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LETTER V.: Of the Interference of the State in Matters of Religion in general. - Joseph Priestley, Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke 
Letters to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, occasioned by his Reflections on the Revolution in France (Birmingham: Thomas Pearson, 1791).
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Of the Interference of the State in Matters of Religion in general.
IT was the devout wish of Job, who, with exemplary patience, had borne much calumny, as well as sufferings of other kinds, that his adversary had written a book. The favour which this good man could not obtain, the despised and oppressed Dissenters have at length been indulged with from you, at least so far as relates to the cause of your strong attachment to the established church of this country, which, no doubt, induced you to enter so warmly as you did into the opposition to our late claims in the House of Commons. We are now happy in having an opportunity of viewing, and examining, the true springs of your conduct, and are not obliged to collect your arguments from uncertain report, or the mutilated, and, no doubt, very often false, accounts in the newspapers. We have now the reasoning of the senator from the senator himself.
I rather wonder, however, at this conduct in you, when I find you lamenting, p. 136, that “it has been our misfortune, and not, as these gentlemen think it” (meaning, no doubt, myself as well at others) “the glory of this age, that every thing is to be discussed.” For certainly such a publication as this of yours, you could not but think, must lead to much discussion. If, therefore, you thought this to be a dangerous process, with respect either to Church or State, you certainly ought not to have entered upon it, by publishing any thing on the subject; unless, indeed, you had thought (which perhaps may have been the case) that your publication would effectually deter all opponents; your reasoning being so forcible as to preclude, and be an effectual bar to, all farther discussion on the subject; nor do I much wonder at your entertaining this idea, from the exhibition you have given us of the state of your own mind with respect to it.
“Our church establishment,” you say, p. 136, “is the first of our prejudices. It is,” you say again, “the first, the last, and the midst in our minds,” that is, it occupies the whole capacity of them, so that they cannot admit any thing else, at least any thing of an opposite nature. Of course, the maxims on which you proceed must to you appear incontrovertible. You, therefore, very naturally add, “it is not a prejudice destitute of reason, but involving in it profound and extensive wisdom.” For such is the opinion that we all entertain of prejudices deeply rooted in our own minds; though it is no uncommon thing for what appears to be profound and extensive wisdom to one man, to appear the extreme of folly to another; and unfortunately (owing perhaps to the difference of our educations, and early habits) this is precisely the difference between you and me. What you admire I despise, and what you think highly useful, I am persuaded is very mischievous.
However, notwithstanding the great difference in our conclusions, we have, I perceive, some great and leading common principles; so that it may not be difficult to discover which of us has departed the farthest from them. I shall endeavour to shew our readers, that with these common principles, your conclusions are wholly discordant; and I flatter myself that, differently as we think on a variety of subjects, we have more common principles than you have given sufficient attention to, and more than you really act upon. You cannot, for example, have that dislike to discussion which you profess, because, in this and in other publications, as well as in your speeches in the House of Commons, you have entered largely into many discussions; and you must also agree with me in thinking, that the more important any subject is, or the more interesting it is to men, either as individuals, or members of society, the greater call there is for an accurate discussion of every thing relating to it; because, in things of this nature, mistakes are the most dangerous, and you are far from supposing religion to be a matter of indifference, either to individuals, or to society. And how can we guard against, or indeed be apprized of, any mistakes, without due examination, or discussion?
That our readers may see at one view what it is that you maintain with respect to civil establishments of religion, I shall, before I enter upon the discussion of them, give our readers a summary view of all your positions. Confounding, as you evidently do, the idea of religion itself, with that of the civil establishment of it, you say, “It is the basis of civil society, and essential to every state,” insomuch that you even question whether it be lawful to be without one. So far, you think, is the church from having any dependence upon the state, that the state has not even “the property, or dominion,” of any thing belonging to the church, being only the “guardian” of the revenues of the church, and holding them in trust for its use. You, therefore, hold that the property of the church is unalienable, and not to be touched in any emergency of state whatever. Religion, you maintain, derives its estimation and effect, from the riches and magnificence of its establishment; that such establishment is calculated for the multitude, that it is peculiarly useful both to the poor and the rich, and, though necessary to all states, is more proper for a democratical, than any other form of government.
