Religion and Libertarianism
by Walter Block
by Walter Block
The relationship of libertarianism and religion is a long and stormy one.
It cannot be denied that Ayn Rand has had a long, strong and deep relationship with libertarianism. Although she dismissed us as "hippies of the right" (pronounced "ippes of de racht") many of our number are still enthralled by her, inspired by her, and in debt to her for first introducing us to the moral case for free enterprise. I certainly include myself in this category.
One of the strongest influences she has had on the libertarian movement is her belligerent atheism. For many adherents of the freedom philosophy, an aggressive rejection of God and all things religious might as well be the basic axiom of their world-view. I confess that this too was roughly my own belief on the subject, for many years. It is also the perspective of a rich potential donor to the Mises Institute who would have contributed heavily were that organization to change its viewpoint on this matter and take a principled stand against all religion. Happily, Lew Rockwell refused to pervert the mission of his Institute in this regard. Although a believer himself, Rockwell stuck to his guns: the Mises Institute would continue to involve itself in the study of economics and liberty, and not directly with religion at all.
What changed my mind? Why am I now just as much of an obdurate atheist as I have ever been, yet, also, a friend and supporter of religion? It has nothing to do with the fact that for 13 out of the last 17 years I have been employed by Jesuit, Catholic institutions. I was a professor at the College of the Holy Cross from 1991—1997, and have been, and remain at, Loyola University New Orleans from 2001 to the present.
To some, those still enthralled by the Randian vision of religion and liberty, it is bad enough for a libertarian to take a positive view of religion. For most, it will appear as nothing less than a logical contradiction for an atheist such as myself to be an actual supporter and even admirer of religion. Let me explain.
I am guided in this by the aphorism "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." While this does not always hold true, in this case I think it does.
So, which institution is the greatest enemy of human liberty? There can be only one answer: the state in general, and, in particular, the totalitarian version thereof. Perhaps there is no greater example of such a government than the USSR, and its chief dictators, Lenin and Stalin (although primacy of place in terms of sheer numbers of innocents murdered might belong to Mao's China). We thus ask, which institutions did these two Russian worthies single out for opprobrium? There can be only one answer: primarily, religion, and, secondarily, the family. It was no accident that the Soviets passed laws rewarding children for turning in their parents for anti-communistic activities. There is surely no better way to break up the family than this diabolical policy. And, how did they treat religion? To ask this is to answer it. Religion was made into public enemy number one, and its practitioners viciously hunted down.
Why pick on religion and the family? Because these are the two great competitors — against the state — for allegiance on the part of the people. The Communists were quite right, from their own evil perspective, to focus on these two institutions. All enemies of the overweening state, then, would do well to embrace religion and the family as their friends, whether they are themselves atheists or not, parents or not.
The main reason religion sticks in the craw of secular leaders is that this institution defines moral authority independently of their power. Every other organization in society (with the possible exception of the family) sees the state as the source of ultimate ethical sanction. Despite the fact that some religious leaders have indeed bowed the knee to government officials, there is a natural and basic enmity between the two sources of authority. The pope and other religious leaders may not have any regiments of soldiers, but they do have something lacking on the part of presidents and prime ministers, greatly to the regret of the latter.
Such is my own position. I reject religion, all religion, since, as an atheist, I am unconvinced of the existence of God. Indeed, I go further. I am no agnostic: I am convinced of His non-existence. However, as a political animal, I warmly embrace this institution. It is a bulwark against totalitarianism. He who wishes to oppose statist depredations cannot do so without the support of religion. Opposition to religion, even if based on intellectual grounds and not intended as a political statement, nevertheless amounts to de facto support of government.
