Friday, January 27, 2012

Religion and Voluntaryism


In the article from Issue 34 titled, “The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the Voluntaryist Tradition,” Carl Watner discusses the arguments made for religious voluntaryism and points out that those same arguments apply to voluntaryism in all aspects of our lives.

I understand the angle taken here, but something about the conclusions drawn bother me.

First, let’s get oriented as to what Watner is saying in this article. Here’s an excerpt discussing Edward Miall, who helped form the British Anti-State-Church Association:
“Edward Miall, a leading dissenter, was the guiding light behind this organization for many years. As editor of THE NONCONFORMIST, Miall roused many Baptist and Congregationalists to attack the root from which their grievances sprang. He argued that the State should accord no special position to one church. Disestablishment became his cry. Miall elaborated a whole political theory, voluntaryism, on the basis that religion should always be supported by voluntary giving and not by State aid. The voluntaryists taught that no acceptable or effectual service could be rendered in the spiritual realm which did not first rest on individual conviction and individual conscience. Coerced support for the State church was not only a violation of conscience but also resulted in a weakened church. (Apparently, neither Miall nor any of the other leading voluntaryists attacked the church rates on the ground that it constituted an unjust confiscation of property.)

Carl goes on to explain that
“It was in the United States that the voluntaryist tradition was most widely recognized, even though not always put into consistent practice. The "voluntary principle " in religion became an axiom for nearly all Americans. This formed the underlying basis for separation of Church and State in the United States.

Finally, Carl ends the piece with this:

“The voluntary system did not lead to the decay of religion or morality or to the host of evils which all defenders of the established order predicted.

There is a clear parallel between the predictions of those who opposed disestablishment in Connecticut and those who cannot believe that an all voluntary society could exist today, neither group could believe that the spontaneous order in the religious market place or the commercial market place would provide any sort of natural order. If nothing else, the historical case in Connecticut proves them wrong.

The lack of a compulsory, coercive authority in both religious and commercial organizations does not lessen their authority, but in fact increases it (however paradoxical this may appear). Precisely because such voluntary groups of people lack the coercive authority of a government, they are obliged to direct their efforts to establish a powerful moral authority over those whom they would exert an influence. There is simply no other legitimate way to deal with people. They are either voluntarily persuaded to take a course of action or they are compelled to do so through the use of force. Authority voluntarily accepted is far stronger and a more powerful factor than violence can ever be. To understand and come to an appreciation of this paradox would seem to be a valuable lesson to be learned from an examination of the struggle for religious freedom in the voluntaryist tradition.

Okay, so I can understand the point that intellectual progress was made as religious groups worked to break free from government control. But what I’m not sure about is whether their argument for voluntaryism really applied to what they were actually doing inside their religious organizations.

Yes, they threw out the government gun because they wanted the freedom to grow their own brands of religion, but it seems to me they were comfortable doing so because they had developed a very effective foundation using another gun, at least in the supernatural, mythical metaphorical sense because they relied on the belief that there is another life after death. They relied on the idea of a supernatural authority who could threaten “eternal death” if a person did not obey the religious precepts and thereby the commands of the religious leader, who was merely an agent for the supernatural authority.

Isn’t this also a threat of violence? Is it fair to say they were willing to give up the government gun because they had in their possession this metaphorical gun? Plus they were very aware of the need to pound unproven conclusions like an afterlife into the minds of very young children, when they are most vulnerable and unable to reason through and analyze any arguments given in support of the premise.

If this is how you operate, you don’t really need a government to control people do you?

The good news, pun intended, is that the move towards religious anarchy may have been a step towards society moving away from a reliance on the supernatural. Now that access to information outside of the religious views of family origin is more widely available, religion, or at least organized religion, seems to be changing. People shop around more, trying to find the right one that fits.

