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Sep 18, 2015

Freethought and Freedom: Early Christianity and the Modern Libertarian Movement

Does the modern libertarian movement have any significant similarities to the early Christian movement? Smith explores this intriguing possibility.

In my last essay I explained the traditional Christian theory of private property. According to every Church Father and most Christian theologians during the Middle Ages, common property was the original social condition of humankind, before Adam’s Fall into sin. Prelapsarian man was not corrupted by the evil tendencies of avarice, violence, and the lust for power and domination over others. Only when these impulses, which resulted from original sin, became interwoven into the nature of postlapsarian man did the institutions of private property, government, and slavery become necessary as a punishment and remedy for sin. These institutions were specifically mandated by God as means to hold the evil tendencies of a degenerate human nature in check; they were necessary preconditions of social order.

As I have repeatedly noted, private property was not the only institution that resulted from original sin. Also included in the standard account were government and slavery. It is fairly easy to understand how government fits into the abstract scheme of prelapsarian versus postlapsarian man. More difficult to understand is how slavery was justified as part of the theory of original sin. This topic requires more space and attention to details than I can give it here, so a more nuanced account must await my future series on “Slavery and Self-Ownership.” In this essay I shall dance around the topic, in an effort to make a more general point, without addressing the problem of slavery directly.

In discussing the Christian defense of slavery and other atrocities, we are embarking on a controversial topic, one that may offend the sensibilities of those conservatives who insist that America’s freedom was founded on “Judeo-Christian values.” In response, freethinkers have pointed out that for many centuries leading Christian thinkers defended slavery, religious persecution, and sundry other evils. To this Christians have distinguished between the repulsive ideas endorsed by some individual Christians throughout history and those authentic Christian ideas that are authorized by the Bible—the revealed Word of God.

Although this explanation leaves many questions unanswered, it should be accepted, in general terms, with grace by atheists, for atheists have been victims of the selfsame abuse at the hands of their Christian critics. I cannot count the number of times I have encountered the argument that atheistic values must favor communism over freedom—for was not atheism the official position of the Soviet Union? The absurdity of this style of argument, whether directed against Christians or atheists, is obvious when represented without frills; but the same style of argument, when dressed to the nines, will often pass without notice. One need only watch some panel discussions on Fox News, or some interviews and speeches with Republican presidential candidates, to find examples.  

The basic point I wish to make here has to do with the strenuous efforts made by theologians over many centuries to render Christianity an internally consistent system of thought, or worldview. However irrational Christian ideology may appear to freethinkers and other outsiders, to insiders it appears in a more favorable light. To one who accepts the elementary tenets of Christianity, the various fine points of theology, especially as developed by Thomism (the ideas of Thomas Aquinas) and Scholasticism generally, will appear as finely honed links that connect different ideas together to form a tightly integrated system of thought. This has always been the main appeal of philosophical systems, whether religious or secular. When Enlightenment philosophers expressly repudiated philosophical system-building, insisting instead that philosophy should be done piecemeal, they put themselves at a serious disadvantage relative to religious systems of thought. When you adhere to an internally coherent system of thought—again, whether that system be religious or secular—the world will make much more sense to you, even if the component parts, when considered separately, make little sense at all.

Religious systems of thought have their own disadvantages, however, especially when a given system is based on the Bible or on some other source of special revelation. A foundation that lays claim to divine inspiration remains fixed, and this feature makes it highly vulnerable to external attacks. If one brick is removed from a static and unalterable system of thought, the entire structure, unable to adjust to the external threat, may collapse. This problem has arisen many times when freethinkers criticized Christianity. 

Consider the popular claim that Christianity is morally superior to other philosophies. An obvious problem arises when this claim is joined to a serious commitment to the Bible as divinely inspired, for few if any self-identified Christians will endorse everything taught and justified in the Bible. Notable exceptions are abundant in the Old Testament, such as the authorization of human sacrifices (Leviticus 27:28-29; Judges 11: 29-40; 2 Samuel 21: 1-9). Yahweh—the national god of Israel and Judah—is reported to have killed the first-born of every Egyptian family (Exodus 12:29). In addition, he sanctioned slavery (Exodus 21: 2-6; Leviticus 25: 44-46) and the selling of one’s daughter (Exodus 21:7). Yahweh commanded the killing of witches (Exodus 22:18), death for heresy (Exodus 22:20), death for violating the Sabbath (Exodus 31: 14-15), death for cursing one’s parents (Leviticus 20:9), death for adultery (Leviticus 20:10), death for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), and death by stoning for unchastity at the time of marriage—a penalty imposed only upon women (Deuteronomy 22: 20-21). 

Yahweh sometimes exterminated large numbers of people, usually through pestilence or famine, and often for rather unusual offenses. In one strange case he is reported to have killed 70,000 men because David took a census of Israel (2 Samuel 24); and according to another story Yahweh sent two bears to rip apart forty-two children who mocked the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 2: 23-24).

These and similar passages, mainly from the Old Testament, provided deists and other freethinkers with an abundance of ammunition in their crusade against Christianity. That ammunition proved especially useful when responding to the common argument that Judeo-Christian values are essential to social order and the cultivation of moral virtue—an argument that, in turn, was used to justify the persecution of atheists, who supposedly posed a serious threat to the moral foundations of civilization.

