Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION V.: Of Religious Liberty, and Toleration in general. - An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty
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SECTION V.: Of Religious Liberty, and Toleration in general. - Joseph Priestley, An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty 
An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty, including remarks on Dr. Brown’s Code of Education, and on Dr. Balguy’s Sermon on Church Authority. The Second Edition, corrected and enlarged (London: J. Johnson, 1771).
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Of Religious Liberty, and Toleration in general.
THE most important question concerning the extent of civil government is, whether the civil magistrate ought to extend his authority to matters of religion; and the only method of deciding this important question, as it appears to me, is to have recourse at once to first principles, and the ultimate rule concerning every thing that respects a society; viz. whether such interference of the civil magistrate appear to be for the public good. And as all arguments a priori, in matters of policy, are apt to be fallacious, fact and experience seem to be our only safe guides. Now these, as far as our knowledge of history extends, declare clearly for no interference in this case at all, or, at least, for as little as is possible. Those societies have ever enjoyed the most happiness, and have been, ceteris paribus, in the most flourishing state, where the civil magistrates have meddled the least with religion, and where they have the most closely confined their attention to what immediately affects the civil interests of their fellow citizens.
Civil and religious matters (taking the words in their usual acceptation) seem to be so distinct, that it can only be in very uncommon emergencies, where, for instance, religious quarrels among the members of the state rise very high, that the civil magistrate can have any call, or pretence, for interfering with religion.
It is, indeed, impossible to name any two things, about which men are concerned, so remote in their nature, but that they have some connections and mutual influences; but were I asked what two things I should think to be in the least danger of being confounded, and which even the ingenuity of man could find the least pretence for involving together, I should say the things that relate to this life, and those that relate to the life to come. Defining the object of civil government, in the most extensive sense, to be the making provision for the secure and comfortable enjoyment of this life, by preventing one man from injuring another in his person or property; I should think the office of the civil magistrate to be in no great danger of being incroached upon, by the methods that men might think proper to take, to provide for their happiness after death.
All the civil societies we enter into in this life will be dissolved by death. When this life is over, I shall not be able to claim any of the privileges of an Englishman; I shall not be bound by any of the laws of England, nor shall I owe any allegiance to its sovereign. When, therefore, my situation in a future life shall have no connection with my privileges or obligations as an Englishman, why should those persons who make laws for Englishmen interfere with my conduct, with respect to a state, to which their power does not extend. Besides, we know that infinite mischiefs have arisen from this interference of government in the business of religion; and we have yet seen no inconvenience to have arisen from the want, or the relaxation of it.
The fine country of Flanders, the most flourishing and opulent then in Europe, was absolutely ruined, past recovery, by the mad attempt of Philip the second, to introduce the popish inquisition into that country. France was greatly hurt by the revocation of the edict of Nantz; whereas England was a great gainer on both occasions, by granting an asylum for those persecuted industrious people; who repaid us for our kindness, by the introduction of many useful arts and manufactures, which were the foundation of our present commerce, riches, and power.
Pensylvania flourished much more than New England, or than any other of the English settlements in North America, evidently in consequence of giving more liberty in matters of religion, at its first establishment. Holland has found its advantage in the indulgence she gives to a great variety of religious persuasions. England has also been much more flourishing and happy, since the establishment, as it may properly enough be stiled, of the dissenting method of worship, by what is commonly called the act of toleration. And all the sensible part of Europe concur in thinking, both that the Polish dissidents have a right to all the privileges of other Polish citizens; and that it would be much happier for that country if their claims were quietly admitted; and none but interested bigots opposed their demands.
If we look a little farther off from home, let it be said, what inconvenience did Jenghis khan, Tamerlane, and other eastern conquerors ever find from leaving religion to its natural course in the countries they subdued, and from having christians, mahometans, and a variety of pagans under the same form of civil government? Are not both christianity and mohammedanism, in fact, established (the former at least fully tolerated) in Turkey; and what inconvenience, worth mentioning, has ever arisen from it?
