By George H. Smith:
An atheist is rarely asked to write an essay on “religion’s positive role in society,” but it is fitting that this request came from the Acton Institute. Lord Acton (1834-1902) was a Catholic, a classical liberal, and a great historian who devoted his life to the history of liberty.
Acton always stressed this important truth: No one group or movement, religious or secular, deserves exclusive credit for the theory and evolution of free institutions. All historians should avoid the unpardonable sin of “making history into the proof of their theories.” Instead, the historian should try “to do the best he can for the other side, and to avoid pertinacity or emphasis on his own.”
.... Ironically, Acton’s Catholicism and my atheism give us something in common. In Protestant countries, Catholics and atheists were often lumped together and branded as subversive minorities whose doctrines, if permitted to circulate freely, would jeopardize the core values of a free society.
This “dark myth” was especially popular in seventeenth-century England, where it found adherents even among some of liberalism’s most distinguished founding fathers. John Locke, for example, argued that religious liberty is a “natural right” that should be enjoyed by everyone–except Catholics and atheists. The doctrines of these minorities, Locke believed, are incompatible with the moral foundations of a free society (though for different reasons), so they should be legally suppressed.
Acton attacked this dark myth in two ways. First, he identified minority rights as a defining characteristic of a free society: “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.” Second, according to Acton, the history of liberty is inextricably linked to the history of minorities:
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