I get to keep up with what my liberal friends are thinking through social media. There was one social media post by a friend of mine (white, heterosexual, male) which recently caught my attention. The gist of it was as follows:
1. Donald Trump has withdrawn taxpayer funding for charities promoting abortion.
2. This will affect the health of poor women overseas and is therefore immoral.
3. This is a case of Christian men deliberately attacking poor women.
4. Religion is used by men to uphold the patriarchy in order to oppress poor women.
It ended with this: "The only way forward is to ensure we leave behind the shackles of enslavement promoted by religion and the religious. Faith is one thing. Religion is enslavement."
Now this is interesting, as it is another step along the liberal path that the West has been treading for many generations. As it happens, James Kalb has just written an article
about this very feature of liberalism. He explains:
Social issues are messy. They have to do with basic human connections, orientations, and aspects of identity. These include family, cultural community, religion, and relations between the sexes. So they have to do with basic and very complicated aspects of life that people feel strongly about.
That causes problems for people who run things today. Their ideal of reason and principle of legitimacy means they want to handle everything through supposedly rational, neutral, and transparent institutions like global markets and expert bureaucracies. But personal loyalties, ultimate commitments, and ideas about how best to live can’t be sold, traded, bureaucratized, or turned over to experts. So from the standpoint of liberal institutions they are unmanageable and incomprehensible. They mess things up.
The result is that our rulers refuse to deal with them on their own terms but insist on treating them as private hobbies or consumption choices that shouldn’t be allowed to affect anything.
As an example of treating things as "private hobbies" consider the issue of how white liberals deal with their own ethnic ancestry. It is considered permissible for a white liberal to identify positively with their own ancestry (English, Scottish, German or whatever) as long as this remains at the reduced level of a private sentiment. What is not permitted is for him to defend the continuing existence of his ancestry as part of public policy.
And so with religion. It makes sense for my friend, under the terms of liberalism, to think that a private faith is acceptable, whereas organised religion is not. The first keeps things private and individual, the second can potentially have influence in society.
The problem, of course, is that many of our deepest loyalties, loves and attachments are exercised as part of a community - they cannot be reduced to the individual level. You can only exercise your role as a father within a family; your wider kinship identity within an ethny; your membership of a religious tradition within a church and so on.
These identities and attachments cannot be defended within a liberal system. And so the liberal individual tends to substitute them with lifestyle activities: the liberal individual turns instead to food, shopping, career, sex, entertainments and so on. He may even, to satisfy a need, become a spectator to the traditions of others that he does not allow for himself.
James Kalb goes on to point out that this aspect of liberalism can be traced all the way back to the seventeenth century:
Liberal theory, like liberal practice, wants to keep things simple, comprehensible, and manageable. The social issues are complicated, and the idea of a social contract—which has been basic to liberal theory since Hobbes and Locke—is a way of avoiding them. Instead of basing society on inherited or transcendent loyalties or some conception of the good life, social contract theory tells us to put such things aside and view society as a collection of equal individuals who think they can advance their own goals by establishing a legal order based on neutral standards of equality and personal choice.
The approach sounds good to a lot of people but it has consequences that aren’t pleasing. If we’re all equal independent individuals with our own idiosyncratic goals, then informal authorities like cultural tradition vanish, and the social order is no more than the legal and commercial order. Anything else that becomes influential enough to be worth noticing, like informal expectations regarding behavior, is illegitimate and oppressive if it doesn’t directly support the liberal order. That’s why both Mrs. Clinton and international human rights conventions tell us that if religious and cultural patterns don’t line up with liberal ideals, for example with regard to feminism and abortion, we—meaning those in power—must change them.
I'll finish with another good excerpt from Kalb's article:
The project of creating a society in which arrangements like family, religion, and ethnic ties and culture don’t matter is based on the idea that those things have no legitimate or rational function. Swede or Somali, Christian, Muslim, or Jew, man, woman, or other, however we identify, whatever our preferred pronouns or domestic arrangements, we are all equally consumers, employees, and functionaries in a global society that recognizes only markets and neutral expert bureaucracies as authoritative institutions. That’s where the serious business of life goes on, and everything else should be recognized as freely chosen hobbies, indulgences, fantasies, or personal consumption choices.
That’s the view, but it makes no sense, because sex, religion, and communal membership are ineradicably at the center of people’s understanding of themselves and their connection to others.