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Is Libertarianism and Religion Compatible?

Many prominent libertarian figures are indeed religious: no one can accuse Ron and Rand Paul of not being proper libertarians.  However, I would argue that the modern Judeo-Christian religions and the way in which these religious institutions function are, in some respects, anti-libertarian. Yet, they are at the same time integral for a libertarian society to function.

It is clear that libertarianism is all about the preservation of our freedom from the state; we seek to prevent the government from playing too large a role in our lives, to prevent government from becoming too coercive. In a way, religious institutions are non-voluntary; often children are brought up by their religious family to believe in God, and because children are easily moulded and have little capacity for rational scrutiny, they essentially get brainwashed into following a certain religion. This leaves them no room to make an informed choice when they are an adult, as they have already been programmed by their parents. Although it is possible for them to leave the religion when they are older, they are so hardwired to believe in God that this is unlikely. As well as that, religions often preach that their path is the only way to get to Heaven, and that other religions will lead you astray. This scare tactic that clergymen often play is effective at keeping people within the church; it might mean that the individual no longer truly believes in God, but still belongs within the religious community. To compound this there are often social penalties for adults if they leave a religion: for many religious people, their friends and social lives centre around the church. Leaving it could risk losing these crucial social networks.

Religious groups, even nowadays, often engage in spiritual and emotional manipulation of its members in order to control their beliefs, thoughts, and behaviour, be it to implant their own political ideologies (in the more extreme circumstances) or to infringe on personal liberty. Religion always operates under the guise that it is voluntary, but the only way religions actually survive is through parents passing down religious doctrines to younger generations. These beliefs become so entrenched that they are almost irreversible.

Despite the common thought that religions are voluntary institutions, they require coercion to sustain themselves. All religious groups require their members to conform to specific beliefs and subscribe to certain rules, which they must follow, otherwise they will risk the wrath of God.  Since many have been brought up by their parents to believe in God they also believe that God is the ultimate arbiter and so they must do as He demands. Therefore, they are effectively coerced into following the rules. This might not pose a huge problem when it comes to smaller, more menial obligations, such as abstaining from certain foods. Many Muslim parents arrange marriages for their children and disown them if they refuse to be married off. Some religions preach that engaging in homosexual acts is wrong: if you believe what the religion is preaching, a person’s right to engage in homosexual acts is effectively infringed upon.

In addition, religion is often used as a political tool to manipulate the masses, and in doing so, may act much like a coercive state. For example, in Tsarist Russia, whilst the secret police force was relatively inactive, they managed to keep control over a hugely diverse and spread out population, through the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church preached that the Tsar was directly sent from God, and that disobeying him was akin to disobeying God. In other words, because the masses believed that there was a divine connection between the Tsar and God, the Tsar could not be at fault. Instead, much discontent was directed at regional governments and deflected away from the Tsar. Most of Russians, and especially the peasantry (who lived in appalling conditions), were devoutly religious, so this tactic worked. In effect, the Orthodox Church had total, unanimous control over the minds and beliefs of millions of Russians. This total control is coercive in nature. Similarly, this is why Stalin banned religion from Communist Russia:  Stalin wanted to be the only God to be worshipped, he wanted to seem almost holy, on a par with saints and other religious icons. If the population viewed him as God-like, he would have total control over them, and be able to manipulate them as he pleased. Religion is a powerful tool that can be used for coercive purposes.

Another example of how religion can be used for coercion is post-revolutionary Iran. Iranians were sent off to fight in droves against Iraq. 1.5 million people were killed. The only way Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader, could convince his people to fight for Iran was by merging religion and politics together. To encourage volunteers, religious leaders broadened the definition of a martyr, declaring that all fatalities of the war were to be considered martyrs for the country and for Islam.  The promise of immediate entrance to Heaven for martyrs was a key point of emphasis made by Iranian leaders. In speeches, religious officials often repeated the infamous promise of seventy-two virgins. Young men were even sent into battle with keys around their necks that were supposed to grant them instant access to heaven after they died. So by harnessing religion, Khomeini managed to control the population and turn them into something akin to cattle. He destroyed the power of the individual to reject this murderous war, and by tying the war to religion, coerced millions of Iranians to march to their deaths. This is another example of how religion is used for coercion, and how it can replace, or support, the role of the state and its ignoble objectives.

Ayn Rand supporters will also claim that libertarians must have commitment to truth and knowledge. She strongly condemns anything that is mystical, or simply based on faith instead of hard evidence. She argues that religion itself is a product of a bygone age where humans had little knowledge of events, and would use God to explain these events. Libertarians could also argue that what makes humans special is our ability to use reason to innovate, create and advance human civilisation. Therefore faith, as such, could be considered as detrimental to human life: by its very definition it is the negation of reason.

However, despite the fact the religions can become coercive and authoritarian in their own right, religion still has a very important role to play in a libertarian society. Society needs to have common values which bind us together. In this way, we won’t we need the government to mandate citizens to treat others well; religion will instead instill our youngsters with the values of tolerance, decency and compassion. As long as religions don’t become too authoritarian, this would be fine. The values taught will inevitably lead to a new generation of humans with a strong moral compass that allows everyone to co-exist peacefully. These common, binding values that religion must instil in people could be the backbone of a libertarian society; if we all respect each other equally and live by a similar moral code then people will always behave “morally” and therefore there shouldn’t be any grounds for conflict. Even if you do not subscribe to the moral doctrines of certain faiths, religious traditions, such as Christmas and Easter, help to provide common ground between peoples. Religion would play a vital role in a society with limited government. It would function to prevent moral relativism, leading to a breakdown of shared, common values, which would make peaceful co-existence near impossible. These are also some of the reasons why I think libertarianism as a doctrine is doomed; religion is on the decline in much of the Western world, and multiculturalism, the idea that different religions and cultures with different values can co-exist, is becoming increasingly entrenched.

A belief in God is also necessary if you believe in inalienable human rights, such as the ones in the constitution; hence “God-given rights.”

I would conclude that God and religion are necessary to for society to develop common values; this will lead to a peaceful co-existence and therefore government will have a lesser role in drafting “morally” and “ethically” based laws to protect citizens from harm. However, when religion becomes too authoritarian and starts interfering significantly in our lifestyle, it becomes anti-libertarian. There is also the real danger that religion can be used for coercive purposes by politicians and bureaucrats. Religion is necessary for libertarianism, but if it holds too much power over us and starts to preach doctrines which go beyond simple moral values, it is detrimental to liberty.

* Keyvan Farmanfarmaian is a libertarian in Vermont, and believes in a return to the principles of individualism and small government, in order to boost innovation and economic growth. He is an avid supporter of Ron Paul and believes the Federal Reserve must be abolished to stop the boom-bust cycle. If you want to read more of his articles, head over to his blog at fighttheleft.wordpress.com. This blog is a one stop shop for libertarians looking for useful facts and figures to debate against their socialist friends.

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