So maybe religious anarchy was a good thing, but it doesn’t appear that the conclusions Carl makes match what we see now, at least as far as religious decay is concerned. Then again, perhaps I see it differently because so much has changed since Carl wrote this. There has been a bit of an explosion in alternative ideas and the public viewpoint of the non-believer has certainly skyrocketed since this issue was published in 1988.

So to me, Carl’s conclusion may be incorrect; it appears that religious anarchy might just do what they feared in that more people may be moving towards reason and logic, leading many to conclude a lack of evidence to support many religious premises.

However, the main problem I see now, and it’s ironic, is that most of the people who identify as non-believers, or who are spiritual but reject organized religion, have seemed to replace a worship of a supernatural deity to a worship of the state.

So Carl’s conclusion that disassociation with government led to religious peace may not be quite accurate either because it appears the various religions (and I’ll call the non-believers who want a centralized controlling state a religion) are still battling for control of the government gun.

I suppose the problem we really need to solve is how to arrive at a set of guiding principles to live by that do not rely on a coercive authority run by a small group of people, whether it’s religion or the state.

(Image courtesy Wikimedia)

11 comments:

MamaLiberty said...

"I suppose the problem we really need to solve is how to arrive at a set of guiding principles to live by that do not rely on a coercive authority run by a small group of people, whether it’s religion or the state."

And those are already well established. The key, as far as I can see, is to convey them intact, in their simplicity, rather than get bogged down in details.

Individual sovereignty and personal responsibility for one's life and safety include:

1. No human being has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, nor to delegate such initiation of force.

2. Every human being has the absolute right to defend themselves from such initiation of force, by whatever means is necessary.

3.Absolute right of voluntary association, private property, self determination (as in drugs, etc.).

Debbie H. said...

Okay so Mama, here's the question, when you say 'no human being has the right...' where does that right come from? How does it originate?

MamaLiberty said...

I use the word "right" for the sake of simplicity. It's a large and complex discussion all by itself.

We can plug in a lot of other words,
Inherent, perhaps.

Every single living thing on the planet has some inherent drive to defend itself, however weakly or poorly it does so. The instinct to fight and survive is as basic to life as oxygen or light.

I think that is the basis, myself, though there are many other ideas.

With that as the basis, intelligent and self aware beings realize that their own best option to survive and thrive is to cooperate and not damage others unless they are attacked.

If you think about it, this is actually the norm among people, especially the more rational and intelligent. The exceptions ARE the exception.

You asked for "...a set of guiding principles to live by that do not rely on a coercive authority..."

I gave the guidelines I live by.

It is up to the rational, intelligent people of this world to stop allowing the coercion and theft of that minority which would gladly consume us all.

If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Debbie H. said...

Thanks Mama. I'm always interested in how others might communicate the basis for principles in a manner that most (sane!) people would accept as true.

Jim Wetzel said...

"Yes, they threw out the government gun because they wanted the freedom to grow their own brands of religion, but it seems to me they were comfortable doing so because they had developed a very effective foundation using another gun, at least in the supernatural, mythical metaphorical sense because they relied on the belief that there is another life after death. They relied on the idea of a supernatural authority who could threaten “eternal death” if a person did not obey the religious precepts and thereby the commands of the religious leader, who was merely an agent for the supernatural authority.

Isn’t this also a threat of violence? Is it fair to say they were willing to give up the government gun because they had in their possession this metaphorical gun? Plus they were very aware of the need to pound unproven conclusions like an afterlife into the minds of very young children, when they are most vulnerable and unable to reason through and analyze any arguments given in support of the premise.

If this is how you operate, you don’t really need a government to control people do you?"


Debbie, this analysis seems to me to assume a couple of things: first, that "supernatural" and "religious" ideas are, a priori, false; and secondly, that those espousing such ideas know them to be false, and are astutely using them in order to control others. It could be that one or both of these assumptions is or are not correct.

