Walter Block: Wrong on Religion

Walter Block recently wrote an article at on the topic of religion and state. He critisizes what he considers to be an irrational hatred of religion that many libertarians have apparently inherented from Ayn Rand. While he is an atheist himself, he defends the premise that religion is a bulwark against the state. He has a tendency to occasionally make very counter-intuitive claims. Block writes:

"Why pick on religion and the family? Because these are the two great competitors – against the state – for allegiance on the part of the people. The Communists were quite right, from their own evil perspective, to focus on these two institutions. All enemies of the overweening state, then, would do well to embrace religion and the family as their friends, whether they are themselves atheists or not, parents or not.

The main reason religion sticks in the craw of secular leaders is that this institution defines moral authority independently of their power. Every other organization in society (with the possible exception of the family) sees the state as the source of ultimate ethical sanction. Despite the fact that some religious leaders have indeed bowed the knee to government officials, there is a natural and basic enmity between the two sources of authority. The pope and other religious leaders may not have any regiments of soldiers, but they do have something lacking on the part of presidents and prime ministers, greatly to the regret of the latter."

While he certainly has a valid point in that religion and the family have the potential to be competitors against the state, I think that he neglects important aspects of what the libertarian strong atheist's criticism of religion really is. Firstly, we see a very clear ideological relationship between the two. Statism and theism tend to rest on very similar if not identical premises: that without a "higher power" or "higher authority" (either god or the state) there can be no order or morality, that human society must have been and must be deliberately planned by a designer, that knowledge must be held and selectively passed down from an elite (either the clergy or intelligence bureaucrats) who are exclusively able to properly interpret relevant texts, that floating abstractions (either a deity, a society or a nation) really do exist and that one must sacrifice their values and lives to them, that self-interest is a sin, and so on.

In short, as far as I can tell, statism is a religion in and of itself. Does this vindicate the other religions? No, it doesn't. If anything, it shows how close the relationship between the two really is, a relationship that is much closer than your "Christianity is the historical source of liberty in the west" claiming libertarian would be willing to aknowledge (I find that claim to be disingenuous and misleading nonsense, by the way). I see a very clear relationship between most of traditional religious morality and the morality put foreward by most brands of statism. It's precisely what Nietzsche called "slave morality" or what Ayn Rand identifies in her own unique way as "altruism". One's own values, general well-being and happiness is de-emphasized while servitude to an ideal and to others is put foreward as being the greatest virtue. The moral themes of traditionalist Christianity and much of statism are clearly interwoven.

Statism relies in large part on the exploitation of the religious impulse, both directly and indirectly. If anything, a country full of extremely devout religion people are good pickings for state recruitment and obedience. Indeed, not only do states rely on rituals and symbolism that may dupe even the most atheistic zealot, but sometimes they rely directly on the rituals and symbolism of certain religions. Many if not most politicians put themselves foreward as being devoutly religious and pander to the religious community all the time, and in large part the religious masses fall for it, especially in America. Religious institutions are in large part in patronage with the state, despite the thin veneer of separation of church and state that exists in America. In terms of what is being said at the pulpit, American Christianity in particular has become increasingly political, whether preachers function as cheerleaders for militarism and neoconservatism or conduits for the message of state-socialism.

Another issue, a historical issue, has to do with the rise of the state as an institution in relation to the family and organized religion. The fact of the matter is that these two institutions are historically at the root of state power. The state grew out of them in more primitive times. In some cases, they were literally the same institution. The earliest governments were familial and hereditary. Out of the family comes the tribe (an extended family) and out of the tribe comes the most primitive forms of government, which paved the way for monarchy. Furthermore, many of the earliest political leaders were simultaneously religious leaders. In the most primitive form the shaman served this function. Much of organized religion itself can easily be seen as creations of the state in the first place, particularly with respect to the judeo-christian religions. In the case of Christianity, I see it as a construct of the Roman state to gain obedience and unity.

Historically, and even in contemporary times, religion most definitely has not functioned as a competitor of the state, and even to the extent that it has it has most often been a statist competitor in and of itself. The state and organized religion have had a synergetic relationship from the very beginning, and even when religious institutions are more independant they have the potential to become states in and of themselves. Competition between authoritarianisms isn't a good kind of competition. As any anarchist should be aware of, substituting one form of authoritarianism with another doesn't really solve anything. Substituting the church for the secular state doesn't necessarily imply an increase in freedom. I see no reason why what may very well amount to a church-state, even if comparatively small, is an improvement over a secular state. I think what Block fails to see is that the primary issue is with arbitrary authority, and religion is included under this general umbrella.

As Stefan Molyneux has brilliantly argued (although the argument is not entirely his own; it's not as if he invented this concept), the psychology of the family is directly linked to the psychology of the state. People's ideological support for the state can in many ways be linked to a subconcious attachment to their parents, an imposed feeling of guilt and fear, a sort of unchosen positive obligation for life to one's parents. The psychology of the typical citezen in relation to the state can in some ways be seen as representative of the psychology of the person who is abused by their family and yet enables their own abuse. The exact same sentiments of servitude and obligation that many people hold with respect to the family is merely blown up on a larger scale with respect to the nation, society and state. The problem of statism can be seen as the inevitable outgrowth of family-worshop.

