Friday, December 23, 2016

Sin of Certainty Sutton Book Review


Why God Desires
 “Our” Trust More Than
 “Our” Correct Beliefs 

     Peter Enns

Reviewed by

     Geoffrey W. Sutton

Chances are you’ve met a few people who insist their beliefs are right. They don’t hesitate to denounce others as not just wrong but as evil people--people out to ruin the country, destroy lives, and on the brink of eternal damnation.

If you followed the 2016 campaign for president of the United States, you know what I’m talking about—many people were sure their candidate was right and the other one was an evil menace. And some of those people attacked “friends” and family on social media and elsewhere.

I read Enn’s book, The Sin of Certainty in 2017. My review hasn’t been published yet but I will post some text here and give you a link to the full, unpublished version. It’s certainly a book worth reading.

The “Sin” in Peter Enns’ book is a devotion to correct beliefs rather than a devotion to God characterized by trust. Trust in a person—God—is the only way for Christians to maintain faith qua faithfulness when simple biblical quotes don’t seem to square with challenges from scientists or life events.

You will find four challenges to certainty in the last few hundred years. These “oh-oh” moments challenged thinking Christians—and still do.

1. The scientific evidence for evolution caused many to doubt the literal words in Genesis.

2. Archaeologists found old texts from other cultures indicating the words attributed to Moses were not unique to him.

3. Biblical research challenged the views of religious scholars about the way the Bible was written.

4. The theological battle over American slavery raised questions about using the Bible for moral guidance when clergy preached contradictory messages.

Of course, these four issues continue into the present in one form or another. As I’ve written elsewhere, Christians are A HouseDivided.

Here’s a few quotes you might find interesting.

“Let me say again that beliefs themselves are not the problem. Working out what we believe is worthy of serious time and effort in our lives of faith. But our pursuit of having the right beliefs and locking them up in a vault are not the center of faith. Trust in God is. When holding to correct thinking becomes the center, we have shrunk faith in God to an intellectual exercise” (22).

“The long Protestant quest to get the Bible right has not led to greater and greater certainty about what the Bible means. Quite the contrary. It has led to a staggering number of different denominations and sub denominations that disagree sharply about how significant portions of the Bible should be understood. I mean, if the Bible is our source of sure knowledge about God, how do we explain all this diversity? Isn’t the Bible supposed to unify us rather than divide us?” (p. 52)

“When we are in despair or fear and God is as far away from us as the most distant star in the universe, we are at that moment ‘with’ Christ more than we know—and perhaps more than we ever have been—because when we suffer, we share in and complete Christ’s sufferings” (200).


Enns, P. (2017). The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires “Our” Trust More Than “Our” Correct Beliefs. New York: HarperOne.

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Link to my longer review on Academia 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Forgiveness Therapy Anger and Hope Sutton Reviews




     Robert D. Enright &

     Richard P. Fitzgibbons,

Reviewed by

     Geoffrey W. Sutton

In the last few decades, forgiveness books and research studies have multiplied. Fortunately for clinicians, Enright and Fitzgibbons have provided a comprehensive work that is clinician focused with reviews of supportive research.

I was glad for the opportunity to review this update by one of the world’s leading forgiveness researchers. My interest in forgiveness, particularly but not exclusively Christian forgiveness, began during my work as a psychotherapist. More recently I have been involved in several research projects focused on, or inclusive, of forgiveness. My point is that the psychology of forgiveness is important to both clinicians and academics. And forgiveness is a process of value to people of many religions or none at all.

My review has been accepted for publication in an academic journal. In this post, I will provide an overview of the book and provide a link to the journal article.

Two key themes are evident in the authors’ approach to forgiveness. One is obvious in their definition of forgiveness (morality) and the second is present in many paragraphs but not so obvious (anger).

For the record, here is their definition of forgiveness (pp. 26-27).

People, on rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they willfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which they have a right) and endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the hurtful act or acts, has no right).

The authors discuss morality in their overview chapter. They suggest forgiveness therapy is not a good fit with treatments that exclude ideas of right and wrong or justice and mercy. In contrast, forgiveness therapy is a good fit for approaches that recognize a rights-based morality.

