I can imagine being both more religious and religiously conservative, but I suspect it would have required an upbringing that was less encouraging of education, ambition and intellectual curiosity. It doesn’t work this way for everyone, but I have often felt a certain tension between the comfort of religious rules and ritual and the excitement and wide-openness that come with the removal of constraint. I got older. The more I learned, the more I knew. And the more I knew, the more I had doubts about what I had known before.
This trade-off might have been worth it, but it was a trade-off nonetheless. Once you are exposed to the secular world — a world where personal autonomy and experience eclipse tradition — it becomes harder to return, even if you wish to. Modern liberalism is alluring, even if it might not always be good for us. As political scientist Patrick Deneen notes in “Why Liberalism Failed,” by dismantling traditional structures, liberalism encourages “privatism.” The individual becomes society’s most important unit, and the state’s role is somehow both reduced and expanded to the task of removing limitations on the individual’s ability to pursue their personal desires. This ability — fairly novel in human history — can prove overwhelming.
As the hold of religion weakens, it becomes harder to understand whether our choices have been the “right” ones. Our standards and judgments no longer refer to traditions; they become self-referential. This sense of endless choice injects into our lives an undercurrent of nearly perpetual panic, of never knowing whether we’re living as we should. Yet we become so used to our freedom to choose that we insist on retaining it regardless of the consequences.
In other words, we are trapped. If spiritual or religious traditions have largely disappeared from our lives, we can work consciously and deliberately to reintroduce them or strengthen the ones that we have held on to. I hope to do some of this in 2024. Constraints can be liberating. But no matter what we choose, we make a choice. This is a weight but also a blessing. Because in the end, the choice is ours alone.
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