What a culture embraces most deeply is seldom articulated. It is, rather, presupposed. The spirit of the times, as Alfred North Whitehead observed, permeates human activity without itself becoming the subject of discussion. People in America, for example, take the notion of freedom for granted and argue about the best way to define and secure it. The West’s secular culture is even less likely to ponder its fundamental convictions.
That culture is given expression via thousands of media messages every hour—in film, television, CDs, magazines, and iPod presentations—but its philosophical roots are largely invisible. The reason for this state of affairs isn’t just the inherent difficulty involved in stepping back to look at the ground upon which one stands. It also involves the fact that, nowadays, there’s so little of substance to see once one attempts that daunting philosophical two-step. There has never been, I think, a culture erected on such a shallow and flimsy foundation.
Freedom is certainly an essential dogma of secular life, as it was of the culture that preceded it. But the purpose of post-modern freedom is largely undefined. Within secular culture the idea that individuals can do “whatever they want” is reiterated ad nauseam—a mantra that makes self-actualization a vacuous objective. Correspondingly, the idea that people “should” do certain things, except for recycling, is given short shrift. Even the much-touted virtue of “tolerance,” analyzed critically, turns out to be a non-negotiable demand that non-secular folks give up their beliefs about how people “ought” to behave.
This purposeless freedom, freedom for its own sake, is a concept that feeds into the popular notion of “pushing the envelope.” Those who employ this phrase typically do so with the tacit assumption that destroying taboos is a “progressive” enterprise—an activity that puts taboo-breakers on a higher plane than individuals who dwell in the passé world of moral restriction.
Accordingly, not being able to pillory moralists represents an intolerable inhibition on “artistic freedom” among bi-coastals who view cultures that take blasphemy seriously as primitive and theocratic. What one expects to gain by normalizing cultural depravity, exhibited most completely in gangsta rap, need not be articulated beyond vacuous clichés like “openness” and “freedom of expression.” A vague romantic hope persists that, somehow, with the aid of science and midnight basketball, utopian bliss will break out once nine-year-olds can swear proficiently and are no longer naïve about the varieties of sexual expression.
The apotheosis of “individual freedom” also requires the abolition of concepts like natural law. There are, it seems, no self-evident truths. Even distinctions between male and female are treated as arbitrary constructs. Just as individuals can be whatever they want to be, so families and marriages can be constituted in ways restricted only by our capacity to imagine them.
Tepid and unimaginative formulations that concern direct harm done to other individuals (“My freedom to swing my fist ends at your nose.”) limit the possibilities of self-expression under this cultural myth that also embraces a godless universe that is itself devoid of freedom.
Scrutinized rationally, the “rights” that are constantly touted in secular culture turn out to be a function of raw power. This fearful symmetry explains the fondness antinomians have for elaborate government structures that both bear the blame for individual sins and constitute the awesome Leviathan that keeps anarchy at bay. These Hobbesian “rights” aren’t derived from a Creator. Rather, they emerge from the struggle of individuals against each other in a world defined primarily by the “sovereigns” Pleasure and Pain.
Youngsters raised within this cultural framework are told to view nature as a meaningless fluke that must, nevertheless, be revered and preserved; they are told to view their existence as accidental and their desires as “rights”; they are told (dozens of times every day) to look down upon religion as a childish delusion rooted in wish fulfillment; and they are told that corporate pimps must be allowed to corrupt the souls of children for the sake of “freedom.” Is it any wonder that many of these persons, as young adults, find more nourishing, and even more reasonable, an intransigent religion that boldly preaches the exact opposite?