In modern liberal democracies we are free to worship as we choose. A big reason for this freedom is that the right way to worship cannot be scientifically proven. The one, true religion, the one, true path to salvation, is unknowable to the human mind. Since there is no outer-objective knowledge for science to extract from nature, we are free to follow the light of our inner conscience. If our inner conscience is wrong, at least we are making the mistake for ourselves, rather than being forced to live the mistaken judgment of some external authority figure.
We have freedom of though and conscience beyond religious ideas. There are very wide boundaries in which we can think and believe whatever we want about anything. Again we can justify this with skepticism toward what the authorities claim to be truth or knowledge. How do they know? Haven’t the authorities been wrong in the past? Hasn’t persecution for holding minority views been something shameful when we look back at history or when we look around the world today?
Another justification for freedom of thought, speech, and conscience compares the costs and benefits. What harm does it do if I disagree with what most people think? James Madison argued that the harm was much greater in removing the liberty that allowed disagreement to exist:
“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”
Faction here, as it relates to subject at hand, is understood as a minority view perceived as being harmful to the rights or interests of the community. So, liberty breeds faction, but liberty is so important we must not abandon it.
Jefferson put it this way: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 Gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
In short, freedom of thought and belief makes sense because of the difficulty of being 100% certain about the truth, because it is crucial for “political life” and self-governance, and because in many cases disagreement does not cause harm.
This freedom leaves us to follow our individual inner conscience to find our way through life and make peace with the world. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Our conscience is not a scientific compass, but is at least partly the product of our experiences, our opinions, and what kind of people we are in the first place. So although we are legally free to resist many of the intellectual and moral authorities of our world, we also depend on them to help us learn and consider the possibilities of what might be true and what might not be. The world is too complicated, information is too hidden, our minds too limited, and our curiosity too lacking, to figure it all out on our own.
On the bright side, it isn’t hard to figure out if you’re satisfied with your life or not. If you’re satisfied, then the complexity of the world isn’t such a big deal. Perfecting our conscience need not be such a high priority or source of anxiety. Exercising freedom of thought and belief itself, really exercising it, like physical exercise, is something you can get around to later. Sure you want to have right opinions just like you want to have a great body, but your opinions as they are, and your body as it is, is getting the job done for the time being.
Is this all there is to it? Does the prospect for more people getting fired up about discovering and sharing the truth about things, and loving their freedom to do so, have as much hope as the prospect for more people getting to the gym?
The only concerns that I think inspire a great deal of motivation to get more serious about discovering the truth are our existential concerns. The problem with modern liberal society, however, as I mentioned at the beginning, is that existential concerns are thought to be beyond the limits of human knowledge. Imagine trying to get a guy to the gym with the guarantee that all of his gains will be confined to his own imagination, while his body will remain in its same flabby state. That’s what we tell people about their search for salvation and finding a religion that works for them.
Of course, we can also focus on existential concerns of this world, and the ability of our family, our country, our civilization to endure and to prosper. Freedom of thought raises some problems here too, however, as we are free to have so many different ideas about how to achieve worldly salvation that we cannot decide on a single direction to march in, which is what such a collective project would require — unity.
The only conclusion I will leave in this post is that modern liberal democracy has problems that emerge directly out of its own principles. Freedom and truth have a complicated relationship, as does the underlying motivation to exercise freedom to pursue truth and the desire for salvation or immortality.