Classical Liberalism in a Godless World

politics without religion gen z atheism

Classical liberalism was the inauguration of ideas such as personal and economic liberty, secular government, and being allowed to define happiness based on your personal beliefs. What has resulted from the liberalism of western society is an atomization of our personal lives. People feel less connection to family and community; relationships have become another avenue to pursue happiness, with the consequence that friendships and romantic partners, like material possessions, can be jettisoned as soon as they don’t spark joy; and shallow materialism has become a stand-in for happiness. Is this because we lost what allowed liberalism to work in the beginning – namely, religion?

This post inspired by this article on The American Conservative.

Not to get too Inception on this, but it was this quote, inside a quote (pay wall), inside the article linked to above, that primarily prompted this post:

The task for today, in their [Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey, authors of “Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment”] view, isn’t to dynamite liberalism, on the one hand, or to encourage its pathologies, on the other. It is, as Mrs. Storey says, “to recover the preconditions of liberalism’s success.” To do that “is going to require returning to preliberal sources—the resources of classical thought, Christian thought and Jewish thought, and the communal practices that turn those traditions into ways of life. These ways of thinking aim to cultivate order in the soul in a way that liberal thought does not.”

The issue that comes to my mind is how we can return to Christian (or Jewish) thought when we can be almost certain that there is no God. If the truth of Christianity is a “precondition of liberalism’s success,” then what happens when it turns out that the precondition can never be recovered? At least, it cannot be recovered without buying into the fictions of religion.

The authors of the book at the bottom of this Inception think that what we need is to at least ask, if not answer, ultimate questions:

At the core of their book is the reflection that educated people in modern liberal democracies are very comfortable with proximate arguments and not at all with ultimate ones—in other words, that moderns can debate means but not ends.

What do they mean by “ends”? “I teach Plato’s ‘Gorgias,’ ” Mr. Storey says. “ Socrates is arguing with Callicles about what the best way of life is. And so I will ask my students: What’s the best way of life? Just like that. The standard response is: What are you talking about? They look at me as if to say: You can’t ask that question!”

So it is, he thinks, in liberal societies generally: We’re allowed to debate all questions but ultimate ones. “We’re assuming we can’t have an answer to these questions, without even asking them.” In the classroom, he says, both he and his wife “try to shift students from a stance of dogmatic skepticism, in which they assume before the inquiry begins that you can’t ask ultimate questions, to a place of zetetic or seeking skepticism, in which you recognize that, despite all your doubts and apprehensions, you have to at least ask questions about God and the good and the nature of the universe.”

The author at the top of this Inception says that:

We have to show the young that there is something out there to search for. Not something as trite as their happiness. Nothing short of the Truth. And not just a truth claim, but the Truth itself. This is how I’m going at it in the book I’m planning. As readers of my Substack know, I’m re-acquainting myself with the work of Dr. Iain McGilchrist, who wrote The Master And His Emissary. Using McGilchristian terms, liberalism detached from grounding in something pre-liberal, and greater than itself, is like the left brain thinking it understands all of reality, and leading itself to disaster.

So, Rod Dreher would likely argue that my claim that God does not exist is simply form me being left-brain dominant. That I am untethered from the right brain, which (and I apologize if I’m putting words in his mouth) must inevitably lead a person to believe in God. Thus, if we can only get people to think more right-brained, in the McGilchristian sense, we will recover our belief in God, thereby satisfying a necessary precondition for the success of (classical) liberalism.

This, of course, is a tactic that is not uncommon within religious apalogia – a sort of noetic effect of sin, whereby a person who doesn’t accept the conclusion (that God exists) must lack some insight that only comes from having the kind of mind that will see God in everything. In other words, to see why claims that God exists are true, you need to already believe in God.

But this post isn’t meant to be theological. What I am interested here is whether or not (classical) liberalism can be saved in the absence of God. The authors at all levels of the Inception here all seem to agree that religion is a precondition for the success of (classical) liberalism. This certainly makes sense. Classical liberalism was, in some ways, a critique of religion, particularly in the realm of ecclesiology.

However, liberalism was not a rejection of God or the church. Ideas such as natural rights grew out of religious thought. The idea that humans have a right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, begs the question of what a “right” even is. For the religious, this tends to be easier to answer: it is a sacred, moral, and perhaps even ontological aspect or essence of our humanity. Once again, I could offer critiques of this, but the fact is that it is sufficient for the person who already believes in Christianity. And even the secular talk in terms of rights, which presupposes some intrinsic and deontological fact about human beings: that we deserve dignity and that we have moral value aside from our utility or economic value.

How can this notion of “rights” be reconciled if there is no God? If “rights” are something completely invented by the human mind, and does not stem from some spiritual or ontological truth of reality, does that diminish the establishment of human rights? And if it does, should we continue using “rights” as a useful fiction regardless so that we can maintain classical liberalism (assuming that maintaining classical liberalism is the goal)? And as far as classical liberalism, given that it is a contributing factor in our disillusionment with ideas of rights and religion, is it destined always to lead us back to issues of loneliness, mistrust, depression, anger, and addiction that are increasing in society (despite objective measures improving)?

I myself am a philosophical (and political) pessimist. I don’t see humanity, absent some societal amnesia brought on by a dark age, or via coercion, re-accepting the fictions of religion. And it wasn’t like conditions were favorable (or even acceptable) for the majority of people when religion was widely accepted (see slavery and serfdom, women’s rights, the fate of LGBT people or people who dissented from the religion). But, let us pretend for a moment that there was some Golden Age that didn’t just exist in the minds of the Christian conservatives, perhaps in the early stages of the Enlightenment, or the 1950’s, where we had just the right amount of religion and liberalism: is such a state of affairs even possible again? Given that it never actually happened the first time around, I wager that it is highly unlikely to ever come about while humans remain human. A constant refrain of mine is that humans have not evolved to live in the world we have created for ourselves. The failure of both religion and secular liberalism attest to that.