Pity it is then, that more and fairer experiments are not made; when, judging from what is past, the consequences of unbounded liberty, in matters of religion, promise to be so very favourable to the best interests of mankind.
I am aware, that the connexion between civil and religious affairs, will be urged for the necessity of some interference of the legislature with religion; and, as I observed before, I do not deny the connection. But as this connection has always been found to be the greatest in barbarous nations, and imperfect governments, to which it lends an useful aid; it may be presumed, that it is gradually growing less necessary; and that, in the present advanced state of human society, there is very little occasion for it. For my own part, I have no apprehension, but that, at this day, the laws might be obeyed very well without any ecclesiastical sanctions, enforced by the civil magistrate.
Not that I think religion will ever be a matter of indifference in civil society: that is impossible, if the word be understood in its greatest latitude, and by religion we mean that principle whereby men are influenced by the dread of evil, or the hope of reward from any unknown and invisible causes, whether the good or evil be expected to take place in this world or another; comprehending enthusiasm, superstition, and every species of false religion, as well as the true. Nor is such an event at all desirable; nay, the more just motives men have to the same good actions, the better; but religious motives may still operate in favour of the civil laws, without such a connection as has been formed between them in ecclesiastical establishments; and, I think, this end would be answered even better without that connection.
In all the modes of religion, which subsist among mankind, however subversive of virtue they may be in theory, there is some salvo for good morals; so that, in fact, they enforce the more essential parts, at least, of that conduct, which the good order of society requires. Besides, it might be expected, that if all the modes of religion were equally protected by the civil magistrate, they would all vie with one another, which should best deserve that protection. This, however, is, in fact, all the alliance that can take place between religion and civil policy, each enforcing the same conduct by different motives. Any other alliance between church and state is only the alliance of different sorts of worldly minded men, for their temporal emolument.
If I be urged with the horrid excesses of the anabaptists in Germany, about the time of the reformation; of the Levellers in England, during the civil wars; and the shocking practices of that people in Asia, from whom we borrow the term assassin; I answer, that, besides its being absolutely chimerical to apprehend any such extravagances at present, and that they can never subsist long; such outrages as these, against the peace of society, may be restrained by the civil magistrate, without his troubling himself about religious opinions. If a man commit murder, let him be punished as a murderer, and let no regard be paid to his plea of conscience for committing the action; but let not the opinions, which led to the action be meddled with: for then, it is probable, that more harm will be done than good, and, that for a small evident advantage, risque will be run of endless and unknown evils; or if the civil magistrate never interfere in religion but in such cases as those before mentioned, the friends of liberty will have no great reason to complain. Considering what great encroachments have been made upon their rights in several countries of Europe, they will be satisfied if part of the load be removed. They will support themselves with the hope, that, as the state will certainly find a solid advantage in every relaxation of its claim upon men’s consciences, it will relax more and more of its pretended rights; till, at last, religious opinions, and religious actions, be as free as the air we breathe, or the light of the common sun.
I acknowledge, with the statesman, that the proper object of the civil magistrate is the peace and well being of society, and that whatever tends to disturb that peace and well being, properly comes under his cognisance. I acknowledge several religious and moral, as well as political principles have a near connection with the well being of society. But, as was more fully explained before, there are many cases, in which the happiness of society is nearly concerned, in which it would, nevertheless, be the greatest impropriety for the civil magistrate to interfere; as in many of the duties of private life, the obligations of gratitude, &c. In all such cases, where the well being of society is most nearly concerned, the civil magistrate has no right to interfere, unless he can do it to good purpose. There is no difference, I apprehend, to be made in this case, between the right, and the wisdom of interference. If the interference would be for the good of the society upon the whole, it is wise, and right; if it would do more harm than good, it is foolish and wrong. Let the sagacious statesman, therefore, consider, whether the interference of the civil magistrate be, in its own nature, calculated to prevent the violation of the religious and moral principles he may wish to enforce. I think it is clear, that when they are in danger of being violated, his presence is so far from tending to remedy the evil, that it must necessarily inflame it, and make it worse.
