MODERATOR: Welcome back to Clash of Worldviews, the unlikely show in which the philosophical assumptions of popular worldviews are pitted against each other. This week, we bring back Adam the liberal secular humanist, Heather the postmodern skeptic, and Lindsey the conservative Catholic, and we focus the discussion on their social and political disagreements. Adam, shall we begin with you? Tell us about liberalism.
ADAM: Sure, but I should begin by repudiating the ludicrous stereotype that liberals are quasi-communists. That slander was perpetrated by devious conservatives in the US and elsewhere, who are professionals at muddying the waters so that the so-called center of Western political discourse moves ever rightward. Far from being equivalent to anticapitalism, liberalism should be identified with the political side of early European modernity, and it’s that period in which capitalism was first celebrated.
This becomes clear when we reflect on the fact that liberals are also known as progressives. The idea of progress was a defining feature of modernity as it arose in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Recall that Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith, Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill were champions of individual liberty. They railed against ignorance, superstition, dogma, and the oppressive institutions of feudalism and the Catholic Church, arguing that humans are equal in their personhood as constituted principally by their ability to rationally control themselves, to express their individuality and to discover the truth in spite of institutionalized myths. Political power should therefore be vested in the majority in some democratic system that respects the greatness of each individual. Progress was opposed to the traditions that rationalized the gross inequality inherent in monarchies and aristocracies.
And so when liberals today speak of civil rights, equal opportunity for minorities, and the need for functional markets and a representative government, they speak first and foremost as modernists, or if you like as secular humanists, that is, as believers in the ideals that took the West out of its dark age. Current opponents of liberalism are best thought of as anti-modern—not, mind you, as patriots or freedom fighters or lovers of Jesus or the Constitution. So-called conservatives today resent the gains of modernity. Their project is to return us to a premodern state of affairs in which only the privileged few are free while the majority are reduced to slaves. Whereas liberals aren’t quasi-communists, conservatives are cryptototalitarians.
LINDSEY: That, of course, is the myth of modernity. Progressives like to think they’ve outgrown the need for myths, that they merely follow Reason where it leads. But modernists, liberals, progressives, or whatever you want to call them are terrific myth-makers. They trumpet the greatness of the individual, but Catholics are upfront about our fallen nature, our inherent tendency to stray from moral principles. “Liberty!” cries the modernist. “Let everyone be free to do what they please!” This is a recipe for hedonism and civilizational decline. Left to ourselves to figure out how to live, we’d spiral downwards into self-imposed conditions of squalor and ruin. Contrary to the modernist’s pretense of positivism, that she bases her beliefs solely on logic and evidence, we devise endless fictions to rationalize our original sin of being more like animals than angels.
ADAM: Yeah, and the Christian creed is just another of those fictions. What Christians call “original sin” is the evolutionary reality that we originated from the material world, not some supernatural realm. As soon as a suitable patchwork of Church writings became canonical in the first few centuries CE, Christianity developed as a scheme for defending the earthly power of the Catholic Church. Politics was more important than theology, because political realities were tangible and theology is entirely speculative. So Jesus was said to have died to free us from our mortality, but when the prophecy of Jesus’s imminent return proved false, the Catholic Church took upon itself the role of humankind’s saviour. Now it was the Church hierarchy that would stand as intermediary between God and his fallen creatures. God supposedly sent his son to do so, but unlike the resurrected Jesus, the Catholic institution has the distinction of being real. And the Church maintained its power by belittling human nature, by assuring the masses that they’re unable to look after themselves, that they need what the Church is selling. All totalitarian enterprises follow this playbook, from contemporary North Korea to Muslim kingdoms to Nazi Germany: human beings are allegedly so flawed that they need a strongman to impose religious laws that testify to an uncorrupted world beyond the material one, or to a utopian past or future. And for thousands of years this conservatism worked as a vicious circle, since the less we dreamed of our potential greatness, the less we developed our skills and so the cruder our behaviour and the more we in fact needed a ruthless leader to maintain a tolerable social order.
