The Liturgies Of Secular Democracy | The American Conservative

The liberal-democratic order is founded on suspending the question of whether God exists or not (and has authority over human life) and relegating that to the level of personal opinion. This means that democracy itself functions as though atheism is metaphysically true—there is no God whose demands on people must be embraced—but gives people the freedom to shape their own lives around theism (or deism, or polytheism etc). In the short term this is a great solution to the problem of religious wars, by simply punting ultimate questions of morality and metaphysics and seeking to create a society where people can live together despite deep differences.

The problem is that this arrangement is unstable for two reasons. First, living in a western democracy catechizes people into practical atheism. Because the underpinnings of society forecloses the question of God and makes material reality the ultimate horizon, then society itself is run on atheistic presuppositions. The more you invest in being a good citizen and are part of democratic public life, the more you are shaped by the rituals of democratic life into thinking, dreaming, desiring, acting, as an atheist.

Second, as democracy goes on its horizons are increasingly limited to the individual and the state—the individual as the reason and justification of all social life, and the state as the ultimate horizon of human experience and life, accountable and subordinate to nothing beyond it. Hence why ‘government is just the word we use for things we do together’ is thought to be just common sense, and why politics is considered to be *the* vehicle for human flourishing. Everything is politics, because politics is the final horizon that shapes the conditions for individual liberty.

But making everything base around the individual will (almost) inevitably make everything be reduced down to hedonism—happiness through pleasurable experiences, and the pursuit of wealth and social status that preserves the maximum kind of individual freedom that liberalism recognizes and esteems. Increasingly democracy gains confidence in its metaphysical position (this world is the only meaningful horizon) and begins to move from a naked public square to enacting its vision of the good that expresses that metaphysical position (the good life has to be justified entirely within the constraints of this life).

As a consequence increasingly democracy actively seeks to form people as little more than worker-bees, consumers, and pleasure seekers and begins to use its authority to maringalize and harass those groups that seek to create a social life that catechizes people into a different vision of the good life based on different metaphysics. That is increasingly incomprehensible to them—simultaneously irrational and abusive. At most it can be permitted as an individual choice, but not at the level of a social choice within democracy – unless the group basically removes itself from broader social life almost completely (the Amish option). It also fuels new wars of religions—really weird ones because they are so secular, where the goal is to impose our practical atheism and vision of the good life on the world—killing people to bring our version of the triumph of the individual, to promote hedonism, to push countries towards democracy. These are crusades fuelled by the same underlying convictions that give rise to more overt religious wars.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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