Two primary dimensions of moral foundation theory proposed by Haidt and his colleagues are evident in the forgiveness definition. First, the injustice is founded on unfair treatment justifying the offended person’s negative thoughts and feelings. Second, the acts of the offender result in harm. Forgiveness thus becomes a moral response to give up a redress of violated rights in favor of moral love.

Now let me address the theme of anger.  Anger as the starting point for clinical work and a key feature of forgiveness therapy. They elaborate on anger as a complex state “at the center of forgiveness therapy (p. 17).” You will find the concept of anger coming up again and again in different chapters.

 Enright and Fitzgibbons organized Forgiveness Therapy into three parts for a total of 16 chapters. They provide a description of their four-phase process model in the Introduction and offer details in chapter 4.

In phase one, clients uncover their hurts and begin to deal with their emotional pain. The decision phase (phase two) follows the developmental progression. At this point, clients learn about forgiveness and distinguish forgiveness from potential barriers such as beliefs that forgiveness entails reconciliation (chapters two and three). Clinicians will find a helpful 23-item checklist indicating what forgiveness is not on page 41. Clients learn to shift their attention to their offenders in the work phase (three). Various exercises help clients feel empathy and compassion for the offender. Finally, the deepening phase (four) helps clients find meaning in the process of forgiving and consider ways forgiveness may be applied to other offenses.

The phases are covered in considerable depth and include a total of 20 therapy tasks or units ranging from 3 to 8 per phase. The concept of units is similar to a list of tasks that clients accomplish within each phase. For example, in the uncovering phase clients develop an “awareness of cognitive rehearsal of the offense.” The authors note that not all people follow the same sequence to reach forgiveness.

There are six chapters in Part II (chapters 6-11). Each chapter illustrates how forgiveness therapy may play a role in the treatment of a specific mental disorder or group of mental disorders. The authors review the criteria of common DSM-5 (2013) conditions with a focus on the features of anger or irritability in the diagnostic criteria as well as in related research.

Examples of chapter contents include: Depressive, Bipolar, Anxiety, and Addictive disorders. Additional chapters address conditions of childhood and adolescence such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder and forgiveness for couples and families.

Part III includes five chapters representing a mix of topics. Chapter 12 covers forgiveness education. Readers will find suggestions for teaching forgiveness ideas to children, youth, and adults. In addition, readers will find free online educational resources at

Chapter 13 reviews ways to assess forgiveness—including five measures developed by the authors and their colleagues. Chapters 14 and 15 offer philosophical considerations dealing with challenges to forgiveness and matters of morality and religious faith. 

The final chapter is a summary and conclusion chapter. It includes an expanded idea of hope—a word found in the book’s title. The authors encourage readers to be a part of a hopeful future by leaving a legacy of forgiveness for the betterment of humanity.

Reflections on Forgiveness Therapy

I think this books is best suited to clinicians. I think the case examples and integration with diagnoses will make the book particularly useful to new clinicians who have not explored the many ways forgiveness interventions may help treat aspects of other concerns than "just a forgiveness issue." 

I also think the book will be helpful by clergy and human service workers who frequently encounter people who feel hurt and distressed by problems that may have ocurred many years ago. Understanding how anger over past hurts can be a factor in many aspects of mental illness can open possibilities for progress.

The book is especially suited to clinicians treating Christian patients since forgiveness is an important aspect of Christian faith. It is noteworthy that forgiveness is a virtue in many faiths and cultures.

Finally, a word of caution. Despite the effectiveness of forgiveness interventions, forgiveness is not a panacea. Forgiveness is not a substitute for other and perhaps more important concerns in treatment.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R.P. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Sutton, G. W. (in press). [Review of the book Forgiveness Therapy: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope by Robert D. Enright and Richard P. Fitzgibbons.] Journal of Psychology and Christianity. Accepted June 20, 2016.

Journal book review links             ResearchGate

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Monday, November 21, 2016

God Religious Delusions and Violence -Book Review


By Richard Dawkins

Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton

I heard cries and screams coming from a group of young women down the hall from my office. When I got up to take a look, a colleague explained they were praying for a woman possessed by a demon.

Over the years, I have consulted on cases of people who reported being Jesus Christ or having personal encounters with supernatural beings. Often individuals and their families were in deep despair. And we live in an age when religious people destroy in the name of their faith.

Supernatural experiences appear to impair rather than enhance well-being in some people. As a clinical psychologist, I approach reports of supernatural phenomena from a somewhat different perspective than does biologist, Richard Dawkins. I'm less concerned about a logical refutation than I am about the destructive power of faith-wielding combatants.


In The God Delusion, Dawkins leads an attack on God or gods and those believers who wreak havoc when they feel led by their sincere beliefs or ordered by a supernatural being. The quintessential example is the 911 attacks on America. Not content to analyze and attack those who perpetuate violence in the name of religion, Dawkins seeks to show that religion itself is to blame.

My academic review was published in 2009. But as I write this post in 2016, Dawkins’ challenge remains alive. Those of us who identify as Christian won’t appreciate his manner of attack. Yet many of us have wondered about the strange beliefs and distorted logic guiding suicide bombers, genocidal violence, and unfounded religiously-motivated memes that dehumanize political candidates and those religious adherents who simply hold a different view of things.

Dawkins and his fellow atheists are unlikely to make much headway in eliminating religion. However, Dawkins’ missive remains a timely reminder that not all religious beliefs and practices are benevolent. And some are downright evil.

I find many of the points I made in my published review still relevant—likely because the evils of religion continually make headlines. Hate is alive. Media-savvy users spew invitations to violence with disregard for truth. The blood of innocents is mingled with that of religious and secular warriors.

One point I did not make before was the futility of relying on reasoning to disable destructive thoughts and concomitant behavior. I am amazed at the insidious power of destructive religious memes.

Dawkins focused on raising consciousness about the atheistic alternative to faith. He has at least succeeded in raising awareness of the destructive power of some religious beliefs–especially when belief catalyzes behavior.

Some religious leaders responded to Dawkins’ attacks with defensive maneuvers. In my view, we should be about the business of promoting peace, joy, love, forgiveness, reconciliation and other virtues. New narratives perpetuating life-affirming memes must combat destructive viruses in all media outlets and sacred places. Destructive religious memes invade vulnerable minds.

Religious leaders may be challenged to provide evidence that their faith transforms people in ways deemed virtuous in the canons of many faiths. Religious violence must be publicly condemned and disavowed. Religious leaders need to graduate from their seminaries ready to reveal God at work in the redemption of humanity rather than contributing to religious divides or worse.

Reference this post in APA style

Sutton, G. W. (2016, November 21). God and religious delusions [Web log post]. Retrieved from 

References (APA style)

Dawkins, R. (2006). The God delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Sutton, G. W. (2016). A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.

Sutton, G. W. (2009). [Review of the book The god delusion by R. Dawkins]. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 11, 235-239.   Academia Link    Researchgate

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What Rob Bell Says about Sexuality and Christian Spirituality God Sex Book Review





By Rob Bell

Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton

What Rob Bell Says about Sexuality and Christian Spirituality

 When I was writing A House Divided, I read Bell’s book, Sex God, as part of my quest to see what various evangelical Christians have said on the subject.

Bell, a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, founded the evangelical Mars Hill Church in Grandville, Michigan. His bestselling books have sometimes promoted controversy within Christian cultures because of his nontraditional views on classic teachings about such doctrines as salvation. He has been associated with the emerging church movement. In my book, I cite Bell as an example of the views of progressive Christians in contrast to those of conservative Christians.

As with most of Bell’s writings, Sex God is an easy-to-read poetry-like collection of essays aimed at a general Christian audience. It is neither a sex manual nor a theological treatise but he does offer helpful insights into several ways human sexuality is connected to Christian spirituality.

Appropriate to his somewhat confusing thesis, he begins with stories illustrating the close connection between people and their creator and makes the point that honoring God is intimately connected to honoring God’s image in people-- including their sexuality.

Bell takes up the interpersonal connections following the introduction where he reminds readers that sex is often disconnected from a loving relationship as in the extreme example of purchasing sex, and not a relationship, from a sex worker. 

God’s love for humanity is at least a secondary theme popping up in this work. This theme made me wonder if Bell is out to share a message of redemption and renewal with many people who have experienced the downside of sex and distorted love.

