Liberalism, as a political philosophy, arose out of the religious wars plaguing Europe during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Incipient liberalism sought, in response, to create a pluralist order (what is now commonly referred to as the “marketplace of ideas”) in which all beliefs and lifestyles were to be held in equal regard. It would be a sphere where people could fashion for themselves the good life and pursue their own ends as they see fit—a domain of civil peace, tolerance, and liberty. This aspiration enshrined itself in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects, among other things, the right of Americans to freely exercise their religious beliefs. The doctrine of freedom of religion was accorded ample defense by the architect of the document, James Madison, who argued that religion was a significant yet deeply intimate matter into which the government should not intrude. Fellow Founding Father Thomas Jefferson took a vastly different approach to the question of religion. In an 1826 letter he wrote to American civic leader Roger C. Weightman, Jefferson vilified “monkish ignorance and superstition” and advocated instead, the “light of science.” For Jefferson, who claimed to have studied “all the known superstitions of the world,” the single commonality between religions is that they are all founded on “fables and mythology.”
The dichotomy between Madison and Jefferson illuminates a duality that has permeated throughout the evolution of liberalism. On the one hand, figures such as James Madison—who was himself inspired by John Locke—held that religious liberty was an essential freedom of any liberal political order. Others went as far as to suggest that religion is a social good and helps sustain public morality. This specific argument is attributable to Alexis de Tocqueville, a liberal who, in his 19th-century book Democracy in America, argued that religion helps maintain moral equilibrium in the public sphere. On the other hand, figures like Thomas Jefferson saw religion as a backward and irrational belief, destined to be supplanted by innovation, progress, and scientific inquiry and discovery. Nor was Jefferson alone in his hostility towards religion. For Jean-Jaquess Rousseau, whose influence on Jefferson was evident in his drafting of the Declaration of Independence, religion was an unnatural artifice that obscured our pathway to enlightenment and caused unnecessary division in the polity. For Rousseau, man exists naturally without the capacity for abstract thought; therefore, he is oblivious to philosophy and, by extension, ignorant to the “known will of his creator.” While Rousseau does acknowledge in his writings the divine genesis of humankind, he denies that humanity would have any natural inclination to know or understand that creator or to create religious institutions or practices as a means of understanding the divine. In Rousseau’s view, the development of religion is a later acquisition of humans and a development he denigrates. The movement away from man’s natural condition in the pre-political state to civilization unavoidably leads to the partitioning of private property, which is, in Rousseau’s view, the central feature of civilization and the principal cause of human inequality. With the division of private parcels arises the first need for religion: to justify this new, unnatural, and unjust inequality. Religion is a device of humans utilized to confer legitimacy to unjust laws; religion is also unnatural, and, according to Rousseau, our “nature never deceives us; it is we who deceive ourselves.” Here, Rousseau’s message is clear: wherever there is an unexamined devotion to religious practice, there is unconformity to nature. Rousseau's suspicion for religion did not end here. In his controversial work The Social Contract, Rousseau devotes a portion of his chapter “The Civil Religion” to criticize the peculiar type of religious organization epitomized by the Roman Catholic Church. For Rousseau, this “strange … kind of religion” creates tension between divine and temporal law and thereby prevents the coexistence of good citizenship and religious piety. In other words, religion spurs division and instability in the body politic. More contemporary liberal theorists such as Richard Rorty have perpetuated early liberalism’s hostility to religion—exemplified by Jefferson and Rousseau—as an irrational and counterproductive set of beliefs with no legitimate or warranted place in the public sphere. It seems as though this strain of liberalism has become ascendant in our modern liberal age. All too often, classical liberals find themselves defending (to no avail) their right to freely exercise their religious beliefs against an aggressively secular liberal coalition bent on expunging traditional religious beliefs from the public square.
