Today, LibertyGibbert will look at the rôle of religion in an increasingly secular society, and question how religious faith can potentially add to, and conversely how institutionalized religion has so often subtracted from, the liberty of the individual.
In an article last year on religious tolerance in France I made some very sweeping statements about organised religion in general. Looking back at them now, I realize that saying something like that without qualification may have given the impression that I reject all religious faith out of hand, which is certainly not the case. So today, we are going to begin to explore in some depth, the place of religion in a free society.
Unfortunately, as I started to sketch out an essay on this topic some months ago, I quickly came to see that it was far too broad a subject to be encompassed within a single blog thread. So today’s article is simply in the way of an introduction and conversation-starter to a series on Libertarianism and religion which I will be writing over the next few months. I am going to focus on particular religions (and yes, there will be at least one thread dedicated to the impact of Islamic migration to the West), as well as issues (abortion, which we’ve already covered, being a good example) in which religious observance and public policy come into conflict.
I was spurred on to clarify LibertyGibbert’s position on the issue by an online exchange which occurred at Easter this year at the DT blog, between myself and Oppugner. He didn’t really believe a sensible online discussion of religion could be held, and despaired of the ignorance and prejudice he saw around him on the subject, even from blog commenters who were on the same side on other issues. So OP, this one’s for you—I hope this series will prove otherwise.
Where to even begin? Generally, we start these topics with an historical overview; but in the case of religion, that’s a whopper, as it traverses the entire course of human history since language was invented. Any number of excellent books chart the rise of religion throughout history; but in a nutshell, religion began as a construct of primitive society, which had two major aims: firstly, to provide an explanation of the physical world, and secondly, to provide the framework of an external, a priori moral code by which people could live and prosper sustainably, without resorting to violence to resolve even the most minor disputes—the first attempt at societal co-operation, or even (depending on your viewpoint), collectivism. These two basic aims of religion continued in parallel, and for millenia, until the Renaissance and the rise of science, the two did not come into conflict.
To explain the physical world in the absence of the scientific method, religion invoked deities of varying numbers, powers and spheres of influence. As a general rule, the more primitive the culture, the more gods were required to deliver a satisfactory explanation. A wind god, a rain god, a thunder god, a sun god, and so on. The multiplicity of deities was required because, to the primitive observer, all these physical forces appeared to be in conflict, and could only be explained by positing separate deities, at cross purposes, and with circumscribed powers. As the understanding of the physical world grew, in particular the ability to predict the movements of celestial bodies and agricultural calendars, the number of gods required shrank, and their power was correspondingly increased, until about four thousand years ago, came the rise of the monotheistic religion worshipping a single, omnipotent God.
The dispassionate observation and scientific process of explaining the physical world more or less came to a halt by the time of Aristotle, after which the body of natural knowledge was regarded as “settled science”, being sufficient for most purposes of explanation, and lay dormant—in the West, at least—for over 1,500 years. More on this side of religion later.
The second aim of religion, the description of a moral and ethical framework to which all men must subscribe, was also heavily influenced by Aristotle. In his most widely-read work, Nicomachean Ethics, he advocates an honest enquiry into the nature of virtue itself, extolling the virtue of a “moral” upbringing and a logical progression from that which is known, to the Good, as an end in itself:
Let us not fail to notice, however, that there is a difference between arguments from and those to the first principles. For Plato, too, was right in raising this question and asking, as he used to do, ‘are we on the way from or to the first principles?’ There is a difference, as there is in a race-course between the course from the judges to the turning-point and the way back. For, while we must begin with what is known, things are objects of knowledge in two senses — some to us, some without qualification. Presumably, then, we must begin with things known to us. Hence any one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just, and generally, about the subjects of political science must have been brought up in good habits. For the fact is the starting-point, and if this is sufficiently plain to him, he will not at the start need the reason as well; and the man who has been well brought up has or can easily get starting points.
Aristotelian ethics provided much of the basis of the work of subsequent Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholarship of Maimonidies, Thomas Aquinas and Averroes respectively, all of who championed Aristotle’s approach to ethics (and invariably in the teeth of opposition) and sought to incorporate it into the magisteria of their own faiths. It is in these that our present-day Common Law is rooted.
How does any of this relate to Libertarianism? The fundamental problem of a general ethical framework resting on the existence of a supreme deity and a moral code handed down from Him, is the issue of ownership of self; the major monotheistic religions all contend that we do not own ourselves at all, indeed we are the creations of—and wholly-owned chattels of—God, who, while He does not actually prevent us from living lives those faiths teach us are wicked, immoral or unjust, will however subsequently seek retribution in a future life beyond the grave. To the Libertarian, it is enough that his neighbour’s actions do not impact adversely on his own life; similarly, he takes care to minimize any negative “footprint” of his own.
