Saturday, 24 September 2016

On religious and political tolerance

Today, I’m going to look at tolerance, particularly in the spheres of religion and politics. And I’m going to conclude that a world based on political and religious tolerance would be a far better place to live than today’s world of out of date, failing states and superstates.

This essay arose out of three recent posts at the Libertarian Alliance blog, all on or related to the subject of religious tolerance; by Keir Martland, Stephen Moriarty and Sean Gabb. For which, I thank all three; though I’m not replying specifically to any one of them.

My view on religion

I was brought up in a moderate Anglican household. But these days, I count myself an agnostic. It’s fair to say that I got there by a long and tortuous path. It all began (and I remember my mother’s surprise!) when, aged six, I asked if I could go to Sunday school. My motive, at the time, was curiosity; I wanted to find out what this religion stuff was all about. But as it turned out, this was a good strategic move. For it helped prepare me for the day, two years later, when I was sent to a boarding school whose headmaster was a clergyman, and where the Anglican atmosphere was far heavier than in the local church, or in my (C of E) primary school.

For several years, I was subjected to compulsory chapel – often twice a day. I wasn’t exactly a doubter, but I wasn’t an enthusiast of religion either. Then, a few days before my sixteenth birthday, came the moment that began my move away from religion. I was watching a TV programme, on which some pompously robed bishop was pontificating about “helping the poor.” And I remember thinking, “If you care so much about the poor, why don’t you get out of those silly robes, go out there and get helping them?” By three months later, the religion had simply leached out of me; it had ceased to mean anything to me. It was all part of growing up.

After I left academe, embarked on my career and acquired a modicum of worldly wisdom, I found my thinking becoming more aggressively atheist. I used to ask questions like, “If there’s a god, and he’s so wonderful, why doesn’t he put an end to all the evil in the world?” And, “why don’t we just ban religion altogether?”

At the age of 35, I was exposed for the first time to the ideas of liberty. The following year, I made my bicycle trip across North America. It’s a mode of transport which allows you plenty of time to think; and I used the opportunity to develop my philosophy in many directions. I found myself taking a new, more tolerant attitude to religion. It was at this time that I coined what I now call Neil’s First Precept of Religion: “If you let me have my religion (or lack of it), I’ll let you have yours.”

Being tolerant of others’ personal religion doesn’t, however, mean that I have much respect for institutional religion. My Third Precept, indeed, is a religious equivalent of Pauli’s Exclusion Principle: “If two individuals have exactly the same religion, one of them is surplus to requirements.” This reflects my distaste for the institutionalized conformity and mumbo-jumbo of the officially sanctioned religions. And I am utterly opposed to any attempts to constrain anyone’s religious beliefs – either for or against – using browbeating, threats or violence.

To summarize, broadly, my current views on religion. One, I don’t know whether or not a god exists, and I really don’t care either way. Two, Jesus seems to have been a decent man, who was murdered by the ruling class – like William Tyndale and Giordano Bruno. And the gospels are about as accurate and unbiased as mass media news reports. Three, I’m happy to tolerate in others whatever religion they wish, including Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, any branch of Christianity, atheism or even Pastafarianism, provided they extend the same courtesy to me. (And, of course, as long as it doesn’t lead them to commit aggressions against me or anyone else). Though I greatly prefer the religion to be their own, not someone else’s.


As to Christianity, I agree with those who say it isn’t a very nice religion. I did once, long ago, read the bible through cover to cover, and there’s lots of really nasty stuff in there. And church history is hardly unblemished; consider, for example, the Inquisitions.

Yet one of the worst things about Christianity, I find, is the hypocrisy it inspires. I mentioned earlier the bishop, who turned me away from his religion by failing to practise what he was preaching. That’s just a small example; but there are far bigger ones.

Consider, for example, three of the prime moral edicts of Christianity: “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” There are, of course, circumstances in which keeping to these rules can be wrong; for example, they can sometimes be broken in self defence. Nevertheless, if you’re setting out to construct a morality for civilized people in dealing with others of their kind, these three rules are a pretty good start. Yet many of those, who call themselves Christians, give their support to – or even take part in – gross violations of these rules. Aggressive wars, redistributory taxation and enviro lies and propaganda are cases in point.

Then there is the, to me crazy, doctrine of “original sin,” that tells us that we are “sinful” or “depraved,” at or even before birth. For me, those that make out that humans are naturally bad are merely projecting their own inner badness on to others.

Then there is the tendency of Christians to factional strife. Think, for example, of the Thirty Years’ War. Or the oppression of Catholics by Protestants, which lasted in England until the 19th century.