But the Renaissance marked the turning point when the masses awoke to the self-serving nature of these pessimistic myths. Scientists from Copernicus onwards demonstrated that we have the potential for genius and for social progress. We can learn how the real world works and decide on the most efficient social mechanisms to make us happy. Standing in the way of that progress are the dismal and decrepit conservatives who want to disenfranchise the majority in the name of utterly anachronistic fantasies. Who are the bigots and doomsayers who vilify foreigners and minorities and are obsessed with keeping their culture free from the immigrant contagion? Not the liberated women who know all too much how an insulated ideology can be stultifying, and obviously not the minorities who’ve benefited from tolerance of cultural differences, but the old elite males who feel entitled to their power and who fear competition. Never mind that their economic philosophy prescribes competition as a panacea or that their holy book typically preaches the overriding unity of our species. These demagogues are content to cherry-pick the myths that support their convenient political prescriptions.
LINDSEY: It’s the Holy Spirit that continues to inspire the Pope, to vouchsafe his magisterium, and to sanctify Church tradition, which does intermediate between us and God the Father, until Jesus’s return.
ADAM: You mean Jesus’s second return. He already returned when he was resurrected from the dead, right? And then he beat a hasty retreat even though he enjoyed an invulnerable spiritual body and had nothing left to fear from the Roman authorities.
LINDSEY: Slander upon slander—
ADAM: Nah, it’s only slander if the ridicule is based on a false premise. Wasn’t Jesus already resurrected and wasn’t his second body supernaturally powerful? I mean, he flew to outer space on a cloud where he presumably met his heavenly father on the dark side of the moon. Come to think of it, Jesus’s first, supposedly human body must already have had supernatural abilities, since he allegedly performed many miracles. So how many times have Christian apologists had to reassure their flock that God exists and cares what we do, despite setback after setback for Christianity?
LINDSEY: What are you rambling about now, heathen?
ADAM: I’m pointing out that the myths that supposedly drive your politics are just gimmicks for tricking the Christian flock into submitting to the pitifully weakened remnant of an all-too earthly totalitarian regime. The Jews needed a messiah to free themselves from the Roman Empire. Instead, they got a sage peacenik whom the Romans executed as an afterthought. That was Jesus’s first failure. Then he was resurrected, according to the fairytale, but he didn’t yet judge the quick and the dead or inaugurate God’s kingdom. That was failure number two. Next he was supposed to return during the lifetime of the first Christians; his continuing absence spells failure number three. So a Christian institution had to be established to fill the power vacuum, even if that meant compromising with corrupt secular authorities. Thus, we got the persecution of heretics, pogroms, burning of witches, inquisitions, crusades, and debauchery in the priesthood. More and more failure, which means an abundance of evidence that your theocratic conservatism is a charade. God has nothing to do with your conservative values. You’re merely captive to the echoes of some ancient, double-talking, priestly dictators.
LINDSEY: Lord, give me the strength…We fail because we’re fallen creatures, because we’re easily tempted. We strive to make sense of our traditions because they provide the context in which life has meaning. Why did innocent Jesus die horribly on the cross? Christians debated that for centuries, because they take their myths seriously. We struggle with the debilitating possibility that life is accidental and absurd, that we’re entirely on our own. And that’s because we have a super-abundance of evidence not just of Christian frailties, but of horrors perpetrated throughout the animal kingdom. This is the implication of modern science: the catastrophe of atheism, the ghastly emptiness of life in a godless universe in which life is more like a proliferating virus than a crowning achievement.
