Secular Right | Reality & Reason

TAG | Liberalism



Liberalism as Faith

Cross-posted on the Corner (and a post, I would hope, that ‘Secular Humanists’ would read):

The British philosopher John Gray is not someone to shy away from ‘difficult’ topics. If you are looking for a provocative long read this weekend, his new article in the Times Literary Supplement ought to be a contender. I didn’t agree with all of it (for example, I would argue that the supposedly secular totalitarianisms of the twentieth century—essentially millenarian sects, as Gray rightly observes—were even more ‘religious’ than even he would claim), not that that matters.

Above all, Gray’s take on where the arguments of John Stuart Mill, one of the saints of traditional liberalism, have led is, to say the least, intriguing.

An extract:

 [Mill’s] assertion that human beings would prefer intellectual freedom over contented conformity was at odds with his empiricist philosophy. Essentially unfalsifiable, it was a matter of faith.

While he never faced up to the contradictions in his thinking, Mill was fully aware that he was fashioning a new religion. Much influenced by Auguste Comte, he was an exponent of what he and the French Positivist philosopher described as “the Religion of Humanity”. Instead of worshipping a transcendent divinity, Comte instructed followers of the new religion to venerate the human species as “the new Supreme Being”. Replacing the rituals of Christianity, they would perform daily ceremonies based in science, touching their skulls at the point that phrenology had identified as the location of altruism (a word Comte invented). In an essay written not long before the appearance of On Liberty but published posthumously (he died in 1873), Mill described this creed as “a better religion than any of those that are ordinarily called by that title”.

That may or may not be true, but at least Mill recognized its essentially religious nature, not that that took much doing.


Like Comte, [Mill] believed that humanity is a progressive species, though he diverged profoundly in how he understood progress. And what is “humanity”? The conception of humankind as a collective agent gradually achieving its goals is not reached by observation.

Like the brotherhood of man, just another delusion, unless it’s old Cain who we have in mind. Whether it is—as some delusions can be—a useful or even necessary delusion is a different question.

But back to Gray:

The politics of identity is a postmodern twist on the liberal religion of humanity. The Supreme Being has become an unknown God – a species of human being nowhere encountered in history, which does not need to define itself through family or community, nationality or any religion….

Liberals who are dismayed at the rise of the new intolerance have not noticed how much they have in common with those who are imposing it. Hyper-liberal “snowflakes”, who demand safe spaces where they cannot be troubled by disturbing facts and ideas, are what their elders have made them. Possessed by faith in an imaginary humanity, both seek to weaken or destroy the national and religious traditions that have supported freedom and toleration in the past…

Food for thought, to say the least.

· · ·



Democralatry strikes again!

Jeff Jarvis:

There are those in the press and government who don’t like or trust the public they serve. It is an unliberal attitude–which can come from Liberals, by the way–for it doesn’t buy the core belief of liberal democracy that the people properly rule….

This ignores the 2,000 year suspicion of democracy which the norm up to, and including, the American Founding. We were founded a republic, and universal white male suffrage did not become the norm until the first decades of the 19th century. Today we elide the distinction between the liberal and democratic aspects of the dominant form of government in the West, but it is a real one. With widespread suffrage, a full realization of democracy, there is, and was, often a curtailment of liberalism, and a decline in Liberal parties. This is because sectors of society in the 19th century which were disenfranchised, such as the lower classes and women, were often socially conservative and suspicious of freedom which they may have perceived as libertine. There was a close connection between the push for suffrage in the United States, and the perception that women would support Prohibition.

Of course in our Panglossian world the tension between liberty, equality, and populism, do not exist. Reality is what we make it, and the people are always right.

Note: This does not mean that I favor top-down public policy. Rather, I oppose rejection of top-down policies on the grounds that such policies are undemocratic (quite often they’re not, as voters often delegate to technocrats willingly), illiberal (there is no identity between liberalism and majoritarianism), or elitist (there is no shame in graded orders and distinctions between the few and the many in a variety of domains).




Thou shalt not blaspheme democracy

The Big Money has a story about Pakistan blocking Facebook because of the “Everyone Draw Muhammed Day!” page. My issue? The title, This Week in Despotism, Google Edition. Pakistan isn’t a despotism, it has a semi-functioning democracy, and, from what I gather the move was broadly popular in Pakistani society (though no doubt those praising the blockage in public are trying to figure out ways in private to evade the ban). I guess the idea of an illiberal democracy just isn’t going to gain much traction in the modern marketplace of ideas….


There is a clip of a recent between Matt Yglesias and Mark Schmitt which is rather amusing, as they express a rather conservative sensibility:


· ·

Theme Design by