And anyway, the truth about the Columbus episode, with its confusion and all those prior stories of the discovery of America, is much more interesting.