Religion and the Maxim Society

These are notes from a lecture I presented on “Religion In the Maxim Society” in Ron Howard’s class on Voluntary Social Systems (no class website that I could find).

In case you’re wondering, a maxim society is one in which every law flows from the maxim that “peaceful, honest people have a right to be left alone.” It is a theoretical society without any coercion and with maximal freedom. If you weren’t in the class, this won’t make much sense to you–my apologies. I put this online to help out the students from the class, not to educate the Internet at large about my hypothetical musings on theoretical societies.

If you were in the class, these notes should be close to what I said but not completely identical. Two reasons: I didn’t deliver my notes verbatim and I tweaked one or two points in response to some of the questions that let me know where I had been unclear. Also, in these notes I have attempted to provide all my sources and to hyperlink any references to make it easy to check me out.

Academics Often Ignore Religion (foolishly)
In the world of academics, religion is often overlooked. This point is illustrated quite strikingly by British economist Ernst Schumacher in the opening lines of his book A Guide For the Perplexed:

On a visit to Leningrad some years ago I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. From where I stood, I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said: We dont show churches on our maps. Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. That is a museum, he said, not what we call a living church. It is only the living churches we dont show.

It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map which failed to show many things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity had been complete; and no interpreter had come along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps. (E.F. Schumacher, A Guide For the Perplexed page 1)

Today I want to help you take a look at the likely nature of religion in a society in which all laws flow from the maxim, Peaceful, honest people have the right to be left alone.

Or, to flesh out the terms in the maxim: People who do not use force on others and who fulfill their contractual obligations to others have the right to not be coerced.

Such a society is a staple in the genre of science fiction. As a science fiction fan, Im always amazed at the widespread assumption in such tales that religion will have at most a marginal role in future societies, and that if religion does survive it will be in a virtually unrecognizable form.

The reasons for such an assumption are myriad, and I could spend the rest of this class period raising and countering them.

Ill give you just two reasons why such an assumption is nave.

Religion Will Exist In Any Society, Regardless of Structure
First, God exists. You may not accept that fact, but it is a fact regardless of your feelings on the matter. That obviously has a bearing on the rationality and continuance of religious behavior.

Second, people are fundamentally religious. Even if you choose to deny the existence of God, you must grant this fact. People are, by nature, inclined towards religious beliefs and practices. That wont change, and it should be obvious to any casual student of history.

Consider that despite the supposed secularization of the world that we are now in the midst of a worldwide religious revival. This may come as a surprise to you, so I encourage you to do your own research. Speaking for Christianity, I tell you that more people are becoming followers of Jesus now on a daily basis that at any point in human history. They are doing so in all sorts of societies and in all sorts of conditions.

At the same time, atheism is a worldview in serious decline. There are fewer atheists today than there were a century ago (many sources support this statement: here are two I find interesting it is likely that there were fewer real atheists in 1990 than in 1890. Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties, revised edition, p. 701. (1991) and Too many intellectuals look down on religion and think that it will go away. God is not going to go away. There are far more religious people in the world today than when I was born. 100-year-old philosopher Charles Hartshorne in U.S. News and World Report Feb 23, 1998), and I expect that trend to continue. David Brooks wrote an article called Kicking the Secularist Habit in this months Atlantic Monthly: he said, and I quote, It’s now clear that the secularization theory is untrue. The human race does not necessarily get less religious as it grows richer and better educated. We are living through one of the great periods of scientific progress and the creation of wealth. At the same time, we are in the midst of a religious boom.

Incidentally, I should also mention that to most people it is intuitively obvious that religious belief and moral belief are related. That is relevant to our discussion today insofar as the maxim society presupposes a certain moral framework held in common by its citizenry. Faith provides that frameworkas the framers of the American constitution said, Man is endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights You may not acknowledge the connection yourself, but you have to come to grips with the fact that most people see it clearly. If the maxim society is unable to make itself palatable to people who hold to that connection, it will not last long.

The reasoning for such an intuitive link is quite compelling, by the way. One must merely acknowledge that the laws of morality are fundamentally different from the laws of physics, and then follow the logic trail wherever it goes. In this case, it takes us to another part of reality than the one the laws of physics operates inthe reality of the transcendent. Any purely materialistic view of humanity will at best construe an arbitrary morality. Any sense of the laws of morality as somehow real and universal is firmly embedded in a supernatural worldview.

In short, it would be foolish of us to assume that religion will disappear. Religion will continue to existthe really interesting question is how religion would adapt to the specific demands of a maxim society.