The biblical passages I cited previously were what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he called the god of the Old Testament “a being of terrific character—cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust.” They also inspired Thomas Paine to write polemical denunciations of the Bible. Here is a typical passage from Paine’s notorious attack on Christianity, The Age of Reason, a classic of freethought literature that has probably been read by more people than any other book of its type:

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.

Over the centuries Christians found ways to deal with the problem of unsavory Old Testament passages. A common and reasonable explanation (from a theological perspective) is that most of the Old Testament precepts and commands, a significant portion of which are clustered in Leviticus, were limited, context-bound prescriptions and proscriptions that God intended solely for the ancient Jews. With the obvious exception of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments), those ceremonial rules and tribal laws are not part of the natural law; they are not part of the system of moral precepts, knowable to reason, that apply universally to every human being. Indeed, in the New Testament both Jesus and Paul declared that the Old Law is no longer applicable, that it has been superseded or fulfilled by the New Law of Christ, as we find in John 13: 34-3, where Jesus says:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you, that you will also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.

This and similar passages were frequently invoked by Christian defenders of religious freedom who were astonished by the standard Christian arguments in favor of persecution. (For the influence of two biblical passages in particular, see my essay, Notes on Persecution and Toleration in the History of Christianity.) How was it possible, these pro-freedom Christians asked, to justify persecution in the name of Christ, or to demand conformity in some fine points of theology, such as the Trinity, that were never mentioned by Jesus or, for that matter, anywhere in the New Testament?

Deists had a point when they argued that the persecuting spirit of Christianity was the consequence of needless theological blunders, and that religious conformity, coercively imposed, cannot be justified if we stick to the moral teachings of Jesus. Nevertheless, as Christianity grew in numbers and influence and had to compete with other religious groups, a technical theology (which is essentially philosophy applied to divine matters) was bound to develop—and with it the inevitable disagreements among Christians themselves.

A parallel may be drawn here with modern libertarianism, which, like early Christianity, is heavily infused with ideology. Are all the philosophical disputes among libertarians, such as the disagreements between defenders of natural rights and defenders of utilitarianism, absolutely necessary to the success of our movement? No, of course not; in most cases our ability to convert others to our way of thinking has little if anything to do with technical matters of philosophy—though a basic philosophy, comprehensible to the masses, will always be indispensable. Likewise, early Christianity would have progressed (or not) even if theologians had never troubled themselves with fine points of theology.

So why did these internal battles erupt in the first place? Why didn’t Christians simply follow and teach the general precepts of Jesus without developing a more comprehensive theology? One reason, I suggest, is because many Church Fathers were intellectuals with a serious interest in ideas and a good knowledge of various pagan philosophies. They wanted more than to preach and spread the doctrines of Christianity, which were really quite simple, Rather, they wanted to understand the philosophical implications of their religious beliefs, and to distinguish their beliefs from the many philosophical schools and ideas that were widespread in the Rome of their day.

The same reasoning applies to the modern libertarian movement. Many libertarians (including many nonacademics) are dedicated intellectuals with a strong desire to understand and develop the philosophical implications of individual freedom, quite apart from the irrelevance of those fine points in persuading others to join the libertarian cause. And, as was the case with early Christians, our intense interest in ideas has inevitably generated internal discord, as competing tribes of libertarian warriors have battled for their particular brand of libertarian theory.

All this is quite healthy, in my judgment. As I have said many times before, internal dissent and debate make the libertarian movement an interesting place to be, even when it isn’t moving anywhere.

Most libertarians live in the movement, not merely with it. The movement – our conferences, periodicals, websites, elists, and so forth—constitute our intellectual home. Thus, however discouraging our lack of political progress may be over a period of time, the movement itself survives; and it will continue to survive so long as it remains intellectually vibrant. We value ideas about freedom not merely because we hope they will aid our quest for a free society. We also value ideas about freedom for their own sake, because of their inherent fascination. One can spend a lifetime investigating the ideas associated with freedom, as well as the strong appeal of freedom to a wide range of cultures across space and over time. And yet as we approach the twilight of life, we may feel as though we have barely scratched the surface of this rich vein of thought. This is not mere speculation; it is based on my own experience.

I don’t think it is a stretch to compare the libertarian movement, which is still quite young, with the early Christian movement. How is it that a minority of Christians managed to survive and eventually to prosper in a hostile social and political environment? And what if anything can libertarians learn from that success? The many differences between these movements are profound and, in the main, obvious. But an important similarity (discussed above) is not so obvious, namely the deep and lasting interest of both movements in ideas—an interest that extends far beyond the pragmatic value of those ideas—and the common commitment of both movements to an ideal. Both sought to develop a coherent, internally consistent system of ideas that impart meaning to life and make some things worth fighting for.

Unfortunately, within a few centuries Christianity, which began as a pro-freedom movement in opposition to the Roman state and Roman culture, eventually allied itself with the state and substituted force for persuasion. Moreover, the Christian movement, unlike the libertarian movement, never acknowledged the supremacy of reason. Let us hope that the libertarian movement never replicates these momentous errors.

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