Listen to your hollow talk of rational progress! “Reason showed us the way in science,” you say, “and it can do so again in democratic and capitalistic ventures.” Talk about a fairytale! Yes, we can learn how natural mechanisms operate if we think objectively about what we observe. But to think we could discover the appalling truth that lies at the end of that narrow road and still have the fortitude to focus on so laughable a goal as our happiness, without a substitute religion and a theology of modern propaganda and noble lies is just ludicrous. Those lies were concocted by the early modern heroes of yours and now we see them in corporate mass media and Hollywood, and we hear them rattled off by our elected representatives. Science allegedly helps society by empowering us so that we can exercise our freedom by choosing between various material goods. That’s the meaning of life in your so-called progressive society—except that just about everyone who pursues the liberal agenda learns the bankruptcy of such crude hedonism. Even if you act selflessly in your secular capacities, you’ll eventually be mortified by the world’s tendency to mock your grand designs.
Science isn’t our saviour, but the executioner of our spirit! Christians already grant the nature of the world you call solely real, when we call the world a fallen place, removed from God, that is, from being the perfect fulfillment of our ideals. We hold out hope of transcendence, but you trust in fallen powers to right themselves, and that’s at least as ridiculous as the theologian’s efforts to explain away embarrassing facts of Christian history. If you’re going to exercise faith to give yourself a reason to go on living despite the wretched news supplied by atheistic science, why not trust in something that could at least potentially transform the world for the better, namely in a supernatural deity? But no, you believe human nature has the potential for greatness. Yeah, greatness at being a rapacious primate who’s doomed to be worm food, to occupy a sliver of a grotesque saga of slaughter and betrayal and frenzied fornication, ending untold eons from now in the destruction of our planet by our own life-giving star, whereupon no one will remain to tell our miserable tale.
You trust the masses to know best, all other arrangements being oppressive. But democracy doesn’t fly in science, does it? No, there the facts speak for themselves and they’re not up for vote. The reason liberals prefer democracy is because they believe there are no facts that answer the question of how we should live, so we might as well allow each of us to flail about in our futile search for meaning and purpose, to delude ourselves with fictions that please us all the more because we author them. The facts discovered by science are utterly impersonal and thus meaningless; what we ought to do in light of them is anyone’s guess. Thus, the so-called progressive prescribes a political free-for-all so that at least no one fiction will likely reign for long, which gives each person’s lifer-affirming myth a short while in the spotlight until that delusion dies with her over-inquisitive brain. “Liberty!” is your rallying cry. But yours is the liberty to rattle your chains left or right, though they just as well hold you fast to the prison of a monstrous world that we now know all too much about, thanks to your dubious modern saviours.
MODERATOR: My, my! The charges are flying fast and furious, aren’t they? Progress and prisons and frenzied fornication—who can keep up! Heather, perhaps you can shed some light on this dispute. Do you consider yourself liberal or conservative?
HEATHER: Neither, naturally, since the labels are corrupted by the connotations. But it’s not just a matter of freeing “liberalism” from the bastardizations of cynical Republicans who seek to mislead a clueless electorate. The old debate between liberals and conservatives or between modern progressives and traditional monarchists and theocrats is over: neoliberals won! Democracies are considered advanced to the extent that they turn politics into a business, by allowing powerful private interests to usurp the political process. Their control must be indirect to preserve the illusion that the government represents the majority rather than a privileged minority; otherwise, the power elites risk a revolt, as in the French Revolution. This is why social democracies like Canada and many European countries are mocked by Americans who consider themselves the leaders of the free world, even though those other democracies are the least plutocratic. Americans are trained to think that a free citizen should be heroic in the manner of the legendary nameless gunslinger of the Wild West: stand up for yourself, don’t trust the authorities, and if the game is rigged, so be it; just be sure to die tragically in a hail of bullets.
