Libertarianism Is Not Atheist, Is Not Religious
By Wendy McElroy - October 09, 2014

A Liberty magazine article (March 1987) on religion was entitled "Freedom is for Everyone (Including the despised 'Rightists')." In it, Murray Rothbard observed, "The libertarian movement, and the Libertarian Party, will get nowhere in America – or throughout the world – so long as it is perceived, as it generally is, as a movement dedicated to atheism. Nock, Morley, Chodorov, Flynn et. al. were not atheists, but for various accidental reasons of history, the libertarian movement after the 1950s consisted almost exclusively of atheists." (The article's title includes "despised rightists" because religion, especially Christianity, is closely associated with the right.)

The 1950s were pivotal because of Ayn Rand's profound influence on the broadly-defined individualist movement from which many libertarians emerged. (The mid-'30s to mid-'50s were dominated by such figures as Frank Chodorov, Albert J. Nock, Felix Morley and Isabel Paterson who were not atheists.) Rand was adamantly atheistic. She believed all men of reason and self-esteem must reject God. In her book of essays For The New Intellectual, Rand stated: "Man's mind, say the mystics of spirit, must be subordinated to the will of God … Man's standard of value, say the mystics of spirit, is the pleasure of God, whose standards are beyond man's power of comprehension and must be accepted on faith …. The purpose of man's life … is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question." She did not willingly tolerate the presence of believers.

Unfortunately for his status in the Rand circle, around which Murray briefly trotted, he was married to "an abject zombie." JoAnn Rothbard was an observing Presbyterian. Accordingly, Murray was summoned to stand trial in Rand's living room to answer the accusation that was his marriage. Such trials were a repeated response to alleged breaches of principle committed by Rand's associates, with Nathaniel Branden acting as prosecuting attorney. As Murray later exclaimed while telling the story, "Ah, screw that!" He declined the summons.

Murray's wife was a full partner in his libertarian scholarship. The insane intolerance toward her must have made a deep emotional impression. For one thing, Murray went on to vent the experience by writing a one-act play that parodied a cross-examination of him by Rand and Branden: "Mozart Was A Red." Serious reflection about the relationship between religion and libertarianism also emerged.

Rothbard's Approach to Religion and Libertarianism … Strategy

Murray did not reject atheism as a valid approach. Arguably, it was closer to his own than religious faith. Murray was an agnostic Jew. As a rationalist, he doubted or disagreed with most statements of faith. He based his own political convictions on reason, the nature of man and reality. Murray admired certain traditions within specific religions, such as Thomism within the Catholic tradition, but he did not defend a particular religion or even religion per se.

Why, then, was Murray adamant about prying libertarianism away from such close identification as to be almost synonymous with atheism? There were several reasons.

To me, the least interesting explanation is strategic. That is, how does a close identification with atheism impact the growth of libertarianism?

Most people believe in God to some degree or other. Many are devout. They often have a deep emotional investment in religious beliefs such as absolution, an afterlife and the continuing existence of loved ones who've died. If libertarianism demands that people relinquish their God and deeply-held articles of faith in order to accept, then it becomes destructively self-limiting. Murray commented wryly, if "Stalin couldn't stamp out religion, libertarians are not going to succeed with a few Randian syllogisms."

The demand is also insulting. It equates all religion with faith-based statism – with what used to be called the Moral Majority. But faith qua faith has no more connection to statism than atheism has to freedom; atheistic communism should have dispelled that assumption. Indeed, historically, some religions have acted as bastions of resistance to statism. For example, the Quakers in pre-bellum America were the most vocal and courageous opponents of slavery; their only appeal to the state was to cease supporting slavery. Quakers believed all men should live peacefully according to their own conscience.

In short, setting an artificially high bar for admission and insulting people's personal beliefs did not seem like good recruiting tactics. In fact, the poor opinion of religion seems to have nipped libertarian outreach to that massive sector in the bud. Of all the libertarian outreach campaigns, how many have targeted Christians?

Rothbard's Approach to Religion and Libertarianism … Principle

More interestingly, Murray argued that whatever a peaceful person thinks about religion is totally irrelevant to libertarianism. Murray did not believe libertarianism required either the acceptance or rejection of religion. His argument raises two questions: what is religion; and, what is libertarianism?

What is religion? A standard definition; it is a system of faith and worship. The world's dominant religions are Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism. The one with which North Americans are most familiar is Christianity in its various expressions.

What is libertarianism? Murray's definition: "Libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral, or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory, that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life …. Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal."

In an important article entitled "Libertarianism or Libertinism," the Rothbardian Walter Block expanded the definition. "Libertarianism is a political philosophy … concerned solely with the proper use of force. Its core premise is that it should be illegal to threaten or initiate violence against a person or his property without his permission; force is justified only in defense or retaliation. That is it, in a nutshell. The rest is mere explanation, elaboration, and qualification – and answering misconceived objections."

Thus, libertarianism is a commitment to eschew aggressive force; it is not a specific lifestyle because lifestyles result from the many peaceful choices people make after eschewing force. What a peaceful person chooses to do may be of great moral importance. He may be compassionate or indifferent toward the suffering of others; he may be helpful to neighbors or become a hermit. Past the point of eschewing violence, however, his behavior is irrelevant to the question of libertarianism.

Adam Smith formulated well the distinction between political duty and morality. Each person had a political duty to not aggress against anyone else. For restraining his actions, however, no person deserved praise. He was simply performing his duty. Morality lay in the benevolent actions taken over and above the call of duty – in acts of kindness or charity, in comforting the afflicted or providing compassion. For such acts, a person deserved praise for being a moral human being.

The Damage to Libertarianism of Condemning Religion

1. Religion qua religion is irrelevant to libertarianism. If a belief system espouses violence, such as the punishment of heretics, then it is clearly incompatible with the "anything that's peaceful" dictum. But as long as the religion is a personally-held belief in which everyone participates willingly, then it doesn't contradict libertarianism in any way. To argue that it does is to misrepresent what constitutes libertarianism.

2. To define those who are religious as "non-libertarian" is to deny a vast swath of libertarian history. The Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566) was one of the first voices for the universalization of natural rights. The roots of the Western movement itself are sometimes traced back to the 17th century Levellers who championed freedom of religion as well as freedom of the press and trade. Many, many influential libertarians were religious, such as the Catholic Lord Acton. To reject religion is to gut the richness of the libertarian tradition.

3. Libertarianism implicitly embraces the individualism and diversity that results from every person being autonomous. At bare minimum, it tolerates every peaceful choice a human being can make. One of the most common human choices is to believe in God. Although expressing scorn toward religious people is also a peaceful act, it seems like a tremendous waste of time unless those people are somehow harming a third party. In the absence of harm, the scorn flies in the face of the spirit of libertarianism, if not the letter of its law.

The debate on religion within libertarianism needs nothing so much as a word that both true believers and true libertarians should agree upon: Peace.

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