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)