A Brief Disclaimer

At this point, I should mention that most of my examples will be about Christianity. I do this not to be unfair but rather to be as fair as possible. I know Christianity best and am most accurate when I speak about it. I hate it when Christianity is misrepresented in public forum, and I have no wish to inadvertently distort another faith.

Having said that, I will reference other faiths, but my observations regarding them will be of a more tentative nature.

Entrepreneurial Religions Would Flourish In A Maxim Society

The prime benefactors in a society based on freedom will be entrepreneurial religions, by which I mean religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism that focus on persuading others to convert.

You commonly hear that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world. That claim is misleadingits based upon a combination of two facts: first, Islam is concentrated in developing cultures with very high birthrates. Second, in many of those cultures you inherit your parents religion by coercive law. When you look at rates of adult conversion, Christianity is growing around 3 times faster than Islam (note to classmembers, I found this statistic online and attempted to track it down again, but the original link seems to have changed–sorry). In the maxim society any adult would be free to choose their own religious beliefs free of coercion and I think it is also likely that the maxim society would, on the whole, have a relatively low birthrate compared to the developing cultures.

In other words, the maxim society will be very conducive to the spread of Christian belief.

That claim is counterintuitive to many of you, so allow me to expand my reasoning.

Christianity does best in one of two contexts.
1) Where there is true freedom of religion.
2) Where Christianity is persecuted.

Conversely, the Church does poorly when it is wedded to the state, especially when it is favored by the state (and hence subject to regulation).

Here are some examples:
Freedom of religion: America. Christianity has flourished and is flourishing here. America is by no means overrun with evangelical fervor, but no observer of our society can deny that Christianity has done exceptionally well in America.
Where Christianity is persecuted: the ultimate example is, of course, the Roman Empire. We wound up taking it over (much to our detriment). The modern example is China. The Christian church in China is exploding. Estimates vary wildly, but the sources I trust tell me that there are at least 75,000,000 Christians in an overtly atheistic state that seeks to suppress the faith (see for a wide range of estimates, some much lower than I have just provided and some much higher).
Wedded to the state: the historical example would be the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. Religion was corrupted by governmentwhich is what invariably happens. The modern day example Id use England. Anglicanism is the official faith of England, and the royalty are the official heads of the Church. Most of the European democracies, though secular, have such squirrelly arrangements and do annoying legislative things to prevent evangelical groups from propagating their faith (sometimes even labeling us as cults because we are so different from what they expect Christian denominations to be like). Church attendance in England is abysmal even though over of the population believe in God. They dont attend church because they dont like church, and Id argue that they dont like church because theres not as much freedom of religion in England as there is in America. Which, lest we forget, is one of the chief historical reasons America exists.

Another category of religious practice that will do very well is what Ill call smorgasbord spirituality. You see this all over the place in America: people take whatever beliefs and practices they like from the various religions and merge them in a way that they find personally fulfilling. Such potluck approaches to faith will certainly continue to do well.

Faiths that will be adversely affected include groups that rely on coercion. This is for obvious reasons. For example, Scientology frequently uses libel lawsuits to prevent people from speaking out against them. Such lawsuits would not be allowable in the maxim society, and so such groups lose an important weapon in their arsenal.

Obviously, groups that rely on physical coercion would be straight out the window.

By way of contrast, I suspect that a religion such as Buddhism would be virtually unaffected. Buddhism is not particularly evangelistic and tends to abide by the maxim as it is. Interested people will continue to explore it and disinterested people will continue to be ignorant of it.

A Maxim Society Would Have A Unique Religious Dynamic
This is a section of more or less interesting thoughts about the likely results either of the maxim society on religion and religion on the maxim society.

1. Religious communities would become absolutely central to all meeting of human needs.

Religiously motivated compassion is instrumental in all American charity, not just faith-based charities. 75% of all the money given to so-called secular nonprofits is given by people who also give to a local church, mosque, or synagogue (in other words, they are memberssee for some illuminating reports on this).

On top of that, if the average North American congregation were to bill its community for the social services it provides, the tab would be about $184,000 per year (this figure comes from Ram A. Cnaan, The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare, New York University Press, 2002). Multiply that by the over 300,000 congregations in America (according to the U.S. State Department) and youll see that local congregations provide direct social services that would be valued at roughly $55 billion dollars on top of the individual charitable donations of their members. That number will certainly increase if there are no more social services provided by a government. While preparing these notes for the web, I ran across an interesting press release at National Center for Policy Analysis presenting these and related facts.

I daresay that the vast majority of charities would become faith-based. If you doubt it, look to historyhospitals, schools, and rehabilitation programs are started by faith groups when the government doesnt do it. America is a prime example.

