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Why Is The Western World So Badly Polarised? – Part 1

By Akos Balogh (taken from gospel coalition website)

The western world is increasingly polarised. And Australia is no exception. Who can forget the division last year over same-sex marriage? Or the recent outrage over religious freedom (an issue which has now gridlocked the Federal Parliament)?

And yet, people on both sides of these debates passionately believe in the ideas of ‘equality’, ‘human-rights’, and ‘freedom’. But shouldn’t believing in these bedrock principles be enough to get us all on the same page, and end the division?

Evidently not. And here’s why. 

1) Why Talking About ‘Equality’, ‘Rights’ and ‘Freedom’ is No Longer Enough

Christian author and scholar Jonathan Leeman captured the problem well in a recent online discussion. In talking about democracy and the public square, Leeman says:

Part of the [secular western democratic] experiment is that we can get together and govern ourselves as a nation apart from our religion. We can agree on certain shared principles like ‘equality’, ‘rights’, ‘freedom’…you have your god, I have my God, but we can leave those gods behind, step into the public square as ‘neutral space’, and conduct ourselves as a nation.’

But as Leeman points out, that works, when everybody basically has a Christian-ish god governing our morality.

When we all have a moral framework influenced by Judeo-Christianity, we can agree on the meaning of ‘equality’, ‘rights, ‘freedom’. This has been the case in the western world up until quite recently.

But, in 2018/19 Australia, does talk of ‘equality’, ‘rights’, ‘freedom’ lead to a shared understanding of the issues? Do we agree on what these terms mean?

Not at all. So for example, in the recent Senate Bill put forward by the ALP, Bill Shorten and Penny Wong spoke openly about the importance of ‘religious freedom’, even as many Christian observers pointed out the danger to religious freedom from such a bill.

2) The Key Reason Why We’re So Polarised: We’re Driven By Different ‘gods’

We use the same vocabulary, but have different dictionaries.

In 2018/19 Australia, there is no longer a ‘Christian-ish’ consensus around morality, much less the different ideals and law that comes from such morality.

As Leeman argues:

‘We’re still saying ‘rights’, ‘equality’, ‘freedom’, but we have different gods [i.e. beliefs] animating, determining, what we think ‘rights’, ‘equality’, ‘freedom’ are.’

Both the Christian, and the secular progressive, are driven by differing beliefs around reality: different beliefs around the purpose of humanity, morality, and life. Our beliefs – to use Leeman’s term, ‘gods’, can never leave us, even when we enter the public square.

So if we’re always driven by often competing ‘gods’ (beliefs), where does this leave our society?

(see part 2 next week where Akos looks at a bad way and a good way for us to respond as Christians)