John Stuart Mill’s Intolerant Faith and the Religion of Liberalism

Jun 19, 2017 by

by Samuel Gregg, Public Discourse:

John Stuart Mill foreshadows the deeply intolerant faith and agenda of contemporary liberalism.

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.

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