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The Delusion At the Heart of Secular Freedom

Akos Balogh

Freedom is the ultimate value of our secular age. We hear it in song. We see it on Netflix. And we desire it for ourselves.

While there are many definitions and types of freedom, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor sums up the today’s secular view of freedom:

Let each person do their own thing, and…one shouldn’t criticize the others’ values, because they have a right to live their own life as you do. The [only] sin which is not tolerated is intolerance.’ [1]

Or as the band Soup Dragons sang in their song ‘I’m Free’:

I’m free to do what I want any old time
I said I’m free to do what I want any old time

According to this view of freedom, being a healthy authentic human being means being free to tread your own path, and follow your own desires. All without any interference from other people.

No doubt there is much about freedom that is good. But as with so many good things that God gives us, humanity can warp and twist it beyond recognition. And when it comes to freedom, there lies within a dangerous delusion. For if we pursue this secular view of freedom, we end up with something other than freedom.

Here’s what I mean:

1) A Narrative Gone Wrong

Is “freedom” good? Yes and No.

Let’s be clear: the ideal of individual human freedom has done incalculable good. Slavery has been abolished. Society has become a much fairer place, particularly for women and many minorities.

Individual human freedom has much to commend to it.

And yet, the (post)modern view of freedom that has permeated the western world goes beyond freedom from unjust political and cultural constraints.

Today, freedom is under-girded by the belief that there is no cosmic order, there is no essential human nature (constraining us), and there are no truths or moral absolutes that we must kneel to. As Atheist social critic Terry Eagleton argues:

[Behind the modern view of freedom] the universe itself is arbitrary, contingent, aleatory.’ [2]

– Terry Eagleton

In other words, since there is no design or purpose behind this accidental and meaningless universe, nothing has any rightful claim on us, and we may live as we see fit.

However, the Enlightenment champions of freedom – people like John Locke – would be astonished to see where our view of freedom has landed. Thinkers like Locke helped begin the process by championing political freedom and democratic self-determination, but Locke was a (liberal) Christian who believed in moral truths and obligations that were independent of our minds and feelings, and which (rightly) limited our freedom. [3] 

As author Tim Keller points out:

Freedom has come to be defined as the absence of any limitations or constraints on us. By this definition, the fewer boundaries we have on our choices and actions, the freer we feel ourselves to be. Held in this form the narrative has gone wrong and is doing damage.’ [4]

So in what way is the modern narrative of freedom doing damage? Here are a number:

2) Today’s Secular View of Freedom is Unworkable

Modern freedom is defined as the freedom from all constraints. You are free when you can do ‘whatever you want, any old time’.

But it doesn’t take much reflection to realise there are serious problems with this view.

For starters, there is no such thing as a life without any constraints. Sure we can be free from someconstraints – we can enjoy certain freedoms. But a life without any constraints is an impossibility, and therefore unworkable.

Take for example an Olympic swimmer. They have the amazing freedom of competing against the world’s best in competitions around the world (not least the Olympic games). That is a freedom afforded to a minute number of people in human history.

And yet, if they want to maintain that freedom, they need to give up other types of freedom. They need to constrain other parts of their live – often quite severely: from where they live, to what they eat; from their daily routine to the what they do on holidays.

Olympic athletes are free in many ways, but they are not free in the postmodern sense.

But it’s the same with each one of us. We can be free to be healthy (by constraining our junk food intake), or we can be free to eat whatever our taste buds desire. But we can’t be free in both ways at the same time. There is no such thing as a life without constraints, where we’re free to do whatever we want, any old time.

3) Shouldn’t I Be Free To Do What I Want As Long As I Don’t Harm Other People?

It may sound good, but there’s a problem with this ‘harm’ principle.

Today the common argument is that everyone should be free to do as they please, as long as they don’t harm anyone else. Harming others is the only limit we should have on our freedom. This way, the thinking goes, we don’t need to impose a common morality onto people: we can each choose our own way, and be free.

While there is some utility to this view – especially when it comes to religious freedom – there are also significant problems with it.

This view of ‘you should be free to do what you want as long as you don’t harm anyone else’ assumes we agree as to what harm is. But our society is increasingly divided on the issue of harm.

Take for example ‘hate speech’: should a religious school be free to teach its students that homosexual practice is sin? Many in the LGBTI community, and increasingly in wider society, see such teaching as harmful to vulnerable gay school kids. (Israel Folau’s recent media post is another example of this disagreement).

Any decision about what harms others will be rooted in (generally unacknowledged) views of human nature and purpose. These are beliefs – they are not self evident, nor can they be proven empirically.’ [5]

If we disagree about human nature and purpose, we’ll disagree on what constitutes ‘harm’. And if we disagree on what harm is, then how can we hold to the principle of ‘you should be free to do what you want unless it harms others’?

Such a principle is increasingly unworkable in our diverse multi-faith, multi-cultural society. The only way it can work is by the government imposing a particular view of harm on all of society, thus limiting our freedom.

4) Today’s Secular Freedom is Unjust

It denies what we owe others.

The modern view of freedom assumes that we are self-sufficient beings with no responsibility to or for others.

Take the case of a 40 year old husband with three kids. He asserts his freedom to follow his own feelings, to be happy, and so have an affair with a co-worker. He asserts his freedom to choose his own path, and to do whatever he wants any old time.

But in pursuing this modern view of freedom, he wreaks havoc in the lives of others, especially his family.

Modern freedom can quickly lead to unjust behaviour.

5) Today’s Secular “Freedom” Corrodes Community

And it’s bad for democracy.

The 19th century thinker Alexis de Tocqueville saw the potential danger freedom poses to a democracy. We can be so tied to our individual freedom – to our desire to do what we want, any old time – that we can ignore our responsibilities toward our family, community, and democracy.

Denying our democratic and civic responsibilities threatens our political freedom, for if we withdraw from democratic and civic participation, the more the beaurocratic state needs to step in to keep society functioning.

And as we hand more of our institutions over to government oversight and control, the less space there will be for citizens to make their own decisions.

And the less we will be free.

A Better Way

Today’s secular view of freedom denies the existence of any objective constraints on us. The world around us is malleable, and we have the right – indeed duty – to make ourselves free by moulding reality to our inner desires.

But as we’ve seen, reality doesn’t work like that. There are objective, real constraints on us – whether physical, moral, or spiritual – that limit what freedom looks like. Ignoring these constraints doesn’t bring freedom, but slavery. This is the deluded heart of modern freedom.

But if we want to be free, we need to see that true freedom comes from accepting these constraints, and working with them. We need to understand that many of these constraints are put here by our Creator, for our good.

And so we need to look to our Creator to see what true freedom looks like. Not the freedom to determine reality, but to accept His reality, especially as it’s revealed in His Son. For as the Son Christ Jesus pointed out:

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’.

– John 8:36

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press, 2007), 484. Quoted in Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation To The Skeptical (London: Hodder & Staughton, 2016), 98. Much of this post is based on Chapter 5 of Keller’s book.

[2] Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwells, 1996), 42. Quote in Keller, Making Sense of God, 99.

[3] Keller, Making Sense of God, 99.

[4] Keller, Making Sense of God, 101.

[5] Keller, Making Sense of God, 105.