You characterize the idea of an afterlife as an "unproven conclusion," and I agree: it is unproven, and very possibly unprovable in principle. That coin, however, has two sides: the no-afterlife, no-God, materialist, rational view of things is also (as far as I know) unproven, and may equally be unprovable in principle.

In any case, I'd suggest that the search for truth -- if anyone's interested in finding such a thing -- is probably not advanced effectively by gratuitously attributing bad motivations to everyone who says something that you disagree with. Some people who say things that are false may not be villains; they could simply be mistaken. Or ... perhaps ... you might be mistaken. All possibilities are to be taken into account.

Debbie H. said...

Okay Jim I'll have to ponder your point about my automatically attributing bad motivations and a villainous nature to these folks. Perhaps that was not fair.

I suppose what really bothers me about it is that the fear of bad things happening after you die is put into young children and so it can get very, very, deeply ingrained, before they have a chance to really think it through for themselves.

I agree that whether there is an afterlife or whether there isn't are both unprovable, but the problem for me I suppose is that if they are two sides of the same coin - if it's just as valid to say that there is an afterlife than to say that there is not, doesn't that mean that anyone can propose any type of afterlife with no regard for empirical evidence at all?

If so, then that would not be a problem I guess, as long as no one tried to control other people here on Earth based on those beliefs.

Oh and for the record, you might be interested to know that Carl disagrees with me and thought I took my analogy too far.

Jim Wetzel said...

Debbie, for my part, I don't mean to imply that believers in general or Christians in particular -- the only subcategory in which I know many people -- are especially well-motivated. I don't suppose that a priest who would sodomize altar boys would hesitate to control people by any means available, and they certainly exist. The church is, I think, infested with control freaks at a rate similar to the population at large, much to its shame.

It is surely true that people who raise children should do so carefully, because children are more susceptible to being taught falsehoods than older people. (Although, considering the success with which alleged adults are advertised to by those who sell any number of ludicrous products, from erection pills to political candidates, I have to wonder just how much more susceptible children really are.) It seems to me that everyone gives his or her children a sort of "religious education," whether intentionally or not. In my own case, my parents were atheists (or close enough for any practical purpose), and practical atheism was ingrained in me until I'd thought things through for myself, which was in my early thirties -- I'm slow. Did you teach your children to be truthful, and gentle with other people, and respectful of their property? I'm betting that you did, and that you weren't concerned about whether you were deeply ingraining these things in them before they were old enough to decide for themselves whether they were really valid. I have students right now: they're people in their twenties to whom I'm trying to teach some physics, and they're pretty resistant to much of what I try to convince them of: prominently, that when they divide both sides of an equation by some quantity, and one side of the equation is in multiple terms, they're obliged to so divide each and every one of those terms ... not just the ones that are easy to divide. And I'll admit that I use fear in my attempts at indoctrination: the fear of a poor score, which doesn't seem to be such a powerful fear as one might think, by the way. But I digress. What I'm trying to say is that a teacher who loves his or her pupil -- and a parent is, we hope, such a teacher -- tries to convince him of the truth of what the teacher believes to be true. A teacher who teaches what he thinks to be false, or who doesn't care whether it's true or false, is a propagandist; and a teacher who tries to be neutral or impartial between what he thinks true and what he thinks false is ... well, very unusual.

Jim Wetzel said...

(continued from the last comment -- too long to be accepted as a single comment)

Turning to the Voluntaryist article on which you originally commented, I certainly found it both interesting and valuable. I have no idea what Mr. Watner's religious position might be; but when we writes, in his final paragraph, "The lack of a compulsive, coercive authority in both religious and commercial organizations does not lessen their authority, but in fact increases it (however paradoxical this may appear)," I was hearing the resonance of 2 Corinthians 12:9-10: "And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong." The dictionary does not bear me out, but for myself, I would draw a sharp, bright line between the ideas of "power" and "authority." To me, authority means that I should respect or obey someone because the proper order of things requires it; power, on the other hand, cannot legitimately command respect or obedience. For example, when a frail 95-year-old woman approaches a door, leaning on her cane, and bids me open it for her, she speaks with authority, even though she completely lacks power; and I hope I will be quick indeed to get that door open for her. By contrast, a bucket-helmeted thug cop, with tasers and firearms hanging all over him, snarling out orders, may have plenty of power, but he lacks any shred of legitimate authority; in the proper order of things, we should simply laugh at him and flip him off. It seems to me that very rarely does one see a person have both legitimate authority and power; usually, they are more or less opposite.

