On Atheist Criticisms of Libertarian Christianity

As a libertarian Christian, I believe that a Christian worldview is not only congruent with, but necessitates, libertarian policy positions. I’m at regular odds, then, with people who charge that Christianity is incongruous or incompatible with political liberty.

Conservative Christians, who I find to be widely and increasingly amenable to my arguments, are less and less among this group. Rather, it now seems to be made up largely of Christian socialists and libertarian anti-Christians. I’ll here discuss the arguments I most regularly hear from the latter.

Involving Religion in Politics

bibleflagWhen writing about the relationship between libertarianism and Christianity, I sometimes encounter a vague demand that I “just keep religion out of politics.” Yet this objection is incoherent.

My religious views include an account of the human condition that, if true, should be the foundation of my policy positions. On the other hand, if “keep religion out of politics” is really only an insistence that my religious views are not true, then it should be presented as such.

Granted, what most people mean by “keep religion out of politics” is simply “don’t force your religious values on me.” Yet this cannot be the meaning of a libertarian atheist who knowingly makes the demand of a libertarian Christian. In this case, the demand either asserts merely that Christianity is false, or it is senseless gibberish.

A better strategy for the libertarian atheist would be to concern oneself, first and foremost, with whether a religious person’s beliefs will expand or reduce the scope of government. My Christian belief in humanity’s fallenness and propensity to sin, for instance, disinclines me to entrust government agents with all-seeing omniscience. I would be more open to the prospect of sweeping data collection if I did not subscribe to Christian principles. If one’s goal is to limit government power, then it should be at least a relative good if I consult my religious text when picking up a legal pen.snake

In fact, this is true even if you don’t agree that Christianity predisposes its adherents to libertarianism. Even someone who thinks little of Christians should recognize that we will act with some measure of rational self-interest in the political arena. Note, then, that government power over social issues is increasingly being used against Christian values rather than for them. It will therefore be more and more in the interests of believers to limit government power, even putting other factors aside.

Suppose libertarian atheists could choose to live in only one of two societies: the first entirely secular but cripplingly authoritarian, and the second politically free but religiously mixed. Which would libertarian atheists prefer? If the latter, then working with libertarian Christians in order to promote liberty should be an easy choice.

The Doctrine of Hell

A common complaint of libertarian anti-Christians is that it is authoritarian to teach the Christian doctrine of hell. When Christians warn others about hell, after all, they are telling people that they will suffer unless they take a specific action. This warning, the argument goes, amounts to a kind of coercive threat.

If this is the case, however, it must likewise be authoritarian to warn someone that he’s about to be hit by a truck. If you call out to a man who is standing in front of a truck, then you are no less coercive than the Christian who warns others about hell. You are warning him that a horrible fate awaits him unless he take a specific action. We all understand, however, that “Look out!” is not coercive; the shouter is giving vital information to the person about to be hit.

lewisSome libertarian anti-Christians retort that, if there existed a God who allowed nonbelievers to go to hell, they would have a moral duty to oppose Him. Yet what is the source of this moral duty? If the morally good decision is the one which maximizes one’s happiness, as I believe it is, then some sort of divine command theory is true – as God has structured our reality and arbitrated the conditions that will lead to our happiness or unhappiness. If the atheist asserts that an invisible platonic “form” is the source of his moral duties, then it is actually this form that is demanding his suffering – all the while offering no reward in return.

An atheist might contend that my truck metaphor is invalid because it does not depict me as wishing the man to be hit by the truck. Yet neither do Christians want others to go to hell. If believers did not wish others to be saved, then they would keep quiet about eternity and anti-Christians would have no alleged threat to point to in the first place. This is a fact recognized by atheist Penn Jillette.

Granted, while I do not endorse your standing in front of the truck, I certainly do endorse the free will that allows you to do so. I also endorse the things that allow the truck to hit you, like the human ability to innovate and the physical possibility of speed. I endorse the existence of cliffs, of tools, and of many other things you might freely use to harm yourself. I would certainly not end free will or make the whole universe a padded cell in order to abolish the reality of conditional consequence – and I thank God for not having done so.

