A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Liberal Defence of Thought Police

Today while cooking I was listening to a Libertarianism.org podcast on the relationship between Christianity and Libertarianism. Doug Bandow was being interviewed on this topic, and he suggested that Christianity does not directly imply any particular political position, but that it does imply a certain set of values. He, of course, believes that libertarian policies would best promote these values. His argument was that there is very little in the Bible about politics*, and that rather than imposing Christian morality** upon others we are called to live our lives according to it and show its superiority to other lifestyles. He noted that salvation operates on an individual level, rather than at the level of the nation. He was highly sceptical of any attempt to force others to accept our views or morality.

Later on, I met with various other of the student-age members of my home church. We chatted for a while over tea and coffee, and then listened to a recording of a talk by the famously evangelical preacher Rico Tice. Tice is kind of like a public schoolboy evangelical Christian version of Peter Singer. One tidbit from the talk which particularly struck me was his interpretation of Romans 1:18-19 : "18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them." I had always assumed that this was aimed at unbelievers, being part of the "Christianity is obvious" schtick which I find deeply implausible; instead, Tice levelled this at Christians, charging that by failing to evangelise at every opportunity they are removing chances for people to repent and so avoid eternal hellfire. The structure of this is, providing you take the Bible to be true, remarkably similar to the drowning child analogy: replace "starving person in the third world" with "person who does not believe and trust in salvation through Jesus Christ and is therefore headed for eternal torment in hell", "giving up £200" with "facing intense social awkwardness", and you're basically there. Given that a Christian theocracy is unlikely to be achieved in the UK any time soon but that open atheists are increasingly politically prominent, Tice might perhaps agree with Bandow on prudential grounds that allowing the government to legislate religion is a bad idea in modern Britain; however, were that theocracy a real possibility, I doubt Tice would object to it. If more souls are being saved, he might argue, that outweighs any earthly considerations.

This leads me to wonder: suppose Christianity is true. Should liberals then object to people being compelled to believe it or act according to it? My suspicion is that while there would be a principled objection to compelling people to behave in a Christian fashion, this would not be the case for belief. Let me explain.

The basic message of Christianity, to be clear, is as follows:
God created the world and the people in it. These people sinned (that is, went against God's will). God cannot abide by this (as in, literally cannot - it is not just that He is unwilling) and so the punishment is to be cut off from God for all eternity after we die. But Jesus, the only son of God, came to this earth to teach God's word but more importantly to die as a sacrifice to bear the weight of the sin of all who believe. He died and was cut off from God - hence his final words, "Father, father, why have you forsaken me?" but returned after three days (I'm not entirely certain how the whole bearing-an-eternity-of-suffering-in-three-days thing works, but given that God is supposed to be timeless this is not something I see as a serious problem for Christianity) and went to heaven, and all who acknowledge that (a) they have sinned and (b) they can receive forgiveness through Christ, will indeed be forgiven and go to heaven - although not before an epic sky battle involving many-headed beasts and a star crashing into the earth and somehow only destroying a third of it. In heaven, the followers of Christ will experience eternal joy and perfect obedience to the word of God. There is also the Holy Spirit, a third part of God who will enter Christians while they are still on earth and will guide and strengthen them to be more like Jesus.

The key part of this is that salvation is completely binary. There is no "you almost made it into heaven, but you weren't quite good enough", there is only the simple question of whether you believed in Jesus and accepted him as your Lord. That alone determines your salvation.

This, then, gives no reason why people may (from a liberal perspective) be compelled to act in a Christian fashion. However, suppose it were possible to compel a person to genuinely believe. If this were done, then they would be saved eternal torment. And while liberalism is opposed to paternalism - in the words of John Stuart Mill, "The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over a member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others," - this is less like paternalism and more like Mill's Bridge case:

If either a public officer or any one else saw a person attempting to cross a bridge which had been ascertained to be unsafe, and there were no time to warn him of his danger, they might seize him and turn him back, without any real infringement of his liberty; for liberty consists in doing what one desires, and he does not desire to fall into the river. (On Liberty, chapter 5)

If a person believed that the Bible was basically true and decided to oppose this God for whatever reason, then a liberal would indeed be compelled to let them continue with this. But when the issue is one of having false beliefs which lead one to hell, liberals would not generally regard this as any kind of coercion - it would, in fact, be a rescue of sorts.

This does not mean, necessarily, that in the actual world Christians should be willing to brainwash people into believing. Quite apart from the potential for this to drive non-brainwashed people out of the church, in real life Christians should account for the possibility that they are wrong. But it ought perhaps to affect the way we think about freedom of religion. If we are truly confident, due to epistemologically rational processes, in the truth of a particular religion (for the record, I'm not and I suspect that 99%+ of people who think they are, aren't), then it is far from clear that we should shy away from attempting to convince people by any means necessary. The most obvious ways of doing this would be through control of schools and through censorship of alternative viewpoints.

(For that matter, is this strictly relevant only to religious beliefs? One could by this doctrine defend forcible medical operations upon people with silly opinions about medicine, forcible taxation of people who mistakenly advocate political anarchism, attaching chastity belts to teenagers who are being pressured to have sex by their peers and boyfriends/girlfriends.)

* I don't know that I agree, by the way. There are many passages with obvious political implications - not only the obvious ones like "Render unto Caesar" but also the origin of the Israeli monarchy, which was directly contrary to God's will; various passages in Proverbs (10:4 : "Being lazy will make you poor, but hard work will make you rich"; 10:22 : "It is the Lord's blessing that makes you wealthy. Hard work can make you no richer" ; 16:12 : "Kings cannot tolerate evil, because justice is what makes a government strong."); the behaviour of Daniel and his companions while in the service of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon is a clear example of civil disobedience; and the entire book of Nehemiah, which was written by the governor of the Jews while under Persian occupation and discusses his travails in getting the city of Jerusalem rebuilt.

** I suspect this phrase, "Christian morality", to be at best a flawed way of describing what we mean, for reasons which should be explained in an upcoming post, but it will do well enough for now as a way of communicating the idea of living according to the precepts laid down in the Bible.

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