As is common among many progressive, but not conservative, evangelicals, the relationship between a man and a woman is presented as a relationship between equals. Not surprisingly, Bell addresses the concept of submission in romantic couples. His address to women about their worth might seem a bit odd coming from a man rather than a woman but a more generous take might be that he is trying to counter the approach of many male preachers and their traditions that keep men elevated above women in marriage and the church and consider women as incomplete without a man.

It may be of some interest to contemporary Christians to read Bell’s analysis of one aspect of "godly marriage" in the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Christian Old Testament).

“The sexual bond is central to what it means to be married.
No consummation, no marriage. (p. 130).”

That’s clearly succinct but he does provide the text references to support the close connection between the sex act and the recognition of the marital bond.

 If you read other old texts, you see how women were treated as property. Even when raped, the woman has no say in her future-- she’s stuck with a rapist for life if he wants her and pays a fee to her father (see Exodus 22 and Deuteronomy 22). How can Bell be so generous with such language? Essentially, Bell believes the biblical text was progressive for its time and the treatment of women improved by the time of the New Testament.

Bell tosses in a few other bits of biblical information but I do not see a close tie-in with his theme. For example, he makes a point to remind singles of their worthy status, which is often not recognized in Christian cultures. That must be nice to know for singles but what should we make of the focus on the illustration of sexual relationships reflecting the uniting of God with humanity?

And he reminds readers that girls used to marry at ages 13 or 14 in the first century. He affirms, but does not spend much time on, abstinence until marriage. I wondered if he was thinking about the decade or so that sexual desire must be suppressed to comply with the current purity culture expectations of abstinence until couples can enjoy sex.

Overall, Bell appears to be concerned with a broad understanding of Christian sexuality as bound up with spirituality. Uniting with a mate is spiritual and it is very much like uniting with God.

Bell has spoken about same-sex marriage elsewhere (Relevant, 2013) but not in this book. That’s not surprising given the publication date (2007). Given the heterosexual examples and focus in God Sex, it is not easy to discern how he might use the same framework to write more broadly about sex and Christian spirituality. A hint is probably in a quote from a Relevant article “I am for love.”

I think this book would be appreciated mostly by young evangelicals who are not ultraconservative in their worldview. Sex God is an example of the genre, Progressive Christianity.  I do not think his book fits well with the views of feminists, Christian fundamentalists, or even conservative evangelicals.

A few more observations and comments

Extending Bell's logic, cohabiting Christians might have a biblical marriage.
Women were a man's property in pre-Christian biblical texts.
Christians remain divided about a woman's role in a "Christian marriage."
The Bible offers different views about sex.
Christian writers find many ways to pair sexual activity with a spiritual meaning.
Many religions link God or gods with sex.

A few discussion questions
How are Bell's views of sex different from those of other Christian leaders?
Why do so many Christians want to connect sexual activity with a spiritual meaning?
What biblical texts affirm being single as of equal value to being married?
How helpful are Bell's comments on "progress" to deal with the old texts about rapists marrying their victims?
Do biblical metaphors work differently for men and women in relating to Jesus as a bridegroom?

Reference this post in APA style

Sutton, G. W. (2016, November 16). What Rob Bell Says about Sexuality and Christian Spirituality [Web log post]. Retrieved from

References (APA style)

Sutton, G. W. (2016). AHouse Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Are there too many psychotherapists for our own good? One Nation Under Therapy Book Review




By Christina Hoff Sommers
 & Sally Satel

Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton

I like to return to New York City on occasion to remember my arrival in the United States. On one visit after 911, we stopped in a Barnes & Noble bookstore and I came across this interesting book, “One Nation Under Therapy.”

I’ve been a psychotherapist for years. And like many clinicians, I’ve seen people with a broad range of symptom severity. Some of course struggled so much they required 24-hour care. Others were quite healthy but wanted a confidential sounding board-- nothing wrong with that.

But the authors of One Nation Under Therapy have a point-- some in our culture are probably too dependent on outside assistance and have not learned the skills needed to independently manage the rough and tumble of daily life.

As I look back on what I wrote, I think this dependency may be true of many facets of life. For example, we are forced to see physicians to obtain routine medication and the responsibility for pain medication seems to be more and more in the hands of physicians instead of patients in pain. Naturally, physicians are concerned about their patients' well-being. But I think we've placed too much responsibility on them. We need to be responsible for our pain.

