Free Speech Martyrs in History III: The People, Research Time, 10/02/2017

Running through some lessons from the classics – John Stuart Mill.

Socrates made for a prime example to argue for freedom of speech because the subsequent history of Western philosophy has shown just how right he was. His principle that you should always probe and question the unquestioned dogmas of your society became a cornerstone of philosophy as a tradition and democracy as a value.

You can probably tell where I'm going to come down on the modern
question of what constitutes religious freedom.
In Mill’s own time, European Christianity was undergoing extreme turbulence. There were pressures to secularize society. The Vatican was straining to maintain its political control over the governments of Catholic-dominated countries around the continent. Protestant Churches were splitting faster than bacteria, frequently in violent schism.

So Mill spelled out a democratic solution to this religious turbulence – the principle that all people require freedom of opinion. This argument was centrally targeted as religious belief – each of us had to engage with the divine in our own way. It would be as unique to each person as their own identities.

But these principles – freedom to critique authority and custom, freedom of opinion and religion – faced one obstacle more powerful than any one person who disagreed. The state – the power and authority of government to enforce dogma and opinion with the police and military.

If it hadn’t been for the judgment of a state institution, Socrates would have continued annoying his neighbours. The medieval and modern history of Mill’s Europe was stained throughout with atrocities against people over religious opinion. Those atrocities were worst when one side in a religious battle controlled the arms of the state and the other side didn’t.

I feel like John Stuart Mill tends to be stereotyped really easily. I met
a few academic philosophers who called themselves "Millians" or
"utilitarians," but even these professors would discuss Mill's own
writing as if none of the complexity and difference that I find in
even a relatively straightforward work like On Liberty just isn't there.
Ask the Huguenots, for example. St Bartholomew’s Eve was one of the earliest massacres in Europe’s religious wars between Catholicism and its rebels. A massacre of thousands enabled by the Vatican and the French government.

Mill was correct that the government should never be entrusted with endorsing and enforcing any religion. It makes belief itself subject to police and military action. We make a big deal, having swallowed so much Orwellian language, about “thought crimes.”

But state enforcement of religious orthodoxy on its populations was the original thought crime. And it’s been everywhere. There are such religious enforcer governments today – Saudi Arabia to the greatest intensity, Iran with some gestures of tolerance and tolerance for mild dissent, and the creeping religious authoritarianism of Orthodox Christianity in imperialist Russia.

You don’t argue against a state that also enforces religious belief. Not if you know what’s good for you.

So that freedom of religious opinion so important to modern liberalism is always a freedom from the state enforcement of religion. It’s the refusal to follow religious authority – no matter how many or how few police departments they control – blindly, as a matter of obeying the state’s laws.

Vladimir Putin with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, both heads of
Russia's state institutions and government. Not constitutionally, but
culturally and politically.
Returning to this argument in the classics of liberalism shows how monstrous modern conservative talk of religious freedom is today. Their religious freedom is the freedom to discriminate – in business, hiring, any rights or responsibilities – against those your religious dogma declares the enemy.

Denying service to gays, Jews, or Muslims. Refusing to supply reproductive health coverage. And using the machinery of the state – the legal and police forces – to enforce the dogma that such denials of rights is proper.

Modern America’s fascism’s central weapon is an ironic mirroring. Call a law that enforces an oppressive religious opinion with courts and police the protection of freedom.

This is one reason why you revisit a classic icon of liberal thought like Mill in times like these. To show you how to see the world for what it is – not simply as it appears at first, inattentive, glance. Not just for what someone with an axe to grind says it is.

Now that you see it, what are you going to do about it?

1 comment:

  1. (As a side note:) Since the settlement of America in Jacobean times, American Christians have caught themselves in a contradiction between religious freedom from the (at that time Anglican) established religion and the desire to build a Christian America. Puritan New England was both the most religious socially and the most rebellious politically. By contrast the radical religious reformers of Scotland sought not general religious freedom but rather the establishment of the Presbyterian system. Cromwell and the English Puritans undermined that in England, and the later Charles and James undid it in Scotland. Nowadays, American Evangelicals desire complete freedom of worship and behaviour, while the far smaller number of neo-Calvinists and Reconstructionists wistfully wish for a rigid re-establishment.