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)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Achieving a Permanent Change in Society

I’m now on Issue 34 of “The Voluntaryist.” That's not very far at all is it? This has been a slow-moving project, much slower than I imagined at first. I’m not sure what I was thinking because I certainly did not set a specific time as an endpoint goal, but still, I thought I would move faster.

When I read these newsletters, a mere 8 pages each, there is usually so much for me to consider, to ponder, to wrestle with, to argue with myself about, that I just can’t do this project very fast.

The problem, though, is that I’m also impatient. When I have a project on my plate, I want to get it done. When I have something on my “to do” list, I want to complete it as soon as possible and check that item off the list. And yet, if a project is worth doing, it’s worth taking the time to do it in the manner that works best for me.

And so it goes. I read, I write, I think, I take a break and I go back and do it all again. This project doesn’t have to ever be completed, that’s not the point of it anyway, the point is to learn and grow in my understanding of the ideas, theories and principles put forth in this newsletter and share my thoughts here. So I plod on.

And that brings me to the feature article in Issue 34, “Does Freedom Need to Be Organized?” In this article, Carl challenges Murray Rothbard’s chiding of individualist anarchists who are traveling the self-improvement route as the means to greater liberty for society as a whole. Rothbard thinks it’s more important to work and collaborate with people on issues of common agreement. He wants us to get out in the “real world” and get things done! Rothbard wants action!

Carl is adamant that the “quiet” process of self-education and self-improvement are key to the change we want to see:
“THE VOLUNTARYIST has consistently maintained that such virtues are the prerequisites to the achievement of spiritual freedom and physical liberty. Effective and long-lasting improvement in human affairs MUST begin with the individual. Reform begins with the individual because society is never better or worse than the persons who compose it, for they in fact are it.”
Yes, if we all learn to live responsibly and do not initiate violence upon others to satisfy our own wants and needs, then society will change as a natural result of the change in individuals. This is not really that hard to get. It’s a logical argument that surely makes sense to any libertarian-minded person and yet, it is often rejected as useless and ineffective. Why?

I think people just get depressed when thinking that real change can’t happen until the individuals in society change because they look out in the world and see that we have a long way to go. I can understand why people simply look for ways to make their own lives better NOW, like perhaps the repeal of an unjust law.

People want change NOW. They want to do something to pursue greater freedom NOW.

I have not always known exactly how to respond to this desire within myself and others, but in this article Carl makes a great point that changing the individual units of society is the only way to get PERMANENT change:
“The problem that we face is not really how to get rid of the State, but rather the longer range one of how to prevent another one from taking its place.”
That really hit home for me and this point does not even have to be thought of in the full-fledged terms of getting rid of the state to be useful. We can also think about permanent change even in terms of the hopes people have on an issue-by-issue basis when working to add a new law or repealing an old one.

I recently ran into an excellent example of this in regards to the currently very hot “right-to-work” issue in Indiana. I learned that this exact battle happened before. A right-to-work law was passed in the late 1950s and repealed in the mid 1960s. And now it’s all happening again. Has progress been made? Has any permanent change occurred?

No, and it’s because the individuals within the society have not changed. Until they do, these conflicts will be infinite. People think they’ve won when something is changed through political means; they don’t seem to understand (or admit to themselves) that if they “won” a change through the political game then their “opponents” can do the same.

Yes, it requires patience but if you truly want to change society permanently, then changing the individual units is the only way it’s going to happen.

(Photo courtesy of wikimedia)