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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Their general tendency. -- Effects on the clergy: they introduce, 1. Implicity faith -- 2. Hypocrisy: topics by which an adherence to them is vindicated. -- Effects on the laity. -- Application.
{603} One of the most striking instances of the injurious effects of the political patronage of opinion, as it at present exists in the world, is to be found in the system of religious conformity. Let us take our example from the church of England, by the constitution of which subscription is required from its clergy to thirty-nine articles of precise and dogmatical assertion upon almost every subject of moral and metaphysical enquiry. Here then we have to consider the whole honours and revenues of the church, from the archbishop who takes precedence next after the princes of the blood royal to the meanest curate in the nation, as employed in support of a system of blind submission and abject hypocrisy. Is there one man through this numerous hierarchy that is at liberty to think for himself? Is there one man among them that can lay his hand upon his heart, and declare, upon his honour and conscience, that his emoluments have no effect in influencing his {604} judgment? The declaration is literally impossible. The most that an honest man under such circumstances can say is, 'I hope not, I endeavour to be impartial.'

First, the system of religious conformity is a system of blind submission. In every country possessing a religious establishment, the state, from a benevolent care it may be for the manners and opinions of its subjects, publicly encourages a numerous class of men to the study of morality and virtue. What institution, we might naturally be led to enquire, can be more favourable to public happiness? Morality and virtue are the most interesting topics of human speculation; and the best effects might be expected to result from the circumstance of many persons, perpetually receiving the most liberal education, and setting themselves apart, for the express cultivation of these topics. But unfortunately these very men are fettered in the outset by having a code of propositions put into their hands, in a conformity to which all their enquiries must terminate. The natural tendency of science is to increase from age to age, and proceed from the humblest beginnings to the most admirable conclusions. But care is taken in the present case to anticipate these conclusions, and to bind men by promises and penalties not to improve upon the wisdom of their ancestors. The plan is to guard against degeneracy and decline, but never to advance. It is founded in the most sovereign ignorance of the nature of mind, which never fails to do either the one or the other. {605}

Secondly, the tendency of a code of religious conformity is to make men hypocrites. To understand this it may be useful to recollect the various subterfuges that have been invented by ingenious men to apologise for the subscription of the English clergy. It is observable by the way the articles of the church are founded upon the creed of the Calvinists, though for one hundred and fifty years past it has been accounted disreputable among the clergy to be of any other than the opposite, or Arminian tenets. Volumes have been written to prove that, while these articles express predestinarian sentiments, they are capable of a different construction, and that the subscriber has a right to take advantage of that construction. Divines of another class have rested their arguments upon the known good character and benevolent intentions of the first reformers, and to have concluded that they could never intend to tyrannise over the consciences of men, or preclude the result of farther information. Lastly, there are many who have treated the articles as articles of peace, and inferred that, though you did not believe, you might allow yourself in the disingenuity of subscribing them, provided you added to it the farther guilt of constantly refraining to oppose what you considered as an adulteration of divine truth.

It would perhaps be regarded as incredible, if it rested upon the evidence of history alone, that a whole body of men, set apart as the instructors to mankind, weaned as they are expected to be from temporal ambition, and maintained from the supposition {606} that the existence of human virtue and divine truth depends on their exertions, should with one consent employ themselves in a casuistry, the object of which is to prove the propriety of a man's declaring his assent to what he does not believe. These men either credit their own subterfuges, or they do not. If they do not, what can be expected from men so unprincipled and profligate? With what front can they exhort other men to virtue, with the brand of vice upon their own foreheads? If they do, what must be their portion of moral sensibility and discernment? Can we believe that men shall enter upon their profession with so notorious a perversion of reason and truth, and that no consequences will flow from it to infect their general character? Rather, can we fail to compare their unnatural and unfortunate state, with the profound wisdom and determined virtue which their industry and exertions would unquestionably have produced, if they had been left to their genuine operation? They are like the victims of Circe, to whom human understanding was preserved entire, that they might more exquisitely feel their degraded condition. They are incited to study and to a thirst after knowledge at the same time that the fruits of knowledge are constantly withheld from their unsuccessful attempts. They are held up to their contemporaries as the professors of truth, and political institution tyrannically commands them, in all the varieties of understanding and succession of ages, to model themselves to one common standard. {607}

Such are the effects that a code of religious conformity produces upon the clergy themselves; let us consider the effects that are produced upon their countrymen. They are bid to look for instruction and morality to a denomination of men, formal, embarrassed and hypocritical, in whom the main spring of intellect is unbent and incapable of action. If the people be not blinded with religious zeal, they will discover and despise the imperfections of their spiritual guides. If they be so blinded, they will not the less transplant into their own characters the imbecil and unworthy spirit they are not able to detect. Is virtue so deficient in attractions as to be incapable of gaining adherents to her standard? Far otherwise. Nothing can bring the wisdom of a just and pure conduct into question, but the circumstance of its being recommended to us from an equivocal quarter. The most malicious enemy of mankind could not have invented a scheme more destructive of their true happiness, than that of hiring at the expense of the state a body of men, whose business it should seem to be to dupe their contemporaries into the practice of virtue.

One of the lessons that powerful facts are perpetually reading to the inhabitants of such countries, is that of duplicity and prevarication in an order of men, which, if it exist at all, ought to exist only for reverence. Do you think that this prevarication is not a subject of general notoriety? Do you think that the first idea that rises to the understanding of the multitude at sight of {608} a clergyman, is not that of a man who inculcates certain propositions, not so properly because he thinks them true or thinks them interesting, as because he is hired to the employment? Whatever instruction a code of religious uniformity may fail to convey, there is one that it always communicates, the wisdom of estimating an unreserved and disinterested sincerity at a very cheap rate. Such are the effects that are produced by political institution, at a time when it most zealously intends with parental care to guard its subjects from seduction and depravity.

These arguments do not apply to any particular articles and creeds, but to the very notion of ecclesiastical establishments in general. Wherever the state sets apart a certain revenue for the support of religion, it will infallibly be given to the adherents of some particular opinions, and will operate in the manner of prizes to induce men at all events to embrace and profess those opinions. Undoubtedly, if I think it right to have a spiritual instructor to guide me in my researches and at stated intervals to remind me of my duty, I ought to be at liberty to take the proper steps to supply myself in this respect. A priest, who thus derives his mission from the unbiassed judgment of his parishioners, will stand a chance to possess beforehand and independently of corrupt influence the requisites they demand. But why should I be compelled to contribute to the support of an institution, whether I approve of it or no? If public worship be conformable to reason, reason without doubt will prove adequate {609} to its vindication and support. If it be from God, it is profanation to imagine that it stands in need of the alliance of the state. It must be in an eminent degree artificial and exotic, if it be incapable of preserving itself in existence, otherwise than by the inauspicious interference of political institution.