“Free will,” said C.S. Lewis, “though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”

Lack of Free Will

steamIn an effort to exclude theists entirely, some more determined libertarian atheists will attempt to redefine libertarianism as an essentially metaphysical, rather than political, concept. “Libertarianism means that nothing – not just the government, but nothing – holds power over me,” the assertion goes. “Therefore theism is opposed to libertarianism.” I don’t accept this definition of libertarianism, but let us do so for the sake of argument.

If naturalism is true – as atheists typically hold – then everything you do and think is predetermined by an inevitable chain of material causation. Your body is a machine and your consciousness, to borrow a metaphor from Thomas Huxley, is a wisp of vapor. You are an effect but never a cause – a ghostly observer that has power over nothing and is wholly under the power of everything.

In contrast, the fact that I freely choose appears to me to be a properly basic belief, requiring no supporting argument. If proper basicality justifies my belief that the external world exists, my belief in free will is likewise justified. This seems to me to be a good argument – though there are others – for affirming the transcendence and causal power of the human mind. Someone who agrees with this argument should find naturalism false, and theism at least more probably true.

Given the definition of libertarianism that some libertarian atheists propose, theists can be libertarians while naturalist atheists cannot. Moreover, while there are some atheists who are not naturalists, they are few and far between – and hardly respected by their compatriots.

A History of Oppression

carolusIt’s difficult to deny that Christians have historically made a disproportionately large contribution to the sciences. Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Linnaeus, Mendel, Pasteur, Marconi, Lemaître and Collins come to mind. Point this out to most atheists, however, and their reaction is a predictable one: Christendom doesn’t deserve any particular credit for its scientists because it is old.

Ask militant atheists about the history of war, however, and this reasoning is suddenly inverted. It seems that the old age of Christianity is no reason not to credit it with the hostilities perpetrated by some professing Christians. It’s a striking paradox that Christianity – and religion in general – is given no credit for its great minds but full credit for its bad ones.

Yet religion – and especially Christianity – has not been the disproportionately oppressive force depicted in online atheist caricatures. As Matt Rogers has pointed out, about 7% of the wars in recorded history have involved a religious cause. These wars account for about 2% of people killed by warfare.

Conversely, the twentieth century was the bloodiest hundred years in human history – whether measured in sheer killings or in killings as a share of the world’s population. From 1900 to 1987, nearly two thirds of those killed by governments died at the hands of Marxists.jacobins

The thousands of murders committed at Verden, and later by the Inquisition, are without a doubt terrible blots on Christianity’s history. Yet it took Christendom centuries of power to muster up each atrocity. In contrast, practically the moment that the atheist Cult of Reason prevailed in France, thousands of Christians were sadistically drowned as part of Jacobin de-Christianization. In G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Once abolish the God and the government becomes the God.”

The actions of atheist governments, of course, do not mean that no atheist can be a libertarian. I hope that I’ve here helped to equip Christians and to sway atheists precisely because I wish for libertarians on both sides to work together. Collaboration is the best way to ensure that neither of us is ever again oppressed by the other.

This column was originally published in 2014.

2 thoughts on “On Atheist Criticisms of Libertarian Christianity

  1. The difference between Christian hell and a truck is trucks are real.

    Attempting to save a life by warning of an oncoming truck is a very poor analogy to the extortion of threats of eternal damnation.

    I’ve seen a truck. Can you say the same about hell? This is not a figurative question but quite literal. I can go out today and photograph a truck, and send the photo to you. Can you do the same with this hell that you seem to claim exist?

    • Let’s start with your point about observation, Thomas. Do you really want to take the position that it’s coercive to warn someone of a danger unless I’ve visually perceived it? I’m sure you can think of several problems with this standard.

      Assuming you don’t want to draw this line, then you need to draw a clearer distinction between my belief in the truck and my belief in hell. It must be a distinction that makes my warning about the truck non-coercive, but my warning about hell coercive.

      If the line you want to draw is merely “trucks are real, but hell is not,” this suggests that anyone who incorrectly believes in some danger and warns others is engaged in coercion. This would also be a difficult position to defend.

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