It is universally understood, that reason and authority are two things, and that they have generally been opposed to one another. The hand of power, therefore, on the side of any set of principles cannot but be a suspicious circumstance. And though the injunction of the magistrate may silence voices, it multiplies whispers; and those whispers are the things at which he has the most reason to be alarmed.
Besides, it is universally true, that where the civil magistrate has the greatest pretence for interfering in religious and moral principles, his interference (supposing there were no impropriety in it) is the least necessary. If the opinions and principles in question, be evidently subversive of all religion and all civil society, they must be evidently false, and easy to refute; so that there can be no danger of their spreading; and the patrons of them may safely be suffered to maintain them in the most open manner they chuse.
To mention those religious and moral principles which Dr. Brown produces, as the most destructive to the well being of society; namely, that there is no God, and that there is no faith to be kept with heretics. So far am I from being of his opinion, that it is necessary to guard against these principles by severe penalties, and not to tolerate those who maintain them, that I think, of all opinions, surely such as these have nothing formidable or alarming in them. They can have no terrors but what the magistrate himself, by his ill-judged opposition, may give them. Persecution may procure friends to any cause, and possibly to this, but hardly any thing else can do it. It is unquestionable, that there are more atheists and infidels of all kinds in Spain and Italy, where religion is so well guarded, than in England; and it is, perhaps, principally owing to the laws in favour of christianity, that there are so many deists in this country.
For my own part, I cannot help thinking the principles of Dr. Brown very dangerous in a free state, and therefore cannot but wish they were exterminated. But I should not think that silencing him would be the best method of doing it. No, let him, by all means, be encouraged in making his sentiments public; both that their dangerous tendency, and their futility may more clearly appear. Had I the direction of the press, he should be welcome to my imprimatur for any thing he should please to favour the world with; and ready, if I know myself, should I be, to furnish him with every convenience in my power for that purpose. It is for the interest of truth that every thing be viewed in fair and open day light, and it can only be some sinister purpose that is favoured by darkness or concealment of any kind. My sentiments may be fallacious, but if no body were allowed to write against me, how could that fallacy be made to appear? Be the prayer of the magnanimous Ajax ever mine,
This writer artfully mentions only three opinions or principles, one under each class of religion, morals, and politics, as necessary to be guarded by civil penalties, and not to be tolerated; and, no doubt, he has chosen those principles which a friend to his country would most wish to have suppressed, and with regard to which, he would least scrupulously examine the means that might be used to suppress them. This, Britons, is the method in which arbitrary power has ever been introduced; and is well known to have been the method used by the thirty tyrants of Athens. They first cut off persons the most generally obnoxious, and such as the standing laws could not reach; and even that intelligent people were so far duped by their resentment, that they were not aware, that the very same methods might be employed to take off the worthiest men in the city. And if ever arbitrary power should gain ground in England, it will be by means of the seeming necessity of having recourse to illegal methods, in order to come at opinions or persons generally obnoxious. But when these illegal practices have once been authorized, and have passed into precedents, all persons, and all opinions will lie at the mercy of the prime minister, who will animadvert upon whatever gives him umbrage.
Happy would it be for the unsuspecting sons of liberty, if their enemies would say, at first, how far they meant to proceed against them. To say, as Dr. Brown does, that there are many opinions and principles which ought not to be tolerated, and to instance only in three, is very suspicious and alarming. Let him say, in the name of all the friends of liberty, I challenge him, or any of his friends to say, how many more he has thought proper not to mention, and what they are; that we may not admit the foot of arbitrary power, before we see what size of a body the monster has to follow it.
Such is the connection and gradation of opinions, that if once we admit there are some which ought to be guarded by civil penalties, it will ever be impossible to distinguish, to general satisfaction, between those which may be tolerated, and those which may not. No two men living, were they questioned strictly, would give the same list of such fundamentals. Far easier were it to distinguish the exact boundaries of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms in nature, which yet naturalists find to be impossible. But a happy circumstance it is for human society, that, in religion and morals, there is no necessity to distinguish them at all. The more important will guard themselves by their own evidence, and the less important do not deserve to be guarded.
