The modern secular society, when it ceases to worship God, simply starts religiously worshiping something else, albeit unconsciously. The spiritual void must be filled. The question then becomes: “If we have rejected the traditional faith, then what has replaced it?”
Man is religious by nature. Religion means the “reconnection with reality,” and all men desire it. This goes even for the atheist. In fact, it goes especially for the atheist. No group is more evangelistic about their religion than the aggressive “New Atheism.” It goes also for the morally “tolerant.” No one is more oppressively condemning than the worshiper of tolerance when he condemns values. Therefore, if a society becomes secular, it never really abandons this religious tendency — it simply begins ignoring it. Thus, the modern secular society, when it ceases to worship God, simply starts religiously worshiping something else, albeit unconsciously. The spiritual void must be filled. The question then becomes: “If we have rejected the traditional faith, then what has replaced it?”
I answer that, in proportion to the degree in which we have denied God, so much have we replaced him with a new god: Liberty.
Traditional wisdom always taught that “the truth will set you free.” This implied freedom was attached to the search for truth. It gives us no reason whatsoever to believe liberty should exist apart from this responsibility to truth and goodness. The liberal (or libertarian) idea of liberty rejects this teaching by turning it upside-down and inside- out: Liberty, it is now believed, is good in itself, and will naturally maximize truth and goodness in society.
I think that if this new religion was going to produce truth and goodness, it would have done so by now — but it has not.
There have been some infamous regimes in human history, but was there ever one equal to the modern acceptance — even encouragement — of adultery, divorce, abortion, sodomy, obscenity, usury, commerce on the Sabbath, public profanity, idolatry, indifference, distrust, slander, and selfishness? If you search human history you will find concentrated examples of vice here and there, but never an example in which vice was uniformly given such open license as it is given today — and it is given this license in the name of liberty.
This is manifest in every aspect of life. Our commercial attitude is patently liberal and libertarian, where individualistic competition is assumed and encouraged. Here, as with any worship of liberty, it has destroyed community. Rather than encouraging moderation and cooperation, it rewards only the most materialistic and self-centered tendencies of man. Greed, in its original use, meant “the desire for the greater portion.” No one uses it in that sense today, because it is assumed and accepted that everyone should desire the greater portion, and to say that this is selfish is to be an “idealist.” Greed has now been modified to mean covetousness, which was only a certain type of greed. Basically, we redefined a word so that it couldn’t be used to describe us. We did this also for usury, and then eventually discarded the term altogether, replacing it with the words “finance” and “investment.”
A further example can be seen in the right of “free speech.” With liberty reigning for itself, rather than being subordinated to the common good, this freedom has degenerated into a vulgar “freedom of expression.” We can say anything we want, without regard to the effect it has on the community, or the effect it has on children, and it is pretended that everyone else has the freedom “not to listen.” We can even go so far as to purport to change our own genders, and society at large is expected to accept this absurd claim, which the honest intellect cannot help but see as a lie. For the healthy mind, being forced to accept a lie is a type of intellectual violence that amounts to tyranny. Man cannot easily cope with it, because man seeks truth. When liberty begins to undermine truth, it undermines humanity itself.
If liberty has not made man good, has it at least made him happy? A clear-thinking psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, wrote “Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented with a Statue of Responsibility of the West Coast.” He wasn’t preaching politics — he was working with individual patients. He discovered that freedom without responsibility resulted in “collective neuroses” of spiritual frustration. This would lead to widespread depression and existential anxiety. Sound familiar?
Some would blame big government, but, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
Ironically, the gigantic parental state is a direct result of libertine libertarianism. When liberated nations no longer control themselves, the state bloats into a colossus in an attempt to make up for their irresponsibility. It fails, of course.
In summary, society cannot function without its citizens subordinating their own freedoms to truth and the common good. The Founding Fathers believed that this was best done by granting liberty, which would then allow the unified social effort towards goodness. Have we proven them wrong? The Constitution provided liberty, believing we would guarantee the goodness. Have we held up our end of the bargain? It is hard to tell—no one talks about the common good anymore, although we talk every day about freedom.
Liberty, without the aim of goodness, is like wandering in a great desert: You are free to go anywhere, but alas, there is nowhere to go… and so you are not really free.
This column is dedicated to social philosophy, religion and all other subjects that seek to keep us sane. If you have any related questions or suggestions that you would like to see explored here, simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.