My point is that neoliberals understand the grim dynamics in the evolution of advanced industrial societies. Neoliberals combine liberal and conservative principles in a grand double game they play with the unenlightened masses who are routinely misled by the day’s talking points. Neoliberals accept Lindsey’s argument that taken at face value, modernity is doomed since the naturalistic truth is unbearable. They thus secretly encourage all manner of irrationality and delusion, including moral and religious myths. But neoliberals also agree with Adam that these myths are in fact palpably unsustainable in the light of reason. Thus, neoliberal society, which certainly prevails at present in the US, operates as a sort of vast conspiracy that honours the letter of modern ideals while utterly condemning their spirit. Neoliberals know that liberalism is flawed, but they also know there’s no going back. Their acceptance of that predicament as axiomatic is what’s supposed to lend the neoliberal her air of seriousness. Unlike the petty ideologues that squabble over yesterday’s news, the neoliberal busies herself with realistic social engineering projects. We must be domesticated by cynical power elites to avoid wetting the floors owned by those enlightened superiors. Our collective potential to serve as intellectually responsible, genius citizens is precisely what must not be actualized, to avoid mass suicide. Thus, it’s tragic liberty for the elite minority and gross delusion for the rest, and the neoliberal who supersedes liberals and conservatives is tasked with keeping the social machine running.
ADAM: Oh, spare us your postmodern nihilism! This is what happens when you lose yourself in pretentious abstractions; you somehow manage to insert your entire head all the way up your anal canal. Liberal values have been superseded, have they? I suppose, then, you’ll be turning in your Liberated Woman Card, to revert to the time when women were literally owned by men, when they lacked the basic rights you take for granted.
HEATHER: I’ll take postmodern cynicism over your humanistic schmaltz any day. But let’s run with your example of the presumed success of liberalism. Women are finally free, you say. Free from oppressive moral codes which denied women their equality with men. And what’s become of the public face of women in free, liberal societies? Liberated women are the most objectified and degraded, the difference being that in patriarchal societies women are abused mainly in the privacy of their father’s or husband’s homes, whereas in so-called modern, advanced societies women are diminished on giant billboard ads which display their half-naked bodies or in pornographic degradations that are rampant on the internet.
And whatever you do, Adam, don’t feign surprise: biology predicts that this is what happens when you abolish the patriarchal traditions that at least protected women from collective male lust, by limiting a woman’s subservience to a single male father or husband. Now that women are free to decide how to live, because no traditional precepts are taken seriously in the face of modern skepticism, the male libido has been unleashed and women are taught to occupy their new niche out of self-interest. So modern women debase themselves, acting as if their body is more important than their mind, and even feminist ideologues find themselves applauding this hypersexuality as indicative of women’s liberation.
Yes, some women also enter the professional workforce—where they’re still paid less than men for the same work. But to the extent that women are treated as men’s equals, women yearn for the old inequality that fulfills their romantic fantasies, as evidenced by the thriving industry of romance novels. Again, science confirms that men and women are not exactly cognitively equal. Oh, they can be trained to perform the same mental or even physical tasks and they have roughly the same narrow intellectual powers, but their instincts are utterly opposed, because those instincts evolved in an era when labours had to be separated for our species’ survival. Rape was a tactic condoned by the genes, and women are still affected by that adaptation, as they report secret longings for being manhandled (again, see the romance novels). Women are better at cooperating in noncompetitive groups that allow them to express their feelings, while men prefer to act as lone hunters or in rigidly hierarchical bands of brothers, as in the military or a merciless corporate structure. Women are inclined to pursue jobs in which they can apply their skills in nurturing and caring for others, while men excel at working with abstract relationships, as in math and science. This is because women bond with their babies in prolonged concrete ways, by carrying them for nine months and breastfeeding them, while men have had to develop rules of thumb for dealing with an array of threats to the tribe’s safety. These differences are bound to be ramified when the cultural constraints on evolutionary norms are obliterated by modern evangelists for Reason and Progress.
So has women’s liberation been for the good? Are women better off now that they can stand up for themselves, outside men’s shadow? The answer’s not so clear, politically correct liberal humanism notwithstanding. Besides, your talk of progress makes no sense in the context of your naturalism. We’re supposed to be advancing, but to where? Your idea of linear history is borrowed from the fables of Zoroastrianism via Judaism and Christianity. You’re liable just to substitute an earthly, sci-fi utopia for God’s transcendent kingdom. Talk about epic failure!