Well understood, liberalism’s hostility towards more traditional religious beliefs stems from the epistemological assumption that religion should be regarded finally as a matter of opinion, from which no substantive truths about human reality can be gleaned. Once this belief becomes widespread, it renders religious belief idle and tends to undercut sustained religious practice. Strikingly, in the United States today, some 54% of Americans—over half the country—believe theological beliefs are not a matter of objective truth but rather belong in the category of subjective personal opinion. Hence the pervasive effort today to smear religious upbringing as a locus of indoctrination and to extract traditional religious themes from school curriculums. Liberals do this not because they wish to advance a kind of educational neutrality (which is impossible, since all education rests on a set of formative assumptions) but because they believe religion is false teaching. While Thomas Jefferson advanced the notion that religion is, at its core, rooted in fiction, the philosophical inspiration for this relatively new phenomenon can be more aptly credited to the work of 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill. In his book Three Essays on Religion—published posthumously by his stepdaughter Helen Taylor—Mill begins by explaining how an argument for the utility of religion need not be formulated if religion were true; if religion were indeed grounded in objective truth, “its usefulness follows without other proof.” Mill nonetheless declares that he is writing at a time of “weak beliefs” and asserts that traditional religious creed has become obsolete among the most intelligent. He writes, the “divine message” fails “to convince a large proportion of the strongest and most cultivated minds, and the tendency to disbelieve them appears to grow with the growth of scientific knowledge and critical discrimination.” Here, Mill insinuates that most intelligent people don’t believe in fictitious religious fairytales and that such a worldview could only be propped up by the unenlightened and foolish. Reiterating the idea of Thomas Jefferson, Mill believes that religious belief and scientific discovery are irreconcilable and that the latter will inevitably trump the former and make it obsolete. John Stuart Mill distinguishes in Three Essays on Religion religion in the supernatural sense of theism from what he calls the “Religion of Humanity”—what we might now call secular humanism. Mill’s “Religion of Humanity” would channel the religious urge towards an ideal of the unity of mankind and respect for the general good, which would be free of the dogma and superstition that seemed always to accompany backward traditional religious creeds. Mill concedes that one benefit of metaphysical religion over his proposed “Religion of Humanity” is the prospect of “a life after death.” Nevertheless, Mill is suspicious of “legislators and moralists” exploiting this quest for an afterlife to influence or coerce believers to do absurd things in this life. Above all, Mill hoped that increased emphasis on life in the here and now through his “Religion of Humanity” would make the aspiration for an afterlife less important and, in time, do away with traditional metaphysical religion.
Notwithstanding the epistemological assumption of liberalism that religious belief is ultimately grounded in fiction, and that it should be regarded officially as a matter of personal opinion, there is no clear decline in ritualists, worship, indictments of heresy and excommunications—they have only now taken the form of “Wokeness,” “cancel culture,” and the many other terms used by pundits to classify our toxic political climate. These new quasi-religious forms—most of which contain specific creeds, specific commandments by their members, and obligations on the part of their followers—are imbued with John Stuart Mill’s notion of the “Religion of Humanity.” Today, college campuses have most clearly embodied this Millian principle, imposing certain restrictive measures on speech and expression to combat heresy, creating “safe spaces” for worship in the new form of secular religion, and organizing gatherings of the faithful to fight for broad and ambiguous humanitarian causes. In universities across the country, what students can say, read, and study is circumscribed by the principles of political correctness and social justice, amusingly, in the same way religious Catholic universities in the mid-20th century circumscribed what students could say, read, and study. While we celebrate policy targeting “hate speech” on college campuses (a wholly arbitrary term which is itself hostage to the one who defines it), set into motion under the guise of Millian secularism, Catholic institutions in the 1950s were criticized as not being intellectually serious or rigorous for how they limited what students could express and study on campus. The Millian ideology at once labels traditional religious positions held by a moral majority as backward and unreflective while advancing its own secular, quasi-religious system of beliefs which designates particular phrases as heretical (hate speech), contains its own commandments (be tolerant—always exhibit respect towards differences in people), contains its own sacraments and rituals (confessing the various privileges one enjoys), and has its own church-like authority (the auspices of the state and other forms of institutional power). Now, one question remains: can liberalism be liberal when it comes to traditional religious beliefs?