 In fitness centers, people hire trainers to run through quite mundane routines-- nothing wrong with that. And some may benefit from the accountability. However, I value freedom and setting my own goals. I suppose people get used to different ways of obtaining fitness.

And churches employ a raft of staff to cater to the expectations of congregants--nothing wrong with that for those who want to support the expense. I think it's more of what you get used to. Many of us get by with encouraging words from friends, inspirational music, books, and videos.

I think people become too dependent on others for well-being, but I remain concerned about those who do not seek treatment because of persistent stigma.

Maybe some psychotherapists do not encourage patient responsibility. However, I do not see anything amiss with healthy people focused on personal growth.

Perhaps some people are overly self-reliant and need to reach out for support.

If you are interested in these issues, I think you will find the ideas in this book worth reading. Not every person needs a psychotherapist. But then again, many who need psychotherapists cannot find one or cannot afford one.

Here’s a link to the full review published in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity. It is a free pdf download.

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ResearchGate Link to my review: Geoffrey W Sutton

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Caught in the Pulpit:
Leaving Faith Behind
 Daniel C. Dennett &
   Linda LaScola

Reviewed by
     Geoffrey W. Sutton
I recently spoke with a seminary student who mentioned his interest in deconversion. Having studied the Psychology of Religion for decades, I'm familiar with the topic both as a clinician and scientist. The conversation reminded me of a book I reviewed a few years ago. It turns out the review was accepted for publication but I cannot find evidence that it appeared in print so here's the review with the removal of some text that would have been for the academic publication.

Have you ever listened to someone disclose their deep spiritual doubts? In Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Faith Behind, Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola systematically disclose and analyze the deconversion experiences of 35 clergy and seminary interviewees who participated in their qualitative study. Encouraged by a pilot study in 2010, the authors pursued a broader sample. This book summarizes the results from 90 interviews between November 2008 and June 2012. Daniel Dennett is a professor of philosophy at Tufts University and Linda LaScola is a clinical social worker.

The authors organized the book into seven sections. In the four introductory chapters we learn that the 35 persons are all "Caucasian" clergy. There are Jewish Rabbis but most are either Catholic or Christian clergy from literal or liberal denominations. From the authors’ perspectives, literal groups view Scripture as inerrant whereas liberal groups are inclined to consider Scripture through the lens of metaphor, symbolism, and poetry. Prototypical literals are Pentecostals, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists and prototypical liberals are Unitarians and Episcopalians. The authors acknowledge that there is a range of literal to liberal views held by different people within any faith tradition. The 90 interviews resulted in 120 hours of recordings. Their study is not based on a representative random sample because they were dependent on volunteers willing to risk disclosure. Nearly half of the participants still ministered to congregants. The authors make a point of keeping strict confidentiality.

In section two, Landa LaScola presents a selection of five biographical sketches—a Presbyterian, two Lutherans, a Catholic Priest, and a Mormon Bishop. Of particular relevance to current social trends and psychological exams is the comment by the priest: “During my psychological evaluations, I was asked by the examining psychologist if I was gay or straight, and I said, “Straight.” I lied (p. 48).” He estimated that about 50 to 75 percent of other students in the seminary were also gay. 

In section three, Daniel Dennett offers his perspective on the evolution of religion and the challenges faced by seminary professors and religious leaders in a world with increasing knowledge about science and an increased sensitivity to ancient tales of genocide (e.g., Noah), which obviously pose challenges for those tasked with teaching or leading members of literal faith traditions.

Both authors present findings that track the path from seminary to pulpit ministry in section four. Seminary professors express their difficulties in teaching students from literal faith traditions. Student comments reflected four themes: 

   (1) fascination and enthusiasm linked to new views of biblical knowledge; 
   (2) deeply troubled—a response to the complexities of faith traditions; 
   (3) seeds of doubt; 
   (4) a focus on coursework without much evaluation. 

