Tocqueville’s Democracy in America also offers a philosophic account of why a free society necessarily requires a religious foundation. A free society depends on freedom of thought and discussion, it certainly includes a right to question conventional opinion. But it would be a mistake to think that this freedom requires an unfettered skepticism about all things or a willingness to treat all ideas as open to question. On the contrary, all societies depend in some degree or another on shared beliefs or “opinions men receive on trust.”
It is not possible for societies or even for individuals to arrive at all beliefs on the basis of the unguided, independent thinking of each individual. This, Tocqueville claims, is an “inflexible law” of the human condition. “If man were forced to prove to himself all the truths he makes use of every day, he would never finish; he would exhaust himself in preliminary demonstrations without advancing.” Having neither “the time because of the short span of life, nor the ability because of the limits of his mind,” man cannot establish by his own efforts all of the convictions that he needs; those that claim to have done so are dishonest or deluded.
Accordingly, an individual is “reduced to accepting as given a host of facts and opinions that he has neither the leisure nor the power to examine and verify by himself.” The functioning and prosperity of society therefore require “that all the minds of the citizens be brought and held together by some principal ideas; and that cannot happen unless each of them sometimes comes to draw his opinions from one and the same source and unless each consents to receive a certain number of ready-made beliefs.” All societies, and especially free ones, require some intellectual unity, which in turn supports a unity of the citizens’ sentiments.
The limited power of the individual human mind makes it impossible for common ideas on moral and religious questions to arise from the spontaneous and unregulated thought of each individual. Religion, Tocqueville thinks, is the most important source of common beliefs for citizens. Here he is careful to note that his defense of society’s religious consensus is undertaken not with a view to what is good for religion, but instead with a view to what is good for society. Such religious beliefs are evidently useful “even if one wants to pay attention only to the interests of this world.” Tocqueville is concerned not with the salvation of souls but with the preservation of a decent political order. Such an order depends, however, on the preservation of commonly held religious beliefs.
Tocqueville argues that human beings desire freedom but not an unlimited freedom. When they have firm moral convictions rooted in firmly held religious beliefs, they can be confident that they know how to exercise power justly, but what if they lose their religion and therefore become uncertain about what is morally right while nevertheless retaining a certain decency? In that case, they will no longer want to govern themselves, because they will find the responsibility frightening and oppressive. At this point, they will come to think that they can solve their problem by simply submitting themselves to the state, letting their rulers decide all things for them. He writes in Democracy in America:
There are religions which are very false and very absurd ; but it may be affirmed, that any religion which remains within the circle I have just traced, without aspiring to go beyond it (as many religions have attempted to do, for the purpose of enclosing on every side the free progress of the human mind), imposes a salutary restraint on the intellect; and it must be admitted that, if it do not save men in another world, such religion is at least very conducive to their happiness and their greatness in this.
This is more especially true of men living in free countries. When the religion of a people is destroyed, doubt gets hold of the highest portions of the intellect, and half paralyzes all the rest of its powers. Every man accustoms himself to entertain none but confused and changing notions on the subjects most interesting to his fellow creatures and himself.
His opinions are ill-defended and easily abandoned: and, despairing of ever resolving by himself the hardest problems of the destiny of man, he ignobly submits to think no more about them. Such a condition cannot but enervate the soul, relax the springs of the will, and prepare a people for servitude.
Nor does it only happen, in such a case, that they allow their freedom to be wrested from them; they frequently themselves surrender it. When there is no longer any principle of authority in religion any more than in politics, men are speedily frightened at the aspect of this unbounded independence. The constant agitation of all surrounding things alarms and exhausts them.
As everything is at sea in the sphere of the intellect, they determine at least that the mechanism of society should be firm and fixed; and as they cannot resume their ancient belief, they assume a master.
For my own part, I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious independence and entire public freedom. And I am inclined to think, that if faith be wanting in him, he must serve; and if he be free, he must believe.