This perhaps sounds like an odd question. What do you mean? Doesn’t it just exist? One of the most difficult concepts for us Westerners to understand is the fact that much of the world is not like us. Though we boast in our pluralism, it actually seems to backfire on us and gets in the way of our ability to truly grasp the core differences that shape our world. One such difference is the presence and nature of true liberty.
We are often confused by such places like North Korea, or the radical terrorism of the Middle East. We betray our lack of understanding when we say such things as, “They just need education! If we can bring them Western ideals and discoveries they will be enlightened, civil and reasonable, like us.” Perhaps we don’t actually say these things out loud but I think that these are the ideas often sit at the base of our thoughts and impressions.
But where did we get our society? What were the convictions and ideas that gave rise to the liberty and pluralism that we experience today? Since we are in the process of actively tossing those values overboard is it vitally important to at least understand what it is that we are destroying.
Take the example of an honest humanist. Will and Ariel Durrant, a couple that received that 1976 Humanist Pioneer Award, were key thinkers and writers for the progress of a secular culture. In 1977, Durrant wrote the following words in Humanist magazine: “Moreover, we shall find it no easy task to mold a natural ethic strong enough to maintain moral restraint straint and social order without the support of supernatural natural consolations, hopes, and fears.”¹ Elsewhere , Durrant writes, “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.”²
Durant wanted to take God and religion out of the picture. He wanted to help build a society on a purely secular foundation. And yet he understands a fundamental fact of history. Our own country’s roots are a stark example of this. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”
The driving conviction of the guys who built this country was that there IS such a thing as a law above us all and that we are all created with inherent value and meaning. These convictions drove them to seek to rebel against a bad king and create a society in which individual freedom and worth was protected. To put matters bluntly, if the laws of society and the rights of people are not God given, what is it that makes them unshakable and worth protecting? The answer is simple – nothing.
Rebelling against a tyrant king was done on the basis that that king does not get to invent the law – he must be under it, just like everyone else. This comes back to Durant’s words above. If there is really nothing to the universe except time, chance and impersonal force, how can there ever be a law that all are under? What then is the basis for protecting individual people’s rights and liberties? Why bother?
In some ways the totalitarian communist states are ahead on this thought process. As Francis Schaeffer put it, “If there are no absolutes by which to judge society, then society itself becomes absolute.”³ Lets not be naive. This goes downhill very quickly. Secular society is like that toddler that has discovered that he can say, “No” to the rules in which he has developed. Once he has done so, he snowballs down the hill of denying anything his parents tell him he must do.
Genuine liberty depends on the assumption that all people have certain unshakable rights. Our own framers borrowed on the Judeo-Christian concept of the image of God in man as making man distinct and significant, thus having rights and dignity that are worth protecting. What happens when we have denied the basis for those assumptions? How can we hold on to the liberty they produce? Is that even possible? The humanist Durant tells us that the example of history says, “No”.
1. Cited in – Francis A. Schaeffer. A Christian Manifesto (Kindle Locations 271-272). Kindle Edition.
2. Same as above.
3. Schaeffer, Francis A. (2005-03-03). How Should We Then Live? (L’Abri 50th Anniversary Edition): The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Kindle Location 3182). Crossway. Kindle Edition.