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.
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.
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?