Home The Abutment Pillar Classical Liberty The Right to Ignore the State - Religious Liberty and Civil Liberty
The Right to Ignore the State - Religious Liberty and Civil Liberty
Written by Herbert Spencer   
Article Index
The Right to Ignore the State
Legislative Authority Can Never Be Ethical
The Only Legitimate Source of Power
The Immorality of Majority Rule
Representation versus Consent
Religious Liberty and Civil Liberty
Social Morality and Social Evolution
Footnotes and History
All Pages

Religious Liberty and Civil Liberty


There is a strange heterogeneity in our political faiths. Systems that have had their day, and are beginning here and there to let the daylight through, are patched with modern notions utterly unlike in quality and color; and men gravely display these systems, wear them, and walk about in them, quite unconscious of their grotesqueness.

This transition state of ours, partaking as it does equally of the past and the future, breeds hybrid theories exhibiting the oddest union of bygone despotism and coming freedom. Here are types of the old organization curiously disguised by germs of the new — peculiarities showing adaptation to a preceding state modified by rudiments that prophecy of something to come — making altogether so chaotic a mixture of relationships that there is no saying to what class these births of the age should be referred.

As ideas must of necessity bear the stamp of the time, it is useless to lament the contentment with which these incongruous beliefs are held. Otherwise it would seem unfortunate that men do not pursue to the end the trains of reasoning which have led to these partial modifications. In the present case, for example, consistency would force them to admit that, on other points besides the one just noticed, they hold opinions and use arguments in which the right to ignore the state is involved.

"Unless the right to ignore the state is recognized, its acts must be essentially criminal."

For what is the meaning of dissent? The time was when a man's faith and his mode of worship were as much determinable by law as his secular acts, and, according to provisions extant in our statute book, are so still. Thanks to the growth of a Protestant spirit, however, we have ignored the state in this matter — wholly in theory, and partly in practice. But how have we done so? By assuming an attitude which, if consistently maintained, implies a right to ignore the state entirely.

Observe the positions of the two parties:

"This is your creed," says the legislator; "you must believe and openly profess what is here set down for you."

"I shall not do anything of the kind," answers the nonconformist; "I will go to prison rather."

"Your religious ordinances," pursues the legislator, "shall be such as we have prescribed. You shall attend the churches we have endowed, and adopt the ceremonies used in them."

"Nothing shall induce me to do so," is the reply; "I altogether deny your power to dictate to me in such matters, and mean to resist to the uttermost."

"Lastly," adds the legislator, "we shall require you to pay such sums of money towards the support of these religious institutions, as we may see fit to ask."

"Not a farthing will you have from me," exclaims our sturdy Independent: "even did I believe in the doctrines of your church (which I do not), I should still rebel against your interference; and if you take my property, it shall be by force and under protest."

What now does this proceeding amount to when regarded in the abstract? It amounts to an assertion by the individual of the right to exercise one of his faculties — the religious sentiment — without let or hindrance, and with no limit save that set up by the equal claims of others.

And what is meant by ignoring the state? Simply an assertion of the right similarly to exercise all the faculties.

The one is just an expansion of the other, rests on the same footing with the other, must stand or fall with the other. Men do indeed speak of civil and religious liberty as different things, but the distinction is quite arbitrary. They are parts of the same whole and cannot philosophically be separated.

"Yes they can," interposes an objector; "assertion of the one is imperative as being a religious duty. The liberty to worship God in the way that seems to him right is a liberty without which a man cannot fulfill what he believes to be divine commands, and therefore conscience requires him to maintain it."

True enough; but how if the same can be asserted of all other liberty? How if maintenance of this also turns out to be a matter of conscience? Have we not seen that human happiness is the divine will, that only by exercising our faculties is this happiness obtainable, and that it is impossible to exercise them without freedom? And if this freedom for the exercise of faculties is a condition without which the divine will cannot be fulfilled, the preservation of it is, by our objector's own showing, a duty.

"Men do indeed speak of civil and religious liberty as different things, but the distinction is quite arbitrary."

Or, in other words, it appears not only that the maintenance of liberty of action may be a point of conscience, but that it ought to be one. And thus we are clearly shown that the claims to ignore the state in religious and in secular matters are in essence identical.

The other reason commonly assigned for nonconformity admits of similar treatment. Besides resisting state dictation in the abstract, the dissenter resists it from disapprobation of the doctrines taught. No legislative injunction will make him adopt what he considers an erroneous belief; and, bearing in mind his duty towards his fellow men, he refuses to help through the medium of his purse in disseminating this erroneous belief.

The position is perfectly intelligible. But it is one which either commits its adherents to civil nonconformity also, or leaves them in a dilemma. For why do they refuse to be instrumental in spreading error? Because error is adverse to human happiness. And on what ground is any piece of secular legislation disapproved? For the same reason: because thought adverse to human happiness. How then can it be shown that the state ought to be resisted in the one case and not in the other?

Will any one deliberately assert that if a government demands money from us to aid in teaching what we think will produce evil, we ought to refuse it, but that if the money is for the purpose of doing what we think will produce evil, we ought not to refuse it?

Yet, such is the hopeful proposition which those have to maintain who recognize the right to ignore the state in religious matters, but deny it in civil matters.

 



 
 

 

Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner