Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 17.: The Rights of Free Belief and Worship - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 17.: The Rights of Free Belief and Worship - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 2.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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The Rights of Free Belief and Worship
318. If we interpret the meanings of words literally, to assert freedom of belief as a right is absurd; since by no external power can this be taken away. Indeed an assertion of it involves a double absurdity; for while belief cannot really be destroyed or changed by coercion from without, it cannot really be destroyed or changed by coercion from within. It is determined by causes which lie beyond external control, and in large measure beyond internal control. What is meant is, of course, the right freely to profess belief.
That this is a corollary from the law of equal freedom scarcely needs saying. The profession of a belief by any one, does not of itself interfere with the professions of other beliefs by others; and others, if they impose on any one their professions of belief, manifestly assume more liberty of action than he assumes.
In respect of those miscellaneous beliefs which do not concern in any obvious way the maintenance of established institutions, freedom of belief is not called in question. Ignoring exceptions presented by some uncivilized societies, we may say that it is only those beliefs, the profession of which seems at variance with the existing social order, which are interdicted. To be known as one who holds that the political system, or the social organization, is not what it ought to be, entails penalties in times and places where the militant type of organization in unqualified. But, naturally, where fundamental rights are habitually disregarded, no regard for a right less conspicuously important is to be expected. The fact that the right of political dissent is denied where rights in general are denied, affords no reason for doubting that it is a direct deduction from the law of equal freedom.
The right to profess beliefs of the religious class, has for its concomitant the right to manifest such beliefs in acts of worship. For these, too, may be performed without diminishing the like rights of fellow men, and without otherwise trespassing against them in the carrying on of their lives. So long as they do not inflict nuisances on neighboring people, as does the untimely and persistent jangling of bells in some Catholic countries, or as does the uproar of Salvation Army processions in our own (permitted with contemptible weakness by our authorities) they cannot be equitably interfered with. Those who profess other religious beliefs, in common with those who profess no religious beliefs, remain as free as before to worship in their own ways or not to worship at all.
The enunciation of these rights, needful for the symmetry of the argument, is in our day and country almost superfluous. But England is not the world; and even in England there still survive certain practical denials of these rights.
319. The savage, far from possessing that freedom which sentimental speculators about society used to imagine, has his beliefs dictated by custom, in common with those usages which peremptorily regulate his life. When we read that in Guinea, a man who does not fulfill the prophecy of the fetish by getting well, is strangled because he has made the fetish lie, we may readily understand that the expression of skepticism is practically unknown. The Fijians, who, being worshippers of cannibal gods, expressed horror at the Samoans because they had no worship like their own, and whose feeling towards Jackson for disregarding one of their religious interdicts was shown by angrily calling him “the white infidel,” are not likely to have tolerated any religious skepticism among their own common people, any more than they are likely to have tolerated any political skepticism respecting the divine authority of their chiefs: a conclusion we are compelled to draw on reading, in Williams, that a Fijian who had been in America endangered his life by saying that America was larger than Fiji.
Turning to ancient civilizations, we meet with various denials of the right of free belief. There is Plato's prescription of punishments for those who dissented from the Greek religion; there is the death of Socrates for attacking the current views concerning the gods; and there is the prosecution of Anaxagoras for implying that the sun was not the chariot of Apollo. Passing to the time when the profession of the Christian belief was penal, and then to the subsequent time when the profession of any other belief was penal, the only thing we have to note in connection with the doings of inquisitors and the martyrdoms, now of Protestants by Catholics and then of Catholics by Protestants, is that the thing insisted on was external conformity. It sufficed if there was nominal acceptance of the prescribed belief, without any evidence of real acceptance. Leaving the period of these earlier religious persecutions, during which there was a tacit denial of the right of free belief, it suffices to note that since the Toleration Act of 1688, which, while insisting on acknowledgment of certain fundamental dogmas, remitted the penalties on dissent from others, there have been successive relaxations. The disqualifications of dissenters for public posts were removed; by and by those of Catholics and eventually those of Jews; and still more recently the substitution of affirmation for oath has made it no longer legally imperative to assert or imply belief in a God, before being permitted to fulfill certain civil functions. Practically, every one is now free to entertain any creed or no creed, without incurring legal penalty, and with little or no social penalty.
By a kindred series of changes there has been gradually established freedom of political belief. Punishment or illusage for rejecting such a political dogma as the divine right of kings, or for calling in question the right of some particular man to reign, has ceased. The upholders of despotism and the avowed anarchists are equally at liberty to think as they please.
320. Is freedom of belief, or rather the right freely to profess belief, subject to no qualification? Or from the postulate that the needs for social self-preservation must override the claims of individuals, are we to infer that under certain conditions the right may properly be limited?
The only cases in which limitation can be urged with manifest force, are those in which the beliefs openly entertained are such as tend directly to diminish the power of the society to defend itself against hostile societies. Effectual use of the combined forces of the community, presupposes subordination to the government and to the agencies appointed for carrying on war; and it may rationally be held that the open avowal of convictions which, if general, would paralyze the executive agency, ought not to be allowed. And here, indeed, we see once more how that militant regime which in various other ways suppresses or suspends the rights of individuals, interferes even with the right of free belief.
Only, indeed, as we pass gradually from that system of status which chronic hostilities produce, to that system of contract which replaces it as fast as industrial life becomes predominant, does the assertion of rights in general become more and more practicable and appropriate; and only in the course of this change does the change from the alleged duty of accepting beliefs prescribed by authority, to the asserted right of individually choosing beliefs, naturally go on.
Subject to this interpretation, we see that the right of free belief has had a history parallel to the histories of other rights. This corollary from the law of equal freedom, at first ignored and then gradually more and more recognized, has finally come to be fully established in law.