Is There Another Way to Discover the Truth than by Free Discussion?

Pope Leo XIII’s (1810-1903) encyclical letter of June 20, 1888 declared that the public authorities ought diligently to repress the publication of “lying opinions”.

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 3: Freethought II: Freedom of Expression

Is There Another Way to Discover the Truth than by Free Discussion?

That brings me to the last element of what could be called “the closed mind.”[176] Presupposed in the worldview of those who do not feel at ease with religious criticism, of course, is that we already know what is true. Truth is manifested to us in divine revelation. We already know that man is not descended from the apes, because God told us so. We already know that Mohammed’s character and behavior are immaculate, because we have been informed of this in the hadith and the Qur’an. There simply is no need for further research. We already know – this is the motto of all the censors, inquisitors, and other people eager to kill the free flow of ideas and intellectual debate. The only thing that counts is the dissemination of a message of which the content is clear and unassailable, because it has been “revealed” to us, and the suppression or elimination of all obstacles (in the heyday of suppression including “persons”) that stand in the way of the truth that has already been found.

Intimately connected with this worldview is a concept of free speech. Free speech, according to some, means the freedom to disseminate views that are “true.” Freedom to spread false views can never be brought under the banner of “real” free speech. What the advocates of false ideas refer to as “free speech” is really a perversion of that principle.

This vision of free speech is highly questionable. Richard Robinson (1902–1996) commented on Pope Leo XIII’s (1810–1903) encyclical letter of June 20, 1888 in which the pope declared that the public authorities ought diligently to repress the publication of “lying opinions.”

Robinson indicated that there are two good reasons for free speech. First, freedom is a great good and any suppression of freedom is consequently an evil. Second, toleration[177] of free speech is far more likely to produce a general spread of true opinion than the suppression of it.

Both reasons are relevant here, but the second needs more emphasis perhaps because it is likely to be overlooked. That has to do with the fact that many people (and the Pope among them) think that if speech is left free, false views will generally be more easily adopted than true ones. The Pope said: “If unbridled license of speech and writing be granted to all, nothing will remain sacred and inviolate; even the highest and truest mandates of nature, justly held to be the common and noblest heritage of the human race, will not be spared.”[178] Robinson does not agree. He objects: “When moral rules are not allowed to be criticized, bad ones creep in, and good ones are held in a stupid and immoral way.”[179] This is all in the tradition of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

An impressive vindication of free speech was also recently formulated by A.C. Grayling (1949– ) in his book Liberty in the Age of Terror (2009) when he writes:

it is clear that the effort to censor the Danish cartoons by riots and violence, and by threats against the lives of cartoonists and editors, is infinitely the greater offence. It represents a crucial point of difference between the value of free speech and all that turns upon it, and the retrogressive, reactionary, static, punitive and mind-numbingly limited view that monolithic ideologies, spectacularly among them the more fundamentalist religions or versions of religions, seek to impose.[180]

The freethinker starts from a different basis than the “true believer.” According to the freethinker what is true must be established by a painful process of discovery.[181] Religion is not excluded from that process.[182] Inhibiting this process will make it impossible to find out what the nature of reality is. So what orthodox people, who frustrate the process of the free development of religion and science, do is to beg the question. We do not know what is true. What is true and what is just have to be found out. And therefore we need to canvass all the options that are available to us, all the theories that are being proposed – even if those theories seem prima facie absurd, insulting or offensive. We still have to test them (i.e. publish them, discuss them) in order to corroborate what counts as the truth.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[176] Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind.

[177] Toleration in the classic sense, not in the sense of giving no offence to religious feelings. What Robinson advocates is toleration in the sense used by Leslie Stephen. See: Stephen, Leslie, “Poisonous Opinions,” in: Stephen, Leslie An Agnostic’s Apology and Other Essays, Smith, Elder & Co., London 1893 (republished 1969), pp. 242–338, p. 288: “Toleration implies that each man must have a right to say what he pleases.”

[178] Pope Leo XIII, quoted in: Robinson, Richard, An Atheist’s Values, The Clarendon Press, Oxford 1964, p. 205.

[179] Ibid., p. 206.

[180] Grayling, A.C., Liberty in the Age of Terror: A Defense of Civil Liberties and Enlightenment Values, Bloomsbury, London 2009, p. 68.

[181] This is especially emphasized by a modern freethinker, Karl Popper. See: Popper, Karl R., “Science: Conjecture and Refutations.”

[182] See on this: Wijnberg, Rob, “Mill en de vrijheid van meningsuiting” [Mill and Freedom of Expression], in: Dirk Verhofstadt, ed., John Stuart Mill: 150 jaar over vrijheid [John Stuart Mill: 150 Years on Liberty], Houtekiet/Atlas, Antwerpen 2009, pp. 31–41, p. 37 who proclaims that religious worldviews should be treated like every other worldview and therefore not be exempted from criticism.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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