Political principles, indeed, may require penal sanctions; but then it is for the very same reason that religious and moral principles require none. It is because they do not carry their own evidence along with them. Governments actually established must guard themselves by penalties and intolerance, because forms of government, and persons presiding in them, being nearly arbitrary, it may not be very evident that a different government, or different governors, would not be better for a state. Laws relating to treason are to be considered as arising from the principle of self-preservation. But even with respect to civil government, it is better not to guard every thing so strongly as that no alteration can ever be made in it. Nay, alterations are daily proposed, and daily take place in our civil government, in things both of great and small consequence. They are improvements in religion only that receive no countenance from the state: a fate singular and hard!
Besides, so many are the subtle distinctions relating to religion and morals, that no magistrate or body of magistrates, could be supposed to enter into them; and yet, without entering into them, no laws they could make would be effectual. To instance in the first of Dr. Brown’s principles, and the most essential of them, viz. the being of a God. The magistrate must define strictly what he means by the term God, for otherwise Epicureans and Spinozists might be no atheists; or Arians or Athanasians might be obnoxious to the law. The magistrate must likewise punish, not only those who directly maintain the principles of Atheism (for evasions are so easy to find, that such laws would hurt no body) but he must punish those who do it indirectly; and what opinions are there not, in religion, morals, and even natural philosophy, which might not be said to lead to Atheism? The doctrine of equivocal generation, for instance, might certainly be thought of this kind, as well as many others, which have been very harmlessly maintained by many good christians.
I am sensible, that in the few particulars which Dr. Brown has thought proper to mention, his intolerant principles are countenanced by Mr. Locke; but, as far as I can recollect, these are all the opinions which he would not tolerate; whereas this writer asserts there are many; so that he must provide himself with some other authority for the rest. Besides I make no doubt, the great Mr. Locke would, without the least reluctance, have given up any of his assertions, upon finding so bad an use made of them, and that the consequences of them were so very unfavourable to his own great object, and contradictory to his leading principles; and that he would, with indignation, have given up any adherents to arbitrary power, who, from such a pretence as this, should have claimed his protection from the generous pursuit of the friends of liberty, of reason, and of mankind. After all, the controversy is not about men, but principles. And so great an enemy as Mr. Locke, to all authority in matters of opinion, would not have been so inconsistent as to have excepted his own.
It will be said, that a regard to liberty itself must plead for one exception to the principles of toleration. The papists, it is alledged, are such determined enemies to liberty, civil and ecclesiastical, and so effectually alienated from the interests of a protestant country and government, that protestants, who have a regard for their own safety, and the great cause in which they are engaged, cannot tolerate them. If they do it, it is at their own peril; so that the persecution of papists is, in fact, nothing more than a dictate of self-preservation.
This plea, I own, is plausible; and two centuries ago it is no wonder it had considerable weight; but persecution by protestants, in this enlightened age, appears so utterly repugnant to the great principle of their cause, that I wish they would view it in every point of light, before they seriously adopt any such measure. And I cannot help thinking, that the result of a more mature consideration of this subject will not be to render evil for evil to our old mother church, but rather a more indulgent treatment than we have as yet vouchsafed to afford her.
In the first place, I cannot imagine that the increase of popery, in these kingdoms, will ever be so considerable, as to give any just alarm to the friends of liberty. All the address and assiduity of man cannot, certainly, recommend so absurd a system of faith and practice to any but the lowest and most illiterate of our common people, who can never have any degree of influence in the state. The number of popish gentry must grow less; partly through the influence of fashion, and partly through the conviction of those who have a liberal education, which will necessarily throw protestant books into their hands.
The French translator of Warburton’s Alliance, in an address to Cardinal Fleury, (in which he recommends such a system of church establishment and toleration as this of the Bishop of Gloucester) observes, that the number of Roman catholicks in England diminishes every day, and that the only reason why they are not so good subjects in this country, as they are in Holland, is, that they are under more restraints here.
