23 November 2013

A Priestley Argument for Religious Liberty

In 1768 Joseph Priestley wrote about toleration in England. His work in An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty concerned the tolerant English attitude to religious beliefs whether mainstream or minority. This post analyses Section V, 'Of Religious Liberty, and Toleration in General'.


1. Priestley's Material

Priestley refers to several sources. He writes favourably of Medieval Eastern governments under which Muslims, Christians, and other denominations lived peaceably together. Pointing also to Spain and Italy, Priestley argues that English religious toleration caused there to be less English dissidents, historically, than Spanish or Italian.

That is, Priestley hints that the inquisition-data shows more non-Christians in Spain and Italy than English statistics in England. His evidence suggests that a reluctance to accept deviation results in more of it, and in more extreme forms. This may, however, be due to the inquisition's distorting use of torture--likely to produce innocent confessors--and English nonchalence towards difference.

2. 21st Century Problems

Priestley asks whether judges ('civil magistrates') should determine 'matters of religion'. In answering, he refers to criminals and suggests that an accused's beliefs are irrelevant to conviction or acquittal. While true, it is unhelpful when the law protects religion itself--or, rather, individuals' rights to be religious and express their faith.

When law protects religion, individuals' beliefs become relevant. Those individuals should not be excused from liability by their religion's virtues, but judges must surely accommodate beliefs when religious liberty is scrutinised. When legal scenarios raise issues pertinent to individuals' religious beliefs, excluding religious considerations from judgments seems contrary to logic.

Priestley is therefore correct in his affirmation relating to equality under the law. For his views to be relevant today, however, some reflection and adaption may be necessary. This idea of equality under the law may be the best part of Priestley's essay. The next section expands on this idea.

3. Equality Requires Visibility

3.1 Equality of Persons and Groups

There is a strong argument in Priestley's assessment: political ideology that opposes toleration is counter-productive to successful law-making and -application. Priestley compares European countries against each other. He concludes the most tolerant nations are mostly unaffected by religion's insidious aspects (notwithstanding, his personal religious beliefs exclude him from saying this explicitly).

He appears to attribute this to transparency: if religious groups feel included, they practice openly, and so do not turn to extremes. Moreover, he claims, England benefitted from welcoming non-Christians when expelled from elsewhere in Europe.
Persecuted industrious people[] (…) repaid us for our kindness, by (…) introduc[ing] (…) many useful arts and manufactures[:] (…) the foundation of our present commerce, riches, and power.
When everyone is free under law to act in accordance with favourable commercial practices, the whole nation prospers.

3.2 Equality of Ideas

In a similar sense, and to appear balanced in his opinions, Priestley discusses an author whose ideas conflict with his identity. Dr Brown, he exposits, argues against God's existence in Code of Education. Priestley would 'exterminate' (if not Dr Brown, then at least) his ideas from the public realm.

Rather than accede to his desires, Priestley argues that even Dr Brown--who so criticises his beliefs--should be free to express any idea. The reasons Priestley gave for Dr Brown's free expression may coincide with a similar public sentiment today. However apposite Priestley's words, though, the majority sentiment today may rely on the same argument but argue for an opposing position:
let [Dr Brown], by all means, be encouraged in making his sentiments public; both that their dangerous tendency, and their futility may more clearly appear.

The arguments for toleration, as Priestley's words show, equally support ideas from contrasting political spectrums. Priestley's whole argument is therefore not wholly applicable today. His underlying theme is, though: toleration is important for several reasons, and individuals should tolerate those with conflicting beliefs.

4. Toleration to Acceptance

Toleration may be admirable when exposited to accommodate archenemies. But most of the time the word 'toleration' is used, it refers to non-extreme people whose only fault is a different belief. 'Toleration' suggests those faults are unacceptable. Priestley seems to miss this in his discussion.

Whatever the arguments, law should encourage acceptance rather than tolerance. Religion is irrational according to the atheist (scientific) view. But religion persists, and so do its adherents. Accepting the religious viewpoint in secular discussions, rather than tolerating it, would encourage a more fruitful dialogue.

So long as the religious are only tolerated, there will be claims against their irrationality. Learning to accept faith as part of the religious identity, however, may allow departure from that incommensurable irrationality. That is, unless you aim to convert everyone who disagrees with you, it makes sense to accept their differences, and begin policy justifications with principles agreeable to both sides. Once both sides feel accepted, disagreements will surely arise. But if acceptance, not toleration, is key, at least the vocabulary will be civil.

5. Conclusion

Priestley discusses many sources in his essay. But, perhaps due to the demands of his era, he presents little evidence to support his claims--at least within the analysed section. This is mainly unproblematic because the evidence he relies upon seems axiomatic and retaliatory to other contemporaries.

Even if his sources are deemed 'common-knowledge', interested students may benefit from criticising his every premise before applying his conclusions. Nevertheless, his work is easy to read and entertaining in places.

I end with some rhetoric: would you rather be tolerated or accepted?


Created: 23 November 2013. Version 1.0.





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