And further, there is the frequent hostility of Christians towards members of other religions. Jews have been victims of this for many centuries. And Muslims are the latest scapegoats du jour.

Religion and politics

Where there is religious intolerance, there is usually political intolerance too. The prime reason behind 17th century Anglican oppression of Catholics, for example, seems to have been that they were seen as agents of a foreign power, the pope. Other conflicts, which may appear at first sight to be sectarian, often have political roots. The troubles in Northern Ireland, from the 1960s on, are an example. Or the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, where nationalism and religion seem to have been crazily mixed up.

The Balkans also provide evidence that, absent political troubles, people of different religions can live peaceably together. In present day Albania, for example, it’s not uncommon for a single family to include Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox among its members.

Religious tolerance

So, what is religious tolerance? Simply put, tolerance is respect for others’ right to be different. And religious tolerance is the application of this respect to the practice, or not, of religion; to the inner life, if you will.

This tolerance can manifest itself in many ways. By recognizing others’ right to worship in their own way, in their place of choice, using their own icons and symbolisms, and in company with whomever they choose. By accepting their right to their own religious customs, such as not eating pork or drinking alcohol, or taking off their shoes for worship. By accepting their right to display their religion, if they wish, by means of their dress or their headgear, be it the burqa, the zucchetto, the turban or the colander.

But, most of all, tolerance in religion is allowing others not to follow particular religious rules and practices. For example, by allowing them to use version X of a religious book rather than version Y. By refraining from restricting their right to trade when they please. Or by allowing them to meet in the pub, drink beer and eat bacon butties, if that’s what they want to do.

All this, of course, is conditional on individuals keeping to basic rules of civilized behaviour. For example, they must refrain from aggression, fraud, deception, provocation and rights violations. And they must, in their turn, show tolerance towards those who show tolerance towards them.

Political tolerance

The phrase “political tolerance” seems, at first sight, an oxymoron. For politics, as it’s practised today, is institutionalized intolerance. A ruling class seeks to run everyone else’s lives. It does so by controlling the outdated, failing but still destructive institution that is the political state. And the state’s tools are violence, theft, lies and propaganda, rights violations and crony favouritism.

But let’s explore some possibilities. If political tolerance did exist, what would it be like? I think it would take the form of a general respect for others’ right to be politically different. Subject of course to keeping to the basic rules of civilized behaviour, it would allow people to live in their own way, to enjoy their own property, to use their own skills and abilities, to mind their own business, to trade and to live with whomever they choose. Political tolerance would be to the outer, public side of life what religious tolerance is to the inner, private side.

I’ll try to put a little more flesh on this idea. Individuals form political views in a number of different dimensions. They may, for example, prefer social liberalism to social conservatism. They may prefer a bottom-up, individualist way of life to a top-down, collectivist one. They may prefer capitalism to socialism. In race or religion, they may prefer tolerance to intolerance. They may prefer the seeking of truth to the repetition of politically correct lies. They may prefer peaceableness to warmongering. They may prefer objective, individual justice to the exploitation of some by others. They may prefer honesty and integrity to deceit and hypocrisy. They may prefer a global free market to a compartmentalized and controlled economic order. Political tolerance, then, if it existed, would be a willingness to let each individual select whereabouts in each of these dimensions he or she wants to be.

In a world based on political tolerance, someone who is individualist, capitalist, scrupulously honest, socially liberal and tolerant of difference – for example – would be free to associate and trade with like minded people. Such people would neither need nor want any dealings with those of the opposite persuasions. Collectivist, socialist, dishonest, intolerant social conservatives, on the other hand, could get together, form their own communities, and run them according to their own norms. They wouldn’t need to interact at all with the liberty lovers down the road.

Thus, a general atmosphere of political tolerance would lead, I expect, to a world something like Robert Nozick’s “utopia of utopias.” That would be a win for all good people. Wouldn’t it?

So, I think we liberty lovers might do well to focus on this ideal of political tolerance. Let’s look to develop it, and let’s seek ways to make it practical. Who knows where that might lead?

Friday, 2 September 2016

Alt-Right: A Reply to Jakub Jankowski

I confess that I find the Alt-Right ideas, put forward by Jakub Jankowski in his essay at, neither convincing nor positive.

Clearly, in some ways the Alt-Right are enemies of my enemies. Those currently in power in almost all Western societies – I’ll dub them the Ctrl-Left – are hostile to me and to everything I care about. Yet the Alt-Right aren’t much closer to my views and values. If I could pick a keystroke combination to represent my preferred way forward, it would be Shift+Up.

Now, there are some areas in which I can agree, at least in outline, with the Alt-Right view. To take a few from the introductory quotation: “Equality is bullshit.” Correct – if what is meant is equality of outcome. “The races are different.” Partly correct; there are cultural and genetic differences between races. But that shouldn’t affect the treatment of individuals of different races. “The sexes are different.” Correct. But again, that shouldn’t affect the treatment of individuals. “Morality matters.” Correct; some actions are right and some are wrong, and which is which is the same for everyone. “Degeneracy is real.” Correct; those with state power today do, and get away with, many things that are not only morally wrong, but also inhuman. “Civilization is precious.” Correct.

And I can agree with the Alt-Right’s rejection of feminism, and with the idea that democracy is doomed to fail. But I prefer James Bovard’s (or was it Ben Franklin’s?) two wolves and a sheep to Korwin-Mikke’s bum and intellectual.

Furthermore, I can agree that Trump is less evil than Clinton. If only because, as far as I’m aware, Trump doesn’t yet have the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands. And I enjoyed the description of our mutual enemies as “the Cathedral.”

All that said, on the evidence of this essay, I have serious reservations about Alt-Right. Most of all, that – assuming I’ve understood Jankowski correctly – the “new right,” of which it is a part, rejects Enlightenment principles.

What are “Enlightenment principles?” As it happens, I essayed a list of them in an article I published about 18 months ago [1]. Here it is:

”Reason and the pursuit of science. Toleration, particularly in religion. The idea that society exists for the individual, not the individual for society. The idea that human beings are naturally good. Freedom of thought and action. Natural rights and human dignity. Government for the benefit of the governed. Formal equality and the rule of law. A desire for progress, and a rational optimism for the future.”

No-one complained about my list at the time. Certainly no-one from Alt-Right, or its forebears, came in to tell me that I was wrong, and why.

So, do the Alt-Right denigrate the use of reason? Do they oppose the use of the scientific method? Are they intolerant, religiously or otherwise? Do they put something they call “society” above the individual? Do they think human beings are naturally bad? Do they want to constrain or destroy our freedoms? Do they respect the rights and dignity, which are natural to us? Do they think government should be for the benefit of the governed, or of the rulers? Do they think people should be morally equal, or otherwise said, equal before the law? That is, what is right for one to do, is right for another to do in similar circumstances, and vice versa? Do they want us human beings to move forward and upward?

Some of these questions, I can’t answer on the bare evidence of Jankowski’s essay. But others, I think I can. And the answers I reach are not good for Alt-Right.

“Man is a fallen creature,” says the introductory quotation. This reflects the religious idea of “original sin.” In other words, it says that humans are naturally bad. But I don’t accept this idea. What I say in reply is, if you think you’re “fallen,” take up thy bed and bloody well walk!

“Hierarchy is essential,” also says that quotation. I interpret this as a rejection of the ideas of moral equality and equality before the law. In that view, some – those in power, the hierarchy – should have moral privileges over others. They should be allowed to do things others aren’t allowed to do.

As to religious tolerance, Jankowski’s article promotes a traditional form of Catholicism. Do the Alt-Right want to impose their particular form of religion on others? I would remind American readers, at least, of the following words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

And the Alt-Right, despite its passing nod to Austrian economics, wants to destroy industrial society. It would amuse me, if it wasn’t so sad, that those that intone that we humans have “dominion over all the earth” (Genesis 1:28) also want to stop us putting our dominion into practice, and making the world a better place for ourselves.

Furthermore, it’s been clear to me, for years, that there isn’t much difference between the political right and left. Both want to enjoy power and riches they haven’t earned. But in the past, the right – the best of them, at least – have been content with that. The left, on the other hand, actively want to screw those they don’t like. That’s why the right have been, traditionally, less evil than the left.

But, according to Jankowski, the Alt-Right want to “return to more authoritarian forms of government.” That’s a red flag to me. And who will be the new oligarchy? Who, indeed? You’ve guessed it; the Alt-Right. And what, pray, would prevent them crossing over into Stalinist territory, so becoming the Alt-Left?

Their rejection of what they call “the belief in universal human rights” is also rather chilling. For human rights – like life, liberty, property, privacy – are for human beings. That is, for those who behave as human beings, by respecting others’ equal rights. And these rights are for all those who behave as human beings.

Finally, the Alt-Right tell us we should glorify white civilization; that is to say, European civilization. And correctly so. For the major legacies of white civilization are the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution which followed it.

Yes, it’s true that the Ctrl-Left have perverted our civilization into something all but unrecognizable. But the Alt-Right are almost as bad. Despite maintaining that civilization is precious, they are actually setting out their stall to destroy our civilization, along with our way of life and all its benefits.

Morons. Will they ever learn any lessons?