But what of the fact that most if not all religions support the state. "Render unto Caesar… etc." It makes no nevermind. Notwithstanding the fact organized religion can often be found on the side of statism, these two dictators Lenin and Stalin, not, paradoxically, the leaders of such religions, had it right: despite the fact that religious people often support the government, these two institutions, religion and statism, are, at bottom, enemies. I am "with" Lenin and Stalin on this point. From their own perspective, they were entirely correct in brutally suppressing religious practice. This makes it all the more important that the rest of us, atheists or not, support those who worship God. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
It will at this point be strenuously objected that numerous innocent people have been murdered in the name of religion. True, alas, all too true. However, a little perspective comes not amiss at this juncture. Just how many people were killed by religious excesses, such as the Inquisition? Although estimates vary widely, the best estimates (see here) are that the number of deaths during this sad epoch, which took place over several centuries, was between 3,000 and 10,000; some experts, here, place the number as low as 2,000. Were it not murdered human beings that we are talking about, but considering solely the relative magnitudes, one might fairly say that this pales into utter insignificance compared to the devastation inflicted upon the human race by governments. According to the best estimates (see here, here, here, here, here and here), the victims of statism in the 20th century alone approached the 200 million mark. That is no misprint! To compare a few thousands of unjustified deaths with several hundreds of millions is unreasonable. Yes, even the murder of one victim is an outrage. But in comparing religion and government one must keep in mind these astronomical differences.
Here is a list of devoutly religious people I have known personally, who have made great contributions to liberty; perhaps this will help establish the contribution to our goals made by our religious colleagues: William Anderson, Doug Bandow, William Barnett II, Peter Boettke, Steve Call, Art Carden, Stephen W. Carson, Alejandro Chafuen, Paul Cwik, Ken Elzinga, Marshall Fritz, Stephen Grabill, Gary Galles, Jeff Herbener, Paul Heyne, PJ Hill, Guido Hulsmann, Rabbi Israel Kirzner, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Leonard Liggio, Bill Luckey, Jennifer Roback Morse, Robert Murphy, Gary North, Rev. Edmund Opitz, Ron Paul, Joe Peden, Duane and Morgan Poliquin, Shawn Rittenour, Lew Rockwell, Joann Rothbard, Fr. James Sadowsky, S.J., Fr. James Schall, S.J., Hans Sennholz, Fr. Robert Sirico, Monsignor Gregory Smith, Edward Stringham, Timothy Terrell, David Theroux, Jeff Tucker, Laurence Vance, Jim Viator, Fr. Kevin Wildes, S.J., Tom Woods, Steven Yates (probably, I have left out of this list friends of mine who will be hurt by my omission of their names; if so, please send me a gentle reminder, and I will make good this unintentional error in a revision of this publication. I will say in my own defense that as a non religious person, I am only marginally, or accidently, acquainted with the religious practices of many of my colleagues in the Austro libertarian community.)
Then, there is the school of Salamanca, populated, mainly, by priests such as these: The Dominicans: Francisco de Vitoria, 1485—1546; Domingo de Soto, 1494—1560; Juan de Medina, 1490—1546; Martin de Azpilcueta (Navarrus), 1493—1586; Diego de Covarrubias y Leiva, 1512—1577; Tomas de Mercado, 1530—1576. The Jesuits: Luis Molina (Molineus), 1535—1600; Cardinal Juan de Lugo, 1583—1660; Leonard de Leys (Lessius), 1554—1623; Juan de Mariana, 1536—1624. This school of thought is truly our intellectual and moral predecessor. For the contribution of the School of Salamanca to the Austro-libertarian movement, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. For other links between religion and libertarianism see here, here and here.
It is time, it is long past time, that the Austro-libertarian movement reject the virulent Randian opposition to religion. Yes, Ayn Rand has made contributions to our efforts. We must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. But, surely, anti-religious sentiment belongs in the latter category, not the former.
The views expressed above are consistent with the perspective of my long time mentor, Murray Rothbard. This scholar, who was often called "Mr. Libertarian," was very pro-religion, especially pro-Catholic. He ascribed the concepts of individualism and liberty to Christianity (and almost everything else good in Western civilization), and argued strongly that as long as libertarians made hatred of religion a basic or organizing principle, they would go nowhere, since the vast majority of people in all times and places have always been religious.
Walter Block would like to thank William Barnett II and Guido Hülsmann for helpful suggestions regarding an earlier draft of this essay. All errors, omissions and other infelicities are his own responsibility, of course.
June 19, 2008
Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable and the newly-released Labor Economics From A Free Market Perspective.