As ongoing debates around subjects ranging from religious liberty to climate change illustrate, many Western societies are being led in decidedly illiberal directions by self-described liberals. Significant pressures are now brought to bear on those whose views don’t fit the contemporary liberal consensus.
Consider, for instance, the epithets heaped upon Benedict XVI when he intimated in 2006 that Islamist terrorism may owe something to Islam’s conception of God. Likewise, any questioning of a field as eminently contestable as gender theory is considered indicative of prejudice. If you express skepticism about open borders, you must, deep down, be a racist. To articulate doubts about the welfare state’s effectiveness is a sure sign that you despise the poor.
The use of the suffix -phobe by liberals to describe dissenters’ positions on such issues suggests that holding particular views is akin to suffering from a mental illness. Such demagoguery is increasingly accompanied by soft sanctions such as mandatory diversity training. Sometimes liberal censuring assumes harder forms such as hauling people before Star Chamber-like human rights commissions that make a mockery of due process. In these and other ways, contemporary liberalism exhibits tendencies toward what the conservative Cambridge historian Maurice Cowling described in his 1963 book Mill and Liberalism as “moral totalitarianism.”
In the same book, Cowling challenged the widespread view of John Stuart Mill as the secular saint of tolerance. According to Cowling, Mill’s liberalism constituted nothing less than an alternative religion: one that turns out to be a rather fideistic faith that demands submission from nonbelievers. Not surprisingly, reactions to Cowling’s thesis were almost uniformly hostile. Fifty-four years later, however, Cowling’s analysis of Mill’s liberalism provides insights not only into liberal intolerance in our time but also into how to address it.
The Gospel According to Mill
It was the French philosopher Auguste Comte who proposed a “Religion of Humanity” as a full-blown successor to supernatural religion. Mill’s writings mention Comte extensively. In his Autobiography (1873), however, Mill describes Comte’s scheme as “the completest system of spiritual and temporal despotism which ever yet emanated from a human brain, unless possibly that of Ignatius Loyola.”
That reference to the founder of the Jesuits tells you something about Mill’s view of Christianity. From Cowling’s standpoint, this was ironic inasmuch as he believed that Mill’s liberalism itself constituted an evangelistic religious enterprise. In the first place, Cowling stressed, Mill’s ideas embody universalistic aspirations. Mill’s posthumously published essay The Utility of Religion insists that the Religion of Humanity is “a better religion than any of those which are ordinarily called by that title.” If you believe this about any faith, it’s reasonable to want everyone else to believe the same.
Second, Cowling maintained that Mill’s liberalism sought “not to free men, but to convert them.” The initial step involves encouraging people to abandon what Mill regards as redundant religious myths.
Mill extols Christ as a great man. Nonetheless he asserts (for he makes no effort to prove) that Christianity’s credentials no longer 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.”
In other words, thanks to modern science, most smart people no longer believe Christianity’s claims. The insinuation is that only less intelligent or unenlightened beings could cling to an obsolescent belief system. Hence, we need to “move on.” This amounts to what the philosopher Thomas Pink calls the “Whig theology of secularization as spiritually progressive.”
Mill’s path to liberalism’s Promised Land thus involves freeing everyone else from ideas and authorities that the clever find unconvincing. Mill was careful not to mock Christianity openly. Occasionally, however, the mask slipped. In On Liberty (1859), for example, Mill insisted that “An individual Jesuit is to the utmost degree of abasement a slave of his order, though the order itself exists for the collective power and importance of its members.”
Such sentiments aren’t distant from those French revolutionary figures whose conception of religious liberty encompassed viewing freely undertaken religious vows as inherently oppressive and thus requiring eradication. Mill may not have been willing to order the dissolution of monasteries. But the logic underlying such actions closely resembles that of Mill’s antagonism toward such entities.
Having rescued people from their illusions, Mill wanted societies to put their faith in the imperative of realizing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. In Utilitarianism (1861), Mill sought to devise an ethical system that would lead societies to promote happiness through following rules based on a calculus of pleasure and pain.
Like others before and since, however, Mill struggled to overcome the fatal flaw of any form of utilitarianism: their chronic inability to develop coherent criteria by which to weigh and measure something that’s immeasurable: i.e., happiness. Perhaps this is why On Liberty describes man as a “being capable of pursuing spiritual perfection as an end; of desiring for its own sake, the conformity of his own character to his standard of excellence, without hope of good or fear of evil from other source than his own inward consciousness.”
If this sounds vague, that’s because it is. Certainly, Mill wanted to improve on what he called human nature. When describing what he wants to improve, Mill refers to phenomena such as “individuality,” the “higher faculties,” or “the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” Yet Mill never defined what these permanent interests might be. Nor did he illustrate how such interests were integrated into his understanding of humans as progressive beings, or explain what is progressive.