2. Education would become predominantly religious. I suppose this is really a subcategory of my last point, but it was probably not apparent to you as I was talking.

Most elite American universities were founded for religious reasons. The founding of religious colleges has slowed (but by no means died) as a result of state-sponsored schools. Without such governmental institutions, religious colleges would thrive.

This would not just be true at the collegiate level. The educational system in American has a strongly religious heritage?people who value holy books have a vested interested in a literate society, and religious people who realize that children are forming their core values have a vested interest in presenting as many of them with a robust faith-based perspective on life.

There would, of course, be secular rivals. For example, there would be industry-sponsored trade schools. Nonetheless, I strongly suspect that the largest and best schools would be religious, and that many nonreligious people would send their children to the religious schools for the quality of their education.

And you should never underestimate how much strongly religious people value having their children instructed within their own religious tradition. The constant battles we fight in America over school prayer and the rights of religious clubs to exist at public schools should serve as a reminder.

3. In the maxim society, marriage would be just another type of contract between two parties. Most people would still seek to have their marriages ratified by religious bodies, and so I expect that the nature of marriage would splinter in many directions. For example, in a Christian marriage I would stipulate clauses such as the following: promising to refrain from all sexual behavior with anyone other than the spouse, refraining from pornography, a clause demanding that all future contracts brokered by either partner include a clause which includes their marital partner, a promise to attend a Christian church as a couple, and a severe penalty clause for divorce.

Gay marriages would be legal, as would polygamous relationships. I personally would not participate in legitimating such marriages, but there are clergy who would if the people desired the blessing of a religious body and if they dont desire such a blessing they can craft whatever contract they wish.

4. Individuals in the maxim society would become key players in financing world evangelization for entrepreneurial religions, owing chiefly to the affluence in such a society and the lack of taxation which would make more income disposable.

5. There would no longer be any legal distinction between non-profit and for-profit organizations. That means that you would begin to see some pretty remarkable organizational developments which I cannot even begin to predict. I will say that if you think televangelists are something, just wait until all the rules are waived!

6. Balkanization of stretches of property–>various religious groups would attempt to co-opt the society by purchasing swaths of land and requiring people to agree to certain contractual obligations upon entering the zone. For example, a Hindu swath might make vegetarianism obligatory while in the zone. Radical Amish might forbid any machinery in their zone. Certainly fundamentalist Shiite muslims would create Islamic zones.

Conversely, some people offended by religion might create religion-free zones. You may only enter said zone if you promise to refrain from any religious conversations or activities.

Note, none of this is coercive. If you dont like the rules, dont enter the zone.

I should say that I dont think this would be widespread. Most religious groups will discover that it is in their best interest to gently woo nonbelievers by intermingling with them and demonstrating a hopefully superior lifestyle. Isolationist groups will not fare well.

Also, I should mention that contrary to widespread opinion, religious people are more tolerant than secular people. I believe you can find some research about this in The Saints Among Us by George Gallup (yes, that George Gallup). Religious people tend to hold tolerance as a value, and so in addition to pragmatic reasons for not isolating themselves from the world they will also have moral ones.

7. Some religious bodies would likely create membership contracts that stipulate conformity to group norms not covered by the maxim. For example, I could envision an Orthodox Jewish synagogue requiring a contractual clause mandating the consumption of kosher foods as part of its membership contract.

You might expect that voluntary groups that require a lot of their members would tend to evaporate in the maxim society. I dont think so. Sociologists of religion have long observed that those religious groups which require the most from their members grow fastest and have the greatest loyalty. Speaking specifically as a Christian minister, I assert with confidence that those churches which expect the most from their members in terms of time, energy, and resources tend to grow the fastest. I see no reason this would change.

In fact, I think the maxim society would prove to be a very fertile ground for groups that we would consider to be extremely unhealthy.

Those are just some thoughts I had on the nature of religion in a maxim society. There are many, many more ways in which religion would change the society and society would influence religion.

A Maxim Society Is At Least Tolerable And Possibly Desirable

So far I have simply taken the potential existence of a maxim society and discussed in a theoretical way the likely role of religion within it. For just a few moments in closing, Id like to comment on the desirability of the maxim society.

You might expect me to object to the maxim society because it legitimizes immorality in some form or another. For example, it does not allow one to pass a societywide law making prostitution illegal.

Im actually okay with having a legal structure that permits immoral actions. Laws must always act a level inferior to that of ethics. Every one of us will fail morally in one way or another. If we make all sin illegal then everyone faces punishment!

