“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
It may seem peculiar to some that the word ‘Christendom‘ is no longer used except in the context of historical analysis. We don’t use it to describe Christian supremacy in Uganda or elsewhere in Africa, strangely. ‘The Muslim world‘ is still a term that summarises not an Islamic romanticised ‘Ummah‘ but countries with Islam built into its framework and its institutions, in much the same way (though applied a little differently – Islam certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of Papal power) that ‘Christendom‘ once worked.
Christianity as a Theocratic power, it may be said, is a victim of its own oppressive nature, with ‘Christendom‘ a term that died with the Enlightenment in Europe. The 16th century saw Martin Luther pin his 95 theses to a University door in Germany, sparking a vast revolution against Papal authority, it encouraged the printing of criticisms, and most importantly for our purposes here, the right – in many cases – to read the Bible in one’s native language rather than have it read out in Latin, thus allowing the individual the right to think about the text for themselves. Whilst this wasn’t a freedom – an unintended consequence from the deeply oppressive mind of Luther – that came without its oppressive caveats (Acts of Uniformity, by the very term, aren’t exactly freedom inducing), it sparked a movement toward the breaking down of oppressive barriers, and the freeing of the individual that eventually gave us the Enlightenment, with all its emphasis on free expression, representative government, secular constitutions, science, and rationalism. Christian Theocracy died because humans are born free.
It is an often repeated phrase, that Man is ‘born free’ – indeed the UN Declaration of Human Rights begins its very first article with it – but the implication & significance is seldom discussed, so I thought I’d elaborate here.
The liberal proposition is clear, though often confused by cultural relativists; empower the individual, not the group. It is that simple. We do not sacrifice the individual on the alter of culture. Cultural norms are not worth protecting, if they harm the individual. Cultural relativists tend to act as if protecting the cultural norms or religious dictates – especially if those cultures or religions are perceived to be a victim of Western bullying (a curious tactic employed by several people on the BBC’s Sunday morning The Big Questions this past week to disguise deeply unpleasant beliefs) – of oppressive societies is worth more than individuals within those cultures or religious theocracies whose freedom is chained to the beliefs of others. Indeed, the premise of any religious control of other people (and cultural relativists who defend the principle) – be they non-believers, ex-believers, women, or the LGBT community – is ownership of the individual. And that’s a concept that seems wholly illegitimate to me.
Let me explain the basis for the liberal proposition. Above I note that we rely on the premise of empowering the individual over the group. Why is that, what makes you right, and where does the very premise come from, you might ask. Let’s take you, the reader, as the example. It must be clear to all that you were not born naturally attached to any ideological framework of power. This is not a ‘Western value‘, it is a universally observed truth, because the opposite is not only unproven, lacking any form of evidence, but it is also quite obviously absurd. Indeed to claim the opposite is to claim an ideology preceded humanity, and is intrinsically a part of each individual, not only that, but a controlling part. That the individual must submit to the rules of that ideology that preceded humanity without definitive proof of its reality, is as close to the definition of irrationality as I may ever be made aware of. To claim such a grotesque absurdity requires not simply your individual belief, but as much proof as 1+1=2. Further, it implies that we can all argue the same, if we simply precede an ideological demand with “My god says…”. To argue for your own privilege based on your belief (not proof) is to argue for everyone else’s privilege to treat you the same according to their belief. To prevent the other from doing the same to you, requires oppression. It is a Hobbesian state of perpetual war. It is therefore not only irrational, it is irresponsible and dangerous, whilst having the joyful effect of advertising your belief as psychopathic. What makes me right? Well, I concede that I might be entirely wrong, I might be born intrinsically attached to a single ideological framework that I am compelled to submit but in my evil rebelliousness I have chosen not to, sinning my way through life as I do. I concede it is a possibility, but I’m yet to encounter a convincing (or even basic) argument to imply that humans are not born endowed with liberty.
The birth of liberty, is the liberty of birth. From that basic truth, springs progression; the right to free expression, the right to freedom of conscience and belief, the right to love whomever you fall in love with regardless of gender, the right to the pursuit of happiness regardless of gender or ethnicity, the right to your property over your own person. To argue that anyone must be compelled to follow, or be judged by the dictates of your religion, first requires you to prove that your presumed right to ownership over another individual is factually based and inescapable (which of course, is untrue of any ideology). Otherwise, it is meaningless and can be dismissed as such.
Liberalism is the equalising of all, according to the clear principle that no one is born naturally superior to anyone else. It frees all to participate in society – regardless of natural human distinctions like sexuality, gender, ethnicity – whilst allowing all the right to a private existence free from oppressive barriers erected by others for the love of their supernatural sky man. It is the spring from which creativity, innovation, love, democracy, and plurality shoot. It recognises our evolutionary nature as both a group species, and individuals within groups, and it aims to free the individual to participate as fully as possible within the group, to develop our own ideas, to express ourselves, to debate openly, to be happy and free, right up until the individual seeks to harm the same natural freedoms for others.
The history of the past 500 years of Christian power in Europe and the United States has been one in which the barriers erected by that power have slowly eroded, to reveal humans in a much more natural state of being. We have progressed more since the Enlightenment, than at any time in our history. This is how a grown up, civilised society operates. Liberals must not excuse illiberal cultural norms, for the sake of opposing Western colonialism, because we recognise that illiberal cultural norms – in so much as they chain the individual – is a form of colonialism itself. And so It isn’t that I believe ‘Western culture‘ to be supreme, it is that I recognise any society that trends toward liberation of the individual more than it trends toward oppression, to be supreme.