We are living in an age of oversimplification.

One sometimes reads, or hears, about the threat from religion. Abuse and injustice towards women, among certain groups. How religion feeds prejudice, persecution. In some cases, terrorism.

These attitudes and practices are the result of religious extremism, not religion. The threat to our open, liberal, democratic society comes not from the belief in God, but from intolerance, and the belief that God sanctions it.

The conviction that every human being has within him or her a divine spark, a thoroughly religious notion, was present at the very genesis of democracy. It was believed that the presence of God within each one of us was an incontrovertible argument in favour of self-government.

It is the one of the ironies of our age that the vastly increased access to knowledge has abysmally diminished our possession of it. Confident that, should we in fact need to “know” something, we could look it up in seconds on our preferred device, we see no need to burden our brains with information. As a consequence, we are learning words, not concepts.

We may be able to look up religion, but all we will really learn is the vocabulary. Without related knowledge to which to connect it, there will be no context. And without context, there will be no meaning.

So, what we are left with are words. We do not practice religion, and therefore have no intimate knowledge of what a relationship with God means. Falsely convinced that ignorance is easily overcome, we are sure that we can find out what religion means by researching it on the internet. If we do, many words will become available to us. We may even read them. But we will not understand them. Their true meaning will remain beyond our grasp.

Democracy is another good example. Consider just how easily it can be misunderstood.

An internet search of Adolph Hitler (German dictator 1933-1945), Hugo Chavez (Venezuelan dictator 1999-2013) and Hamas (iron-fisted government of Gaza since 2006) will reveal that in all three cases, power was achieved through election. People voted for them.

Should we consider democracy to be a threat? Is it a portal to oppression?

Citizens of a democracy, we practice it only sporadically. When elections are called, we vote. And we think democracy has happened. Not yet. There is more. Despite how much we disagree with others, we truly have to be prepared to fight for their right to say it. Freedom of speech was invented for opinions we do not like, not the ones we do.

We must build a society that prefers, always, peaceful disagreement over violent resolution. Otherwise, social peace is an illusion. We must be listeners first and speakers second. Ready to learn and stand corrected, no matter how tough, or how humbling. Truly committed to the idea that all should have their say. Supporters of a free press, one that tells us what we need to hear, not what we want.

Belong to a nation of citizens who look each other in the eye, as the equals we are. One where we know which values are primal. Law above power, always. Civilian authority above military strength.

How long has it taken the human race to arrive at our sorely incomplete and imbalanced understanding of democracy, such as it is? The answer is millenia, and we are still learning. Democracy is a set of complex ideas, developped by concerned humans, for other humans. A deep comprehension of that complexity requires a guiding hand. Its practice in a way that avoids the worst pitfalls demands both the knowledge and the experience of those who have gone before.

Democracy cannot be learned, understood or practiced simply by “looking it up”.

Noah Stevens is a Montreal poet, historian and educator. You can read his work at www.fromthepoetstable.com

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