At this point, you start to realize that Mill’s religion of liberalism prefigures the sentimental humanitarianism that is central to today’s liberalism. This is found in invocations of “values” that, on closer inspection, turn out to lack grounding in any substantial account of the goods knowable through reason. It’s also discernible in incessant appeals to “progress,” the content of which is usually determined by those who consider themselves to be on “the right side of history.” This is strikingly reminiscent of Mill’s credo.
Liberalism’s High Priests
There is yet another dimension of Cowling’s critique of Mill that rings true of present-day liberalism. Many religions formally commission classes of people with specific duties: rabbis, ministers, priests, theologians, etc. Mill’s liberalism, Cowling held, was one such faith. It required and justified what Cowling called its own “clerisy.”
The duty of Mill’s “intellectual elite,” Cowling argued, is to provide “a systematic indoctrination with a view of freeing men from the habitual arbitrariness which prevents them seeing their social duties for what they are.” This conviction uplifts such people to the status of social engineers.
There is considerable support in Mill’s writings for Cowling’s claim. In his 1867 Inaugural Address to Saint Andrews University, Mill states that educators should not “take a side, and fight stoutly for someone against the rest.” Yet he qualifies this by stating that educators should “direct [students] towards the establishment and preservation of the rules of conduct most advantageous to mankind.” That sounds like advocacy for Mill’s own rule of utilitarianism.
But it also requires the clerisy to undermine whatever blocks the discernment and growth of such rules. In his 1836 essay “Civilization,” Mill argued that the progress of knowledge required “putting an end to sectarian teaching altogether. The principle itself of dogmatic religion, dogmatic morality, dogmatic philosophy, is what requires to be rooted out; not any particular manifestation of that principle.”
Mill recommends indirect approaches for realizing such ends. His disparaging asides about Jesuits, for example, would have resonated even with many Christians in nineteenth-century Britain. They also helped acclimatize people to a gradually unfolding assault on orthodox Christianity. Another of Mill’s stratagems was to invoke phrases such as “higher nature” and “noblest minds” to describe those promoting utility and progress. The implication was that those who opposed Mill’s vision proceeded from base motives or simply weren’t so bright.
Above all, Mill urged his followers to be attuned to the times. In correspondence with Comte, Mill stated that “The time has not yet come when we in England shall be able to direct open attacks on theology, including Christian theology, without compromising our cause.” But “indirectly,” he says in another letter to Comte, “one may strike any blow one wishes at religious beliefs.” That way, he tells Comte, you avoid frightening off “the young” “who would eventually become accustomed to all [positivism’s] consequences, including the antireligious ones.”
Intolerance, Irrelevance, and Reason
Such advice is far removed from the open and fearless pursuit of truth that Mill advocates elsewhere. Instead it reflects a dissembling that matches that of Mill’s fictional Jesuit: one who simulates esteem for others’ beliefs in order to erode and eventually destroy such convictions.
We, however, live in an age when liberalism’s priests and priestesses no longer feign respect for the powerful arguments in favor of the reasonability of Christian faith defended, for instance, by Mill’s contemporary John Henry Newman in his 1870 Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. They increasingly won’t even tolerate Christians living according to the principles of Christian morality. Witness, for instance, their efforts to narrow religious liberty to freedom of worship. To the extent that the clerisy affirms religion, it is the liberal religion excoriated by Newman in his 1879 Biglietto address.
But Mill, I suspect, would be gratified at just how many Christians and Jews have embraced that same liberal faith over the past 150 years. For them, feelings are the measure of morality. That is consistent with liberal religion’s view of God as the indulgent Great Non-Judge: except, of course, with regard to questions such as the environment or supranational bureaucracies. On such subjects, the otherwise soft-spirited Deity and his followers brook little dissent, prudential or otherwise.
Writing twenty-seven years after Mill and Liberalism’s publication, Cowling lamented the extent to which many Christian confessions had collapsed into the religion of liberalism and “become hooked on the politics of the day-before-yesterday.” Their quest for relevance had resulted in true irrelevance, save as cheerleaders for whatever happened to be on the clerisy’s agenda.
Cowling’s observation was that of a High Tory skeptic who primarily valued Christianity as a preserver of small-t tradition. Accordingly, Cowling says little about how Christian faith, like the Hebrew prophets, takes reason and free will far more seriously than Mill and his disciples.
By highlighting, however, the doctrinaire secularism underlying Mill’s liberalism, Cowling cleared a path for combating it. And that is to contest the religion of liberalism on the terrain of what constitutes the reasonable faith and to dispute the clerisy’s claim to a monopoly of reason.
The Hebrew prophets, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, and other lovers of truth would do no less. Neither should we.
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute.