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The Futility of Coercing or Punishing Belief

The Futility of Coercing or Punishing Belief September 10, 2020
Historically, religions have sometimes used force to compel people to accept their teachings and to punish those who did not.  This has been an issue with Catholicism, with its heretic-burnings and inquisitions, and has sometimes happened in Protestant communities.  Luther, though, opposed coercion and punishment in matters of faith.  Today, most Christians–Catholics and Protestants–are strong advocates for religious freedom.
Governments too have often tried to use force to make their citizens accept an ideology and to punish them when they do not.  Communist, Fascist, and other totalitarian regimes prosecute “thought crimes.”  Free countries, though, do not.  They might, in the name of social order, punish actions, but never thoughts.
This mentality of punishing people for their beliefs has come back, as Nathan Berkeley and Phil Rexroth observe, in “cancel culture.”  As they describe it in their article Cancel Culture Is the Wrong Response to Deep Disagreement,

A “problematic” statement, image, or behavior, typically amplified on social media, triggers outrage and opprobrium. Aggrieved parties (external and/or internal to the offender’s institution) demand the perceived offense be rectified by removal of the offender from the institutional position that made the offense possible. The institution then assents to the removal of the offender, often accompanied by self-flagellating public statements intended to placate the accusers. This relatively new phenomenon is often described as “cancel culture,” and examples of it are many.

The hallmark of cases of cancel culture is that the proposed remedy for a perceived offense rejects any engagement or argumentation with the offender. That remedy instead resembles a form of excommunication, where the continued presence of the offender in the institution is considered a de facto endorsement of his or her offense as well as an ongoing trauma for the aggrieved parties.

In addition to “cancelling” people for their beliefs by making them lose their jobs, I would add the efforts to compel people to hold particular beliefs.  For example, the crowds of activists in Washington, D.C., who go into restaurants and demand that diners hold up a clenched fist to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement.  If they don’t, they are surrounded and screamed at for being “racist!”

Berkeley and Rexroth discuss two formal statements that contest cancel culture:   A Letter on Justice and Open Debate published in Harper’s Magazine and signed by many prominent and mostly liberal writers and intellectuals.  And the “Philadelphia Statement on Civil Discourse and the Strengthening of Liberal Democracy,” signed by a number of religious leaders.

The Harper’s letter invoked the freedoms that are at the essence of liberal democracies.  But, as Berkeley and Rexroth note, those doing the cancelling do not believe in the principles of liberal democracies.  Indeed, the letter has resulted in widespread attempts to cancel those who signed it, with some of the signatories withdrawing their support under pressure.  That the extreme Left opposes liberal democracy and its ideology of freedom as part of the bourgeois order they hope to overthrow should be obvious.  This is why Communist states–the Soviet Union, North Korea, the People’s Republic of China–have always restricted personal liberty, imposed their ideology, and punished dissenters.

Berkeley and Rexroth find the religious freedom argument that is the basis of the Philadelphia Statement a better model for confronting cancel culture.

Then they make the important point, drawing from the classic defenses of religious liberty, that trying to use force to compel belief is both impossible (external pressure cannot change inner conviction, though it might bring external conformity that the person doesn’t really believe) and counter-productive (pressure and punishment turns people against the approved ideas).  My bolds:

Centuries of religious conflict demonstrated the futility of compulsion in matters of conscience and punishment of dissent from the regnant orthodoxies. . . .Persuasion is the baseline mode for dealing with religious disagreement. People of faith committed to religious freedom know they cannot promote their core beliefs and identity via government edict, social intimidation, or mob action without simultaneously undermining them. Religious freedom, by contrast, offers respect, persuasion, and good-faith engagement as bridges across deep cultural divides.

Religious freedom thus provides a social and legal framework within which people who adhere to different beliefs about ultimate reality and the proper ordering of society are free to insist upon the truth of their beliefs while foreclosing coercion as a means of getting others to follow suit. . . .

To be clear: Religious freedom, rightly understood, rejects the idea that differences in truth claims between religious and/or non-religious views are immaterial. Committed believers living in religiously free, pluralist societies are not obligated to reject or diminish the distinctive truth claims of their faith; they are required, however, to reject coercive means of bringing others into conformity with those claims.

Compulsion may result in compliance, for a time, but it always breeds resentment, and that resentment leads to hatred and eventually conflict. Cancel culture warriors would do well to recognize that the punitive social regime they are advancing is ultimately an exercise in raw power that may eventually end with them on the same scaffold on which they have consigned so many others.

So trying to compel people to believe something causes them not to believe it (though they may pretend to).  And punishing people for believing something comes across as evidence that it must be true.

Parents, take this to heart.

Coming up:  Luther on the principle that “No one can or ought to be forced to believe.”

 

Illustration: “An auto-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition and the execution of sentences by burning heretics on the stake in a market place.” Wood engraving by Bocort after H.D. Linton.  CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0) via Wikimedia Commons

 

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