On Liberty and dissenting voices

John Stuart Mill’s timeless essay On Liberty contains the following stirring sentence: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” This was the basis of Mill’s argument about the importance of liberty or freedom.

While I do not believe that freedom is a right or should be our ultimate goal, I do believe that it is this view of liberty – and especially of freedom of speech – that has done much to bring about a generally better world.

Less often cited from Mill is another passage: “However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may be to admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

One of the major problems of evangelicalism these days is that most evangelical leaders believe that they have arrived at a set of truths that are without error. There is an important distinction that they fail to make. Our faith is based on a set of truths that are without error (God’s Word and God’s Himself). But to claim that our understanding and knowledge of God (and His Word) is faultless is clearly wrong (and contrary to Scripture itself, as it happens). If, therefore, we know that our understanding of God is flawed, we MUST open ourselves to the type of “freedom of speech” that Mill was encouraging.

Yet so many evangelicals shut this type of discussion down, and shout down anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe. Such a shame, really, since what they end up with is exactly as Mill envisaged: a dead dogma.

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