After entering the pulpit many found their congregants were more interested in simple and pleasant stories of faith rather than more scholarly analyses. And others reported a disturbing awareness of dishonesty and corruption among church leaders. A chapter that might be of special interest to clinicians is the review of burnout and depression. There are several references to mental distress that I wished the authors had examined in more detail. Some appeared distressed by their experiences in ministry while others were struggling with spiritual matters and a loss of meaning. A former Greek Orthodox monk described a long history of depression. He described the experience as an existential crisis and reported that his therapist diagnosed his condition as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Linda LaScola discusses emerging themes in section five. She focuses on the problems faced by liberal clergy in dealing with matters of metaphor, myth, and truth. Several comments point to the broad acceptance of science and an appreciation of the language of Scripture regardless of perceived differences with scientific findings. Linda’s comments on the liberal’s dilemma seems apt: “Now they’re feeling boxed in: bounded on one side by fundamentalists and on the other by the New Atheists (p. 153)”

Part six contains an update on those who participated in the 2010 pilot study. All five were still active clergy. Two fundamentalists want to leave the ministry. A Presbyterian pastor was unable to find other employment. A Methodist declined a follow-up. A United Church of Christ chaplain revealed his views publicly but suffered no negative consequences. In the final section, Dennett discusses an inner shell, which isolates clergy from their congregants and even themselves. The oft quoted Clinton phrase, “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” describes the unwritten rule of not probing too deeply on matters of personal faith. Another maxim is a variation on the physician’s “do no harm” restyled as “do not undermine anybody’s faith.”

The book contains some interesting end material. There is a brief bio for each participant, an overview of qualitative research methods and personal stories of the authors. Overall, I think the book will be of interest to many readers because of the focus on the spiritual journeys of those deep in various faith traditions. If the authors are right about the small number of participants being the tip of the iceberg then there are likely many who would benefit from confidential consultations—especially those struggling with burnout and depression.

The challenge of getting a sizable representative sample of clergy and conducting quantitative research appear substantial when the risk of unemployment rests on maintaining strict confidentiality. Nevertheless, the basis exists to explore the links between spirituality and mental health as well as the traditional psychology of religion topics such as meaning, conversion, and deconversion. 

This qualitative study provides some insights worthy of further research. One can easily see that the difficulties faced by clergy might extend to leaders and high-level employees within religious organizations.

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Thursday, June 2, 2016

On Liberty and Tolerance- A Book Review

Liberty Bell stamp


By John Stuart Mill   

Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton

My occasion for re-reading On Liberty was the mention of Mill and Rawls by professor Brian Leiter in his lecture, “Why Tolerate Religion,” which he presented at Drury University.

My joint interest in philosophy and psychology began during my undergraduate years. Mill’s book On Liberty is one I kept since taking a graduate course on Political Philosophy at the University of Missouri, where my psychology professors graciously allowed me to count philosophy courses toward my doctoral requirements. Philosophers have of course contributed much to an understanding of human nature, which is why I continue to read philosophy.

As I look back at Mill’s writings, I see a man on the cusp of philosophy and science guiding thinkers toward empiricism whilst maintaining an eminently pragmatic stance. In a sense, I see him contributing hypotheses to social psychology and that subfield of current interest to me, moral psychology.

In On Liberty, Mill essentially makes a strong case for individual freedom and the importance of government toleration of a wide range of thinking and behavior so long as one individual does not harm another. One could argue that people always have freedom of thought but I take it Mill means the freedom to express those thoughts for it is in the expression of thoughts in speech and writing that we obtain feedback from others that helps us hone our thinking.1 We cannot learn from others when our thoughts are not represented in the marketplace of ideas.

Behavior may encompass speech acts but Mill seems to use the term behavior to refer to what we might call a lifestyle—patterns of observable social behavior. Mill observed that much of behavior was governed by custom and was quite irrational. In some cases, custom had the force of law with attendant punishments. And at other times, social disapprobation was strong enough to suppress ways of living. In effect, people hid their socially unacceptable ways of living for fear of death, imprisonment, or social disgrace, and accompanying isolation.