This has gotten long (obviously!), for which I apologize, and I do thank you for sharing your views, and allowing me to do likewise.

Debbie H. said...

"This has gotten long (obviously!), for which I apologize, and I do thank you for sharing your views, and allowing me to do likewise."

No problem Jim, I always enjoy reading your thoughtful responses.

One comment: when you explain your teaching of physics, you are making the point I'm trying to make which is that there are indeed things that we know to be true due to basic principles like logic. The truth within physics is not YOUR truth, they are conclusive universal truths based on sound reasoning, logic and empirical evidence.

So, when someone tries to pass on a preference or an opinion as a verifiable truth, then that's when problems can occur. That's all I'm saying I guess.

Ned Netterville said...

Debbie, Upon reading your thoughts I was going to comment, but Jim Wetzel beat me to it. I think you damage the Voluntaryist principle by equating moral persuasion, even under the threat of eternal damnation, with real, physical compulsion. And your defense (viz., your logic), to wit: "I suppose what really bothers me about it is that the fear of bad things happening after you die is put into young children and so it can get very, very, deeply ingrained, before they have a chance to really think it through for themselves..." is no defense viz., it is illogical) at all. For what you say of (possibly false) beliefs imposed (but not forced) by some religions on young, impressionable minds could equally be said about any (the many) false principles and philosophies imposed by parents, schools, etc., upon children, which they are required to overcome as they mature--or live with the consequences. The almighty State, of course, does much greater damage in its government schools to young minds than any religion does--and it does so by force (viz., compulsory school attendance.) And I think you should read Acquinas' SUMMA THEOLIGICA when you have a few spare moments if you think religious beliefs--I would prefer to say spiritual beliefs, but you do seem to distinguish, whereas I am inclined to equate the two in the context of this discussion only--are less logical than scientific "beliefs."

While I agree with most everything JIM WETZEL has written here, I do want to question one thing he has written, to wit:

"To me, authority means that I should respect or obey someone because the proper order of things requires it; power, on the other hand, cannot legitimately command respect or obedience. For example, when a frail 95-year-old woman approaches a door, leaning on her cane, and bids me open it for her, she speaks with authority, even though she completely lacks power; and I hope I will be quick indeed to get that door open for her. By contrast, a bucket-helmeted thug cop, with tasers and firearms hanging all over him, snarling out orders, may have plenty of power, but he lacks any shred of legitimate authority; in the proper order of things, we should simply laugh at him and flip him off. It seems to me that very rarely does one see a person have both legitimate authority and power; usually, they are more or less opposite."

Jim, the one point I want to make, and it may be just semantics, is that the old gal has "authority," not because "the proper order of things requires it." She only has authority over you because you voluntarily concede it to her. In other words, there is and can be no such thing as legitimate authority of one human being over another unless the subject person concedes it. In this regard I am parroting Larken Rose's take on the matter of authority in his lovely little book, THE MOST DANGEROUS SUPERSTITION.

Debbie H. said...

Thanks for your thoughts Ned. I agree completely with what you said here:

"For what you say of (possibly false) beliefs imposed (but not forced) by some religions on young, impressionable minds could equally be said about any (the many) false principles and philosophies imposed by parents, schools, etc., upon children, which they are required to overcome as they mature--or live with the consequences."

I agree completely and I would certainly not want those things being taught to children either. I like the idea I've heard lately that we should not teach children conclusions, but rather, teach them how to think.