Live and let live, however, is anathema for the adherent to one of the evangelistic religions (I exclude Judaism here, whose membership is largely racially-based and does not seek converts); to the evangelist, there are souls to be saved, and God’s final judgement of him will rest to some extent on the degree of his success in proselytizing. In other words, it is not enough to live and let live for, to him, he is on a mission to rescue the wicked from eternal perdition. The “noble-cause corruption” that has sprung from this belief over the centuries is, I’m sure, too well-known to all of you to need further illustration in this thread.
Of course, most western Christians today (and in my personal experience, most Muslims as well) are, by nature and habituation, peaceful, tolerant and liberal people who would no doubt claim that their faiths, in their modern incarnation, are mis-characterized when compared to the models of a past they have long disowned. That is fine, as far as it goes; in fact, Libertarianism at all times upholds freedom of worship. The problem is, as I shall demonstrate in upcoming threads, that an interpretation of traditional faiths which seeks tolerance and inclusion at every turn, not only has watered down the robust, Aristotelian first principles of that faith, but has opened the way for any number of trojan horses to enter their citadel, whose outward appearance bespeaks of love and acceptance, but hides an agenda of corruption, usurpation and death. More often than not, it is the fundamentalist who speaks the true message of that faith; it is possibly up to the good, liberal members of the flock to demonstrate the contrast, and to hoist the firebrand on his own petard.
I’m also going to demonstrate how, paradoxically, on countless occasions throughout history, the Church has been the only force championing Liberty, so far as its theology has permitted; when, in a sea of brutality and death, it was the faithful alone who stood for the dignity of the individual, against the oppressive forces of totalitarianism, which regard men as mere tools of some supposedly “higher” end. From the heroic efforts of the Fathers of the Church in the first and second centuries A.D., to the day in 1979 when the entire might of the Soviet Union was reduced to a quivering jelly before the sheer moral force of one man, I intend to illustrate how, in fact, the church has also aided and defended the cause of Liberty. Those who read this series wishing to draw neat, one-dimensional conclusions about religion and its place in society are doomed to disappointment, I’m afraid.
In fact, given the charitable work the Church performs, both in the West and in the developing world—hospitals, schools, orphanages, clinics, sanatoria and hospices for the dying, most of which would have never existed if simply left up to government or private philanthropy—you will find me wondering aloud whether, in fact, the special-case laws granting tax-exempt status to religious organizations running such facilities are in fact no more than a just quid pro quo for the invaluable work they perform in the community. If you read no further than the mainstream media, you could be forgiven for believing that all such places were nothing more than hotbeds of physical and sexual abuse, set up by a decadent priesthood for whom the ministration to the homeless, sick and dying was only a secondary consideration. In truth, the overwhelming majority of religious and lay personnel who worked in such places did so out of a deep and unwavering commitment to their faith, to say nothing of their own simple humanity. The extent to which religion can also represent an ongoing force for good in a truly liberal society, is a topic I intend to visit on a number of occasions.
Then there is the issue of the decline of mainstream religion in modern secular society, and the law of unintended consequences. Is this decline a uniformly good thing? Has it, in fact, created a moral and spiritual vacuum which eager new players in the religious marketplace are rushing to fill? Players whose agendas we are only now beginning to understand? Recent best-selling works such as Christopher Hitchens’ spittle-flecked God Is Not Great, and Richard Dawkins’ humourless polemic The God Delusion, champion a new evangelical atheism, one which is not content to leave the faithful to their beliefs, but which actively seeks converts to their own world view? Once people relinquish the faith that their societies have espoused for centuries, is the real problem, not so much that they will believe in nothing, but that they will believe anything? The recent environment-based cults, New-Age doctrines, Raëlism and Scientology would seem to suggest this is the case. Lacking any coherent moral philosophy, these movements tend to centre instead around the whims of their founders or leaders, as we have witnessed in the extremist, personality-based pseudo-Christian sects started by hucksters like Jim Jones and David Koresh. In fact, the next President of the United States may well be a man who believes the inspired word of God was dictated in 1827 to a petty grifter from New York State, from a pair of golden plates which promptly vanished before anyone else could read them. Good luck with that; but if he really believes this, what Executive Orders might he be minded to sign into law?
That’s probably enough for starters; I hope at least it gives you the flavour of where I intend to go from here. In the next thread in this series, I’ll be focussing on the faith in which I myself was raised, and the only one about which I am qualified, however slenderly, to write. Meantime, how do you see the place of religion in a liberal society? As a private means towards spiritual fulfilment, few could find quarrel with it. Yet given that our own laws are derived, however indirectly, from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and before that from Greek philosophy, it begs the question, if ethics really are external to man, to what extent may the Church today claim the right to involve itself in the making of laws that affect all citizens, whether or not they may subscribe to any religious faith, or none at all?