Jesus himself recognized this when he was asked about divorce. Jesus said divorce was not part of Gods plan for humans, and so his opponents asked him why Moses permitted the ancient Israelites to divorce. Jesus replied, Moses permitted divorce as a concession to your hard-hearted wickedness, but it was not what God had originally intended. (Matthew 19:3–9)

In other words, Jesus explicitly affirms the idea that some things that are immoral should not be illegal.

Therefore, I would say that the maxim society is tolerable from a moral standpoint: it permits some things that people really ought not do but it prohibits them from doing the worst things they could do. I can live with that.

Morality must live at a higher standard than laws. By that I do not primarily mean that morality stands in opposition to law; indeed, the maxim itself is not immoral. What I mean is that morality must call us to voluntarily aspire to a higher standard than the law requires us to live at.

For the record, I would say that the moral maxim for an individual life was expressed by Jesus: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Upon these two commandments rest all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:34–40)

In other words, there may be no legal requirement for you to throw a life preserver to a drowning man, but there is a moral one. In the same way, there can be no society-wide requirement for people to attend religious services, but there is a moral obligation to love God with all our hearts.

So I do not condemn the maxim society for not forbidding behaviors and beliefs I find regrettable. In fact, I find much to commend within the maxim society. In fact, I see significant correlations between the Christian faith and the underpinnings of the maxim society.

What do I mean?

I mean that the maxim society is driven by contracts. So is Christianity. Give me just a moment here: I think this part may be more instructive for you than anything else Ive said today. I will tell you what I first thought when I, as a missionary, began to contemplate ministry within a maxim society.

A Case Study: How I, As A Christian Missionary, Would Approach A Maxim Society

This might help you to see how other religious people and groups are likely to function within the maxim society.

My first thought was jubilation. Christianity could tear it up in a maxim society because the maxim society would make certain Christian concepts more understandable to the average citizen.

The Bible is divided into two sections: the Old Testament and the New Testament. That word testament, means covenant. Covenant is a specific type of contract.

In other words, the Bible has two divisions: the Old Contract and the New Contract. The Old Contract is the story of Gods dealings with the nation of Israel. He established a contract with them that contained a clause that referred to the coming of a savior. The New Testament is the record of what happened when God exercised that option in the contract.

Heres the essence of it in a nutshell:
1) We belong to God because He created us.
2) In return for the gift of life, God expects us to be moral (as I defined morality earlier).
3) Each of us has violated this implicit contract and done things we knew were wrong.
4) God was under no obligation to forgive us for our wrongdoing, but mercifully chose to offer us a renegotiated contract in the person of Jesus.
5) That contract is simply this: we acknowledge our contractual violations (i.e., we confess that we have sinned), we declare our intention to stop violating the terms of the contract (we repent of our sins), and we ask him to overlook our violations (we ask for his forgiveness). We then ask for Gods help in fulfilling this new contract and seal the deal by trusting in Jesus to be our leader and forgiver.

By the way, I am no longer speaking of theory but of fact. If you would like to learn more about living life according to Gods plan visit our website or talk to me after class. God is real and He can change your life.

Obviously, theres more I could say about this, but I just wanted you to see that theres no intrinsic antagonism between the maxim society and faith. Faith will find a way.

So Ive not really got major problems with the maxim society.

Some Practical Considerations Unrelated to Religion
My chief concerns with the maxim society are not moral or religious in nature, theyre just practical. Here are a few thoughts which Im sure youve talked about, but whose resolution is not apparent to me.

* There is a constant reference to laws that are based upon the maxim (e.g., the case of adoption, the case of pollution, the laws governing what constitutes a valid contract) yet I find no provision for law makers.
* I dont think the maxim society deals well with the problems of global terrorism. Ive heard it suggested that the maxim society would have no need to fear terrorism, but I find that implausible. Suppose that Israel became a maxim society within the next year. Does anyone seriously believe that their terrorism problems would go away?
* The idea of a militia-based defense seems to me to be suboptimal. There is a category difference between professional soldiers with well-trained leadership and a ragtag band of yahoos who buy surface-to-air missiles on the open market. Im not sure the maxim society could withstand invasion from an enemy such as the United States. For example, suppose that Mexico became a maxim society. Instantly, it would become a haven for drug lords. I can conceive of scenarios in which the United States would deem regime change to be in its best interests.

Read If Youre Curious About Christianity
* Os Guinness, Long Journey Home
* C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Read If Youre Curious About Faith And Freedom
* Various articles by the Acton Institute
* Os Guinness, The Great Experiment: Faith and Freedom in America

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