Is social pressure illiberal?
January 3, 2013 3 Comments
Reading the mainstream press is almost always an exercise in spot-the-bad-logic.
I want to make a distinction that I think of as both straightforward (by which I mean, in this case, that it was clear to me even as a kid) and thoroughly libertarian. And yet I know that not all of my comrades think this distinction is as clear cut as I do.
Doug French pointed to this report on worldwide persecution of atheists. In several countries (primarily in the Middle East) not believing in God is an official thought crime. Elsewhere, the penalties are subtler — or at least gentler. The report ends with this very odd couple of paragraphs:
While freedom of religion and speech is protected in the United States, the report said, a social and political climate prevails "in which atheists and the non-religious are made to feel like lesser Americans, or non-Americans."
(I’ll come back to this one.)
In at least seven U.S. states, constitutional provisions are in place that bar atheists from public office and one state, Arkansas, has a law that bars an atheist from testifying as a witness at a trial, the report said.
At first it seemed like the report would end in confusion and anticlimax. After listing official state sanctions against believing the wrong thing — a list of thoroughly coercive and irrational penalties — it seems to be saying, "And in America many people are quite mean to atheists," as if noncoercive social sanctions are on a continuum of punishment, somehow quantitatively less harsh than capital punishment but not qualitatively so.
Then the kicker: it turns out that there are official government sanctions against disbelief in the United States. Maybe they are sanctions you don’t care about. Who wants to hold "public office," anyway? (Well, many left-leaning atheists probably do, not to mention plenty of Randians on the right.) I don’t want to work for any government, if I can help it, including testifying as a witness at a trial, but we have to recognize that any official categorization of the rights and privileges of citizens based on something involuntary, like sex, race, or creed ("creed in the literal sense of "belief": and no, one cannot simply choose to believe in God) is in fact on the same continuum as apartheid, however mild or selectively enforced.
Over and over again, we read in the libertarian literature of the distinction between social power on the one hand and state power on the other, of civil society versus the state.
When I was a civil-libertarian teenager, and Edwin Meese was launching his anti-pornography campaign from Reagan’s Justice Department, I felt like there was too little opposition to the campaign from the political Left. (You may recall that the Left began to split on First Amendment issues in the 1980s. We civil libertarians suddenly found ourselves abandoned by those who felt it was the proper role of the state to protect them from anything offensive.) But while I was firmly anti-anti-pornography, in the political sense, I found myself sympathizing with the organized protestors from the Religious Right marching outside their local 7-Eleven, demanding that Playboy and Penthouse be banned. I defended pornography to my leftist friends and relatives, but I thought the sort of social pressure being used against 7-Eleven was perfectly legitimate. I wanted more appeals to merchants and fewer (preferably none) to or from the government.
Later, in college, I met a socially conservative professor, someone who opposed abortion, who told me he wished his fellow pro-lifers would focus more on persuasion and less on courts and legislation. That still strikes me as a good, libertarian position. My pro-choice friends saw no great distinction between his position and that of the Meese Commission.
Around that same time I told a fellow college student that I was uncomfortable with the animal-rights movement’s attempts to get the government to legislate their particular morality. She replied that that’s precisely what she wanted: to get the government go impose the correct ideology on those who are incorrect. I’m not exaggerating. My biopsychology professor eventually persuaded me that the whole animal-rights movement was screwed up well before the legislation stage, but while I sympathized with him and no longer sympathized with the people pillorying him for experimenting on lab rats, I still thought the sort of social pressure he was being subjected to was appropriate, given the strength of the feelings, misguided or not, felt by the animal-rights champions.
So I ask this as a nonbeliever myself: What’s wrong with social pressure against atheism?
It’s not that I’m in favor of it. It doesn’t even really make sense to me. As I have emphasized, belief is not an act of will and therefore not a choice. Pressuring people into believing in or saying they believe in your preferred deity is silly. But I don’t see it as something that belongs on a list of persecutions.
I’m guessing that the supporters of "thick libertarianism" have a different take on this. I welcome your thoughts.