LINDSEY: And how do you get up in the morning, dear? You, who shits on everything because you believe in nothing? You savvy postmodern types must feel so rebellious, laughing at your forebears who died to protect your freedoms. You take your adolescence with you even into your early adulthood and middle age so that you’re a perpetual child, condemning this and that because it differs from the womb where you long to return. Do you really think your snide remarks count for anything in the face of two thousand years of Christian history? I pity rudderless snobs like you. You’re doomed to wander the megacities like hobos, because you can’t bring yourself to identify with a society. You lack the willpower to take a leap of faith in some less-than-fully-rational starting point. You’re not actually postmodern, but hypermodern: you’re too skeptical for your good. Just plunk some money down and buy yourself a home already; settle on a tradition. It’s not so hard.
HEATHER: And drilling a hole in your head isn’t so hard either. But why don’t you enlighten us as to how your traditions inform your conservative politics.
LINDSEY: I have faith that there’s a higher power that acts in our best interest and I trust in the Catholic Church and its creed. The sacred and profane worlds are opposed to each other and only God can heal the rift. Until then, we should believe that Jesus died for our sins, because that faith gives us the power to act in a Christ-like manner. We should help the poor—but through the Church, not corrupt secular institutions. Even a democracy will work for ill if the voters aren’t saved from their original sin, by a higher spiritual power. The damage done in the profane world can be minimized if we shrink the government and allow the remaining powers and principalities, as Saint Paul called them, to weaken each other through competition in a free market.
ADAM: So that’s how Christian values can be twisted to align with libertarian economics. How very convenient! And how amusing that you worship your centuries of Church tradition, when Jesus’s radical ethics of asceticism were predicated on the imminent end of the world! You could just as easily advocate for a large-sized government to counterbalance the predatory monopolies that tend to form in unregulated competitions. But no, for all your sanctimonious bluster about the importance of tradition, you make it up as you go along to adapt to the present reality of what you call the profane world. The oligarchs and plutocrats and kleptocrats don’t want their unsavoury businesses impeded by nosy governments and you’re happy to grant them their freedom, because you’re a fatalist about “original sin.” But tell us whether you think humans have the capacity to destroy the ecosystem, making environmentalism a preeminent concern.
LINDSEY: Well, God would intervene before we could destroy the planet’s ability to support life.
ADAM: Yeah, that’s what I thought. So we’re inherently depraved and we should be left to our devices in the marketplace, as God will let the unsaved masses torture themselves in hell, but we needn’t fear the consequences of that neglect since God will step in before we can face the catastrophic earthly result of our corruption. Do you see the inconsistency of your merry cherry-picking? You bend your theology to kowtow to the godless powers that be, because deep down you’re too smart to really believe in any personal god. The transnational corporations want the government off their backs and you’re right there alongside them, calling effectively for the government to be captured and neutralized. And the corporations don’t want to look past their next quarterly earnings, so again you dip into your bag of tricky myths and pull out a rationalization to condescend to those who fear that we’re acting as life’s executioners.
HEATHER: But Adam, you’re also making my point for me. Economic freedom does create monstrous transnational entities that render democracy impotent. Moreover, modern objectivity does conflict with faith in myths and traditions, which turns us into egotists seeking our narrow self-interest, and that in turn is threatening the planet’s ability to sustain life. So whence your faith in liberalism and modernity?
ADAM: I’m no utopian. I appreciate that technology and skepticism pose both practical and existential problems. Freedom has its risks and there’s no God to save us if we fail. But modernity is a great adventure and I’m captivated by the thrill of it all.
HEATHER: Maybe you’re just an easy audience to please because you haven’t read enough stories.
LINDSEY: God damn the both of you.
MODERATOR: And that will have to be the last word for now. Tune in next for Jazzercize! Tighten up those thighs and buns while chilling to the off-beat rhythms of jazz…