Reading further into the article, Block goes on to write this howler (italics mine):

"Such is my own position. I reject religion, all religion, since, as an atheist, I am unconvinced of the existence of God. Indeed, I go further. I am no agnostic: I am convinced of His non-existence. However, as a political animal, I warmly embrace this institution. It is a bulwark against totalitarianism. He who wishes to oppose statist depredations cannot do so without the support of religion. Opposition to religion, even if based on intellectual grounds and not intended as a political statement, nevertheless amounts to de facto support of government."

Surely you cannot be serious in your claim that "opposition to religion...amounts to de facto support of government", our dear Mr. Block? Surely you jest? This is utter nonsense, and you know it. You can't seriously be trying to pull the wool over our eyes to this extent. An ideological opposition to religion in and of itself has nothing to do with government. And neither does an activist and yet apolitical opposition to religion constitute support of government. My own opposition to religion is entirely apolitical in its means; it's not like I'm lobbying the government and encouraging it to shut down churches and burn Christians at the stake. To assert that an atheist anarchist is a defacto supporter of government for being passionate about atheism is downright silly on its face. I'm frankly insulted by this statement. I also wonder how Block, who says that he is an atheist himself, can not see how he would be a "defacto supporter of government" according to his own statement here.

As a side note, despite Block's intention to connect all or much of this anti-religious sentiment to Ayn Rand, I myself did not gain my anti-religious perspective from Ayn Rand and did not enter libertarianism through Objectivism. I've had a distrust of religious authority long before I had even heard of libertarianism. Furthermore, I think that Block is being misleading in implying that the people he is critisizing make hatred of religion a fundamental principle. No, the dislike of religion is merely an implication of a broader principle against arbitrary authority and in favor of reason. Opposition to religion is not a first-principle for anyone in question here. On the contrary, it follows from something much more fundamental. Hell, even opposition to the state is not necessarily a first principle. In either case, the implication the opposition to religion is the primary focus of any of the people in question is simply false, including in the case of Rand herself. It was never the primary focus, only an implication of a much more fundamental philosophical framework.

I have a lot of respect for Walter Block, in fact he's one of my favorite contemporary libertarians, but occasionally when he writes a piece like this I lose a bit of that respect.

Published Thu, Jun 19 2008 11:13 AM by Brainpolice


# Cork said on 19 June, 2008 11:08 PM

I also thought that Block's column was pretty strange.  He argues for religion as a bulwark against state power, but never explains why it has to be religion.  One could just as easily come up with a reasonable secular set of ethics that could spread and become a bulwark against state power.  So why bother with religion?  Religion has dragged down the human race almost as much as socialism and statism, and is one of the worst things to have ever happened to the world.

The place where I get conflicted is deciding how religious parents would be handled under ancap.  Religious parents who pray to an imaginary sky pixie instead of taking their sick children in for treatment are clearly guilty of child abuse.  The question is: what is an appropriate libertarian response?

# Curtis Plumb said on 20 June, 2008 02:33 AM

There is no appropriate libertarian response (that's why you are asking the question) since principles are different from libertarian to libertarian.

# Ron Jones said on 03 July, 2008 08:37 AM

"The main reason religion sticks in the craw of secular leaders is that this institution defines moral authority independently of their power."

This is a valid and important point. However, subtler, and perhaps more important in the long run is the fact that religion has the effect of 'splitting ones allegiance.' And with your allegiance divided between two separate entities, there is less chance that you will be completely loyal to either one.

"...that knowledge must be held and selectively passed down from an elite ... who are exclusively able to properly interpret relevant texts..."

The proper response to this is "it depends upon the religion in question." The various religions, it seems,  are quite diverse. So, it would be hard to cram the whole square lot of them into one round hole.

Owing largely to my western european roots I knowledge of organized religion is limited to the catholic church. And throughout much of history rome wasn't a bulwark against state power, it WAS the state for all intents and purposes. (sure, you've got a king, but he won't make a move unless the pope/bishop/whatever approved). A religious legacy such as this would have long ago piqued my interest in atheism.

# Juan said on 10 July, 2008 09:19 PM

Yeah, Block's article was pretty weird. He also

defended the catholic church with arguments like 'yes, the inquisition did burn some people but the  were worse'...

# Freecitizen said on 08 August, 2008 04:13 AM

I do think that Block has more than a point. Yet, his article does not explain, what I think he is referring to. It is the fact, that in the medieval the catholic church was a counterpart of the secular powers (no states in the modern sense existed until absolutism entered the scene). Ron made another important point when he mentions "splitting allegiance".

Unlike other empires where state and church are one, the western world developed the liberal (in the classical sense) creeds because the two antagonists secular power and church where fighting over wealth and left the people to do their business, much more than in any other despotic ruled country where the priests and the ruling class where one or where the church was defined within the boundaries of the nation.

Western civilization benefited from the fact, that the church was international. So, a Christian, and all but a tiny(though very important) fraction where christians , could just leave an environment where oppression became to hard and go somewhere else.

Bottomline, what I believe Walter Block wanted to highlight is the fact that family and faith in a non-state religion that bond people over national(another made up word) borders has a positive impact on the independence of people.

Again, Ron is right about the splitted allegiance and states always tried to either eliminate (USSR) international churches or to nationalize(Nazi Germany) them.

Although his comments about the catholic church being the state does not hold in spite of the historical account :-)

# nicolaas said on 22 November, 2008 11:12 PM

All your argumants are based on pre-scientific assumptions with their source in your belief system of the 'reasonable self'. In this sense there is no difference between christianity, atheism, the 'brainpolice' such the same arguments tabled against other religions would be valid arguments against your own brainpolice religion.