Anarchists in general, and Market Anarchists also, have always preached against organized religion, religious rule, and Church-based morality. Nowhere is this more stunningly illustrated than in that famous quote from Diderot, “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest,” or by Bakunin writing, “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”
However, one must note that Christian Anarchists also share this revulsion for organized religion, despite heralding religion as a salvific worldview. Leo Tolstoy, the most famous of all Christian Anarchist writers, was deeply inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s spirituality. Thoreau himself wrote what I consider to be the best statement about religion and Anarchy, which is the following:
The sort of morality which the priests inculcate is a very subtle policy, far finer than the politicians’, and the world is very successfully ruled by them as the policemen.
This is crucial because we have to understand the difference between religious hierarchies, power or authority on one hand, and religious belief or spirituality on the other. An Anarchist must repudiate the former, but has no obligation to reject or embrace the latter.
Tolstoy himself was no friend of religious coercion:
While I am seeking faith, the force of life, they are seeking the best way of fulfilling, in the eyes of men, certain human obligations. And in fulfilling these human affairs they perform them in a human fashion. However much they might speak about their compassion for their lost brethren, or of their prayers for those who stand before the throne of the Almighty, it has been necessary to use force in carrying out human duties. Just as it has always been applied, so it is now, and always will be.
Tolstoy correctly identified the most important issue as the choice between violence and non-violence. He even named one of his books The Law of Love and the Law of Violence, which he wrote two years before he died, and ironically six years before World War 1.
To introduce even more complexities in the matter, Market Anarchy puts a strong emphasis on being able to live the way one desires, in cooperation with others who wish to live in the same way. This must include freedom of religion, if it is to mean anything at all. It would show us as hypocrites to tell the capitalists and the communists that they have the right to live the way they want, and to then turn around and deny it to the Christian or the Hindu. As long as the axiom of self-ownership is respected, we have to take the situation at face value, while trying to convince them of the immorality of authoritarianism, and that they should not strive to mentally isolate themselves from the rest of their society.
This seems to present somewhat of a moral paradox. If the fall of Iceland has proven anything, it’s that religious power wielded as a weapon can, in and of itself, degenerate a free society, and attack its principles of equality, so much that people decide to simply give up. In that case, however, religious power would have been impotent without the widespread belief in the necessity of religion.
In that sense, religious power is very much like political power: without legitimacy, it can do very little. Indeed, the similarities between religion and politics are so numerous as to lead one to the conclusion that there is very little difference indeed, apart from the fact that religion mainly concerns itself with mental coercion and politics with physical coercion.
As such, there seems to me to be no contradiction in a Market Anarchist speaking against religious power, repudiating it as a mode of social organization, insofar as it is a coercive process. The main source of legitimacy for religious power is through the indoctrination of children, which is a grave form of coercion in and of itself. This problem cannot be solved until our society finally recognizes children as persons of their own right, which obviously will not happen any time soon.
Until then, what can we do? As we strongly encourage statists to become “political freethinkers,” we should also encourage churched believers to become freethinkers and reject religious authority and hierarchies. In North America, there is no so much need for concern in that area. But in most parts of the world, religious power strangles peace and individual freedom. The only political solution to this problem is globalization, freedom of trade: as people are exposed to more and more materialistic options, they are more likely to see materialism, not religion, as fulfillment of their values. Since vast areas of the world are now strongly progressing in this area, we can hope that in the future religion will be more and more relegated to the sidelines.
On the other hand, it is important to keep in mind that one should not deny to his fellow man the opportunity to situate himself relative to society and the world in which he lives, and to ask himself questions relative to meaning and being. Market Anarchy certainly answers some of these questions, but spirituality can also play an important role in that process. We simply have to be careful not to confuse the rule of religion with genuine individualistic belief. The former, we must attack with vigor, the latter, we should encourage.