Tyranny vs. Tolerance

Revisiting the limitation on freedom for Mill and his 19th century cohort, it is easy to see the progress made in western societies in the last 150 years or so. Yet the issues on the boundaries of tolerance continue to be of current concern. Any large society has often struggled with divisions over matters of right and wrong-- acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

For centuries, religious leaders have controlled individual and societal standards of right and wrong. And religious leaders still coerce obedience by threats of death—sometimes literal—other times eternal—sometimes both. In some nations, religious rules have the power of law and in others, religious beliefs control behavior via values inculcated in the lives of the young and maintained by clergy, embarrassment-mongers, gossips, and all sorts of life-meddlers. It’s no wonder so many have rejected religion in western cultures where religious rules lack the force of law and other social structures exist to offer social support when people live in religiously unapproved ways.

The freedom from religion has taken a different tack of late. In the United Kingdom and the United States tolerance of diversity has expanded to include behaviors once considered criminal or at least socially undesirable. And of course, in the language of religion, many acts were judged to be sin; not just any old sin but sins worthy of condemnation by God. You can probably recall clergy explaining that a disease or disaster is an act of God visited on a nation as punishment for the sins of the people.

A few weeks ago I visited Bletchley Park where the famous mathematical genius Alan Turing and his colleagues broke the Nazi code, which significantly contributed to the end of World War II, undoubtedly a moral good. Despite his contributions to the war effort, Turing was found guilty of “gross indecency” based on an 1885 act—he did not hide his homosexuality. Sixty years later, in 2012 he was posthumously pardoned (BBC).

In the last few years, Christians and Muslims have experienced challenges to their freedom in the United States. Muslims of course incurred great suspicion following the September 11 attacks. Conservative Christians have taken a number of public blows as their positions on such matters as abortion and same-sex marriage are at odds with substantial portions of the electorate as well as existing laws or judicial decisions.

Importance of Tolerance

Ironically, people in societies once dominated by Christian morality, often codified in law, now find themselves restricting the freedom of Christian groups to live out their understanding of their faith in the public square. If the restrictions on religious freedom increase, I wonder if segments of the Christian population will end up like the Amish—living out their ancient traditions in quaint colonies that become tourist attractions.

Now I return to Mill’s ideas to make a case for religious tolerance. The expression of religious views is sometimes reviled as “hate speech” when the views contradict the dominant social view. Inciting riot and violence cannot be tolerated. But arguing that ideas of a society along with its rules and laws are morally wrong, offensive, or even harmful ought not to be suppressed. As Mill observes, humans rarely get things perfectly right. A society that silences dissent is on the road to tyranny even if the new found ways appear more liberating than older ways. I say let’s continue to hear religious views along with other views.

I also think Mill’s notion of behavioral experiments worthy of consideration.2 As long as people are not causing harm by their actions, some toleration of “alternate lifestyles” seems worthy as these experiments help all observers judge if such ways of living are in some way better than the ways of the majority or even those of other minority groups. Thus, I think conservative religious people ought to have the freedom to go about their lives based on their understanding of their sacred texts. Why not let them follow their traditions so long as people are free to join or leave their communities (organizations, campuses) and suffer no material harm? Is there any real harm in permitting a group of people to hire only men as clergy or restrict marriage to one man and one woman? Is there any harm in having religious schools where they are free to promote abstinence from alcohol and sex until marriage? So much will depend on how "harm" is defined and how much "harm" is tolerated.

Boundaries of Tolerance

Mill was a thoughtful statesman as well as a philosopher. He was well aware that freedom must be bounded by responsibility. As noted above, freedom of expression does not extend to inciting people to violence. Nor does freedom to live out an alternate way of life include freedom to harm others. In fact, Mill also shows how a person’s harm of self or destruction of personal property can have a harmful impact on the lives of loved ones. Moreover, before the scientific study of role models, Mill noted the ability of personal example to influence the behavior of others, which of course is also found in ancient wisdom.3 Simply put, we do not live in isolation. No woman is an eyot. No man is an island.

Cite this blog post

Sutton, G. W. (2016, December 30). On liberty and tolerance. [Web log post]. Retrieved from 

Mill’s book

Mill, J.S. (1859/1956). On Liberty (Currin V. Shields, edition). New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Old editions of On Liberty can be found as a pdf file on the web.

Read more about Christian cultures and related issues in

 A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures

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1. Mill’s connection of thought to speech and writing is near the end of Chapter 1.
2. Experiments in living can be found in Chapter 3.

3. Mill discusses the influence of an example in Chapter 4.