Now, Sir, strange as it may appear to you, my ideas, in all these respects, are the very reverse of yours. Religion I consider as a thing that requires no civil establishment whatever, and that its beneficial operation is injured by such establishment, and the more in proportion to its riches. I am satisfied that such an establishment, instead of being any advantage, is a great incumbrance to a state, and in general highly unfavourable to its liberties. Civil establishments of christianity were altogether unknown in the early ages, and gained ground by very slow degrees, as other corruptions and abuses in the system did. I am clearly of opinion, that the state has a right to dispose of all property within itself; that of the church, as well as of every thing else of a public nature, and that religion has naturally nothing at all to do with any particular form of civil government; being useful indeed to all persons, the rich as well as the poor, but only as individuals.
Let us now trace our very different ideas to their proper source, and compare them with our common principles; and I am happy to find that we agree with respect to the proper use and advantage of government in general, which is a very material circumstance in our discussion. “Government, you say, p. 88, is a contrivance of human wisdom, to provide for human wants, and men have a right that these wants be provided for by this wisdom.”
You will not, however, say that all human wants are to be provided for by government; for it is manifestly only some of them that its great power can reach, and therefore much must be left to the individuals themselves. This you allow, when you say, p. 87, “whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself.” Since then I can eat and drink whatever suits my appetite, without trespassing upon any body, you will allow that the state has no business to prescribe what I shall eat or drink, or when, or in what manner, I shall do it. I imagine, also, you will allow that my neighbours have no right to complain of me, if, when I am indisposed, I treat myself as I think proper, taking whatever advice, or whatever medicines, I please. They may do the same, and I shall not complain of them. Pray then, what right, on this plain and obvious principle, advanced by yourself, has any man to complain of me if I worship God in what manner I please, or if I do not chuse to worship God at all? Does my conduct in this respect injure them? What, then, has the state, or my neighbours, to do in this business, any more than with my food or my medicine?
In this, and many other things, government has taken a great deal too much upon it; and has by this means brought itself into great and needless embarrassments. In many things besides the article of religion, men have busied themselves in legislating too much, and when it would have been better if individuals had been left to think and act for themselves.
This, you will say, amounts to nothing more than a plea for toleration in matters of religion, which you are ready to allow. As a foundation for a civil establishment of religion, you say that “man is by his constitution a religious animal;” for all that follows in defence of establishments, is immediately connected with this. Now, admitting this, which however is not true (because we may easily conceive of a Being, possessed of all the essential properties of human nature, without any knowledge of religion at all) government can have no more right to interfere with respect to this constitutional property of man, than any other constitutional, or essential property; and with respect to many of these, you must allow that men should be left to themselves. For example, man is constitutionally and necessarily an eating and a sleeping animal; but does it therefore follow that civil government has any thing to do with his eating or sleeping? And if not, neither has it any right to prescribe to him in matters of religion, merely because he is by constitution a religious animal. Man is a thinking and reasoning animal; but must all his thinking and reasoning be subject to the control of the state? Man has also been defined to be animal risibile, but must we therefore never laugh but when our grave and wise governors shall give us leave? We often indulge ourselves even in laughing at them.
As you do not deal much in definitions, or axioms, I am obliged to collect your idea of the principle on which church establishments are founded, from casual expressions, and the general scope of your declamation. Systematical divines, in this country, have, in different circumstances of their affairs, advanced two very different principles, as the basis of civil establishments of religion. At first it was universally asserted that christianity, and some particular form of it, ought to be established, maintained, and protected, by the civil power, because it was true; that it became the civil magistrate, as the vicegerent of God, to stand up for the honour of God, and of his truth; so that it was of no consequence at all what was the religion of his subjects. It was his duty to inforce truth, and to bring them as soon as he could to the profession and due maintenance of it.
But when it was urged that civil magistrates were not always the best judges of religious truth, that they had often little leisure for the study of religion, and were apt to be imposed upon by priests, and others whose interest it was to mislead them; besides that, upon this plan, the religion of every country, would be liable to be changed with every change of governors, as was the case in our own country, in several successive reigns after that of Henry VIII. or rather Henry VII. this old ground was shifted; and of late it has been maintained by our high church divines, and by yourself, who must be classed with them, that the civil magistrate has nothing to do with the truth of religion, being obliged to provide for that which is professed by the majority of the subjects, though he himself should be of a different persuasion. Thus they say the king of Great Britain, must maintain episcopacy in England, and presbyterianism in Scotland, whether he be a presbyterian as king William, a Lutheran as George I. or a true churchman as his present Majesty.