If the popish priests and missionaries have the success which it is pretended they have, I am almost persuaded, that the most effectual arguments they have employed for this purpose, have been drawn from the rigour of our present laws respecting the papists. They tell the people, that, conscious of the weakness of our cause, we dare not give them full liberty to teach and exercise their religion; knowing that the excellency of it is such, that, if it were publicly exhibited, it would attract universal admiration; and that what we are not able to silence by argument, we suppress by force.
Besides, the traces and remains of popery are so striking in the book of common prayer, and in the whole of our ecclesiastical establishment, that the derivation of it from the popish system cannot be concealed; and hence it may not be difficult for an artful papist, to persuade many of the common people to quit the shadow, and have recourse to the substance; to abandon the interests of an apostate child, and adopt that of its ancient and venerable parent.
Let the church of England then, before it be too late, make a farther reformation from popery, and leave fewer of the symbols of the Romish church about her; and the ideas of her members being more remote from every thing that has any connection with popery, the popish missionaries will have much more difficulty in making them comprehend and relish it. A convert to popery from any of the sects of protestant dissenters (who are farther removed from the popish system than the church of England) is very rarely heard of. And this effect is not owing to any particular care of their ministers to guard their hearers against popery; but because the whole system of their faith and practice is so contrary to it, that even the common people among them, would as soon turn mahometans, or pagans, as become papists.
Instead, then, of using more rigour with the papists, let us allow them a full toleration. We should, at least, by this means, be better judges of their number, and increase. And I also think they would be much less formidable in these circumstances, than they are at present. If they be enemies, an open enemy is less dangerous than a secret one. And if our ecclesiastical establishment must not be reformed, and removed farther from popery; let the clergy, as the best succedaneum for such an effectual antidote against their poison, show more zeal in the discharge of their parochial duties, and give more attention to their flocks. Half the zeal which the papists employ, to make converts, would be more than sufficient to prevent any from being made. Whose business is it to counteract the endeavours of the popish emissaries, but those whom the state has appointed the guardians of the people in spiritual matters; and what is their calling in the aid of the civil power, but an acknowledgement of a neglect of their proper duty?
It may be said, that the particular situation of this country should be a motive with all the friends of our happy constitution, to keep a watchful eye over the papists; since a popish religion may, at length, fix a popish pretender upon the throne of these kingdoms. Seriously as this argument for persecution might have been urged formerly, I cannot help thinking that, ever since the last rebellion, the apprehension on which it is grounded, is become absolutely chimerical, and therefore that it does not deserve a serious answer. After the pope himself has refused to acknowledge the heir of the Stuart family to be king of England, what can a papist, as such, have to plead for him? And, for my own part, I make no doubt, there are men of good sense among the popish gentry, at least, and persons of property of that persuasion, as well as among persons of other religious professions; and therefore, that if they lay under fewer civil disadvantages, they would not only chearfully acquiesce in, but would become zealously attached to our excellent form of free government; and that, upon any emergency, they would bravely stand up for it, protestant as it is, in opposition to any popish system of arbitrary power whatever.
Besides, when a popish country is at this very time,* showing us an example of a toleration, more perfect, in several respects, than any which the church of England allows to those who dissent from her, is it not time to advance a little farther? Political considerations may justly be allowed to have some weight in this case. France may reasonably be expected to follow, and improve upon the example of Poland; and if we do not make some speedy improvement of liberty, that great and indefatigable rival power, by one master stroke of policy, may almost depopulate this great and flourshing kingdom.
We often hear it said, that if France grows wise, and admits of toleration, England is undone. Novelty, and a milder climate, will, no doubt, attract multitudes; and whenever the French make a reformation, as their minds are much more enlightened, than those of the English reformers were, when our present establishment was fixed, their reformation will, in all probability, be much more perfect than ours. And if the French through our folly, and the ambition, avarice, or baseness of some spiritual dignitaries, should be permitted to take the lead in this noble work, and our emulation be not roused by their example, the future motto of England may, with too much propriety, be taken from Bacon’s speaking statute, Time is past.
[* ]Written in 1768.