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Why Is The Western World So Badly Polarised?

By Akos Balogh

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?

3) A Bad Way Ahead: Deny We’re All Driven By Our ‘gods’

One response is to first deny that people are driven by their underlying beliefs, and then insist that our deep beliefs must play no part in public discussion (for fear of the division it may cause). As author Tim Keller points out:

The rules of secular public discourse will not allow us to talk about [moral and religious beliefs], since, it is feared, discussions of religious beliefs will lead to endless public disagreement. However, we are already locked in endless disagreement, largely because we live with the illusion that we can achieve moral and religious neutrality.’ [1]

As many an observer has pointed out, we don’t need to talk about religion to achieve a state of disunity in this country. Take any political issue, and you have instant disagreement. But Keller continues:

And because we can’t talk about our real differences, we simply make power plays to weaken and marginalise our opponents, not persuade them.’ [2]

Not recognising – let along talking about – the underlying beliefs that drive us often leads to gridlock, and the proverbial butting of heads against each another. And thus, the other side disagrees with us because they’re nothing more than idiots (we assume), and so we treat them accordingly.

Thankfully, there is a better way ahead:

4) A Better Way: Admit We’re Driven By Our ‘gods’, and Don’t Assume the Worst in Others

As a Christian, it’s easy to assume that many on the Secular Left are out to get to us, desiring to take away our religious freedom. And yes, no doubt there are a few that overtly want to take away our freedoms.

But most people on the opposite side of the religious freedom debate don’t want to destroy us, they merely have a different view of what religious freedom is, based on their view of justice and morality. [3]

And so, we shouldn’t assume the worst in others, but start by understanding where they’re coming from. We first need to understand their moral framework, their underlying beliefs, the ‘gods’ that are driving them. And if we seek first to understand those that oppose our views, this can lead to better, more fruitful conversations, than the outrage driven polarisation we’re seeing across the West.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we’ll agree with them: but a deeper conversation will reveal that (thanks to God’s common grace), people often have a sense of justice that is good (e.g. secular people don’t want the vulnerable to be harmed), even though this works itself out in questionable policies.

Polarisation Is Here To Stay

Our deep differences aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, as our society leaves behind its Judeo-Christian heritage, the differences will only increase.

But for Christians, this will raise many opportunities to love those we disagree with, as we seek first to understand them, and engage with them, even as we put forward a better, Biblically informed view of ‘equality’, ‘justice’, and ‘human rights’.