You, Sir, appear to defend church establishments on the latter of these principles. “The christian statesman,” you say, p. 151, “must first provide for the multitude, because it is the multitude, and is therefore, as such, the first object in the ecclesiastical institution, and in all institutions.” But how does this apply to the case of your country of Ireland. For the very same reason that episcopacy ought to be established in England, and presbyterianism in Scotland, the Roman catholic ought to be the established religion of Ireland, because, as I apprehend, it is unquestionably the religion of a very great majority of the inhabitants. As to the great mass of the oppressed Irish, if they be asked whether it be their religion, that which they really approve, that they are obliged to maintain, they will say it is a foreign one, one that they disbelieve and detest, and yet are compelled to support, whilst from genuine zeal, they think it their duty to maintain their own. It is not supposed that more than one in ten of the inhabitants of Ireland are of the church of England, and yet the iron hand of power compels them to maintain it. Is this, think you, the way to recommend your religion? Judge by the effect. What converts have been made to it in the last two centuries? The zealous members of your church, in the reign of the two Charles’s of blessed memory, imposed episcopacy also upon Scotland, when not more than one in a hundred of the Scots would attend the service; but the generous spirit of that nation at length threw off the oppressive yoke. The Irish also have the will, but, alas, not the power.
If you will have an establishment, and act upon the principles that you profess, viz. to provide for the multitude, or the great mass of the people, do you, of your own accord, change the established religion of Ireland, to one more consonant to the genius and wishes of the nation; and let it not be said that the church of England would have the impudence, if it had the power, to collect its tithes from every country in christendom, though every parish should be a sinecure, and all their bishops be denominated in partibus. Let there be an appearance at least, which now there is not, of some regard to religion in the case, and not to mere revenue. Often as I have urged this subject, and many as have been those who have animadverted upon my writings, hardly any have touched upon this. They feel it to be tender ground. They can, however, keep an obstinate silence, they can shut their ears, and turn their eyes to other objects, when it is not to their purpose to attend to this.
Admitting that religion must be established, or supported by civil power, in order to its efficiency, will any species of religion answer the purpose; the heathen, or the Mahometan, as well as the christian, and one species of christianity as well as another? Must we have no discussion concerning the nature, and influence, of the different kinds of religion, in order that, if we happen to have got a worse, we may relieve ourselves by substituting a better in its place? Must every thing once established be, for that reason only, ever maintained? This is said, indeed, to be your maxim, openly avowed in the House of Commons, and, it is perfectly agreeable to every thing advanced in this publication. For you condemn the French National Assembly, for innovating in their religion, which is Catholic, as much as you could do the English Parliament, for innovating in ours, which is Protestant. You condemn them for lowering the state of archbishops, bishops, and abbots, though they have improved that of the lower orders of the clergy; and therefore you would, no doubt, be equally offended at any diminution of the power of cardinals, or of the pope. We may therefore presume, that had you lived in Turkey, you would have been a mahometan, and in Tartary, a devout worshipper of the grand lama.
It is amusing to see with what confidence, and with what various expression, you deliver your sentiments on the subject of these civil establishments of religion, without distinguishing one from another. “This principle,” you say. p. 147, “runs through the whole system of their” (the British) “policy. They do not consider their church establishment as convenient, but as essential to their state, not as a thing heterogeneous and separable, something added for accommodation, what they may either keep at or lay aside, according to their temporary ideas of convenience. They consider it as the foundation of their whole constitution, with which, and with every part of which, it holds an indissoluble union. Church and state are ideas inseparable in their minds, and scarcely is the one ever mentioned, without mentioning the other. It is on such principles,” you say, “that the majority of the people of England, far from thinking a religious national establishment unlawful, hardly think it lawful to be without one. In France you are wholly mistaken if you do not believe us above all other things attached to it, and above all other nations.”
Now you cannot be so little read in the history of England, as not to know that the church and state were as much connected before the Reformation as they have been since, and while the establishment was presbyterian, as well as now that it is episcopalian. You must know also that the inhabitants of this country, were at one time as zealous papists as they now are protestants, and yet they were brought to make a change in their established religion, and that this was done without making any material change in the system of civil government. You must know that the presbyterians in Scotland, and the episcopalians in England, have at this very time the same king and the same parliament. But how do these facts agree with your favourite idea of the inseparable union of church and state? What, then, is the foundation of the dread you have entertained of any future change in the religion of our country, when no harm, but, as all protestants think, much advantage, has been derived from past changes in it?
I am, Dear Sir,