Remember the Mayan Apocalypse of 2012? As you’re reading this, as opposed to say watching molten lava consume your neighborhood, then nearly three years on I think we can safely say that the Mayans were wrong, or rather the doomsday preppers who believed that the Mayans had predicted the Apocalypse – when in fact they’d just decided a 5,125 year stockpile of calendars was enough to be going with – were wrong. Their forecasts ended not with a bang but a wimper, the prophets of doom going from a sandwich short of a picnic to several horsemen short of an apocalypse, the day passing off as pretty much average. That was good news for those of us who aren’t into being rescued by space aliens, as a few believers in a remote French village planned, bad news for those who hadn’t finished their Christmas shopping.
That so many believed that a primitive tribe had successfully forecast the end times, to the day, when they didn’t even predict their own culture’s demise, says a lot about the teaching of maths and science. It also says a lot about our culture. Since the last census in 2001, the number of Britons identifying themselves as Christians is down 13 percentage points to 59%, with the number stating that they have no religious faith up 10 points to 25%. At this time of year, the nation slowly accruing Christmas displays in store windows, seasonal adverts on television and the insufferable caterwauling of “Feed The World (Do They Know It’s Christmas Time?)” becoming increasingly regular – despite it being October! – it may seem odd to say that Britain is no longer a Christian country, but when one quarter happily tick “no religion” – and let’s face it, the bulk of that 59% tick “Christian” out of habit – it’s very hard to arrive at any other conclusion. And as G.K.Chesterton warned us, when some people abandon religion “they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything”, Mayan apocalypse included.
Now this may seem somewhat an irrelevance, and as someone who isn’t religious I may seem an unlikely person to express concern about this, but the surging agnosticism has consequences, far reaching and severe, and society must be prepared. This is particularly true for those of us at the libertarian end of the conservative spectrum, despite it being by my guess the least religious branch of the conservative family, as the average voter – who doesn’t spend his days reading the Daily Globe – is greatly influenced by the cultural trends, with the decline of religion having tremendous impact.
And of all factors by far the most damaged by this decline is the concept of natural rights, the idea that mankind was born free and that certain liberties are our right by birth. “The god who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time,” as Jefferson put it, “A free people claim their rights as derived from the laws of nature and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.” Yet today children are taught that they received “human rights” from the European Convention, not from God in the form of liberty as the inalienable nature of mankind, and that these “rights” relate to statutory holiday leave, maternity pay and working hours; entitlements rather than individual freedom. This is anything but an empowering message, ignoring the natural rights of mankind and instead raising up government, hailing government as our benevolent master rather than humble servant. The problem thereby arises that when the public believe the government “granted” them their rights, rather than their creator, an ethos of gratefulness is instilled as it has been with the NHS over past decades: in a twisted way when the people believe government granted them their rights rather than their god the government becomes their god. (Didn’t Britain worship the state’s NHS at the Olympic Opening Ceremony in the style befitting a pagan fire god?)
Of course we can advance utilitarian arguments for freedom – that freedom works best, that the freedoms we defend are conducive to “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” – but we are then forced to fight every battle afresh, marshal data and analysis and rhethoric at every skirmish, and face head-on the tempting new ideologies that promise much but deliver little but tyranny. And what if we lose? Without recourse to natural rights, and the idea that certain beliefs are the right thing – for better or worse – then the nation may lead itself astray to the tune of any momentarily attractive philosophy played by any charismatic snake oil salesman. How often have we all heard someone say, for example, that socialism “would be great if it worked”, and how much longer can the fading memories of past regimes be sufficient to discredit that wicked philosophy? Such memories have already weakened to the point that the self-declared socialist Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the U.K. Labour Party and another, Bernie Sanders, could win the presidential nomination of the U.S. Democratic Party. How can we fight ideologies that may sound logical to some, even appealing to many, without some bedrock of natural right?
As that concept fades, Britain is tragically already eying fondly and with great temptation ever more oppressive and intrusive paths. So insidious has the situation become that a form of Stockholm Syndrome grips the nation without the majority even noticing: so ingrained is the system of control that the vast majority want ever more of it exerted. Britain has jettisoned free speech, seeks to extinguish free press, and passes ever increasing numbers of regulations and laws every day. There is little that someone, somewhere in Britain, doesn’t want to outlaw or regulate, whether that be fox hunting and four-wheel drive vehicles or children’s dinners and schoolyard play. The argument that we should be free to live as our own will dictates, that government should never infringe upon our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that liberty ends where another’s begins and that that boundary is the only true place for restriction, is as dead as the oft forgotten heroes who once fought for it. That F.A. Hayek once wrote that the virtues possessed and lauded by the British people “were independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, non-interference with one’s neighbour and a healthy suspicion of power and authority” today sound as if he were describing a foreign land. The British, inclined to gossip and curtain twitching as we are, have traded our natural rights for rights over others, our freedom for a charter to meddle: everyone’s business is your business, and your business is everyone’s business, and without the concept of natural rights this doesn’t seem to bother people.
Of course identifying a problem is far easier than curing it, and there is obviously no way to change the religious views of the nation, but the changing terrain must be recognised. An environment with greater agnosticism and weaker belief in natural rights is less fertile ground for believers in small government – I can’t find UK data but in the US religiously unaffiliated voters backed Obama by 70 to 26 percent – and the way we pitch freedom must reflect that. Those of us who still believe in a free society must be specific, and detailed on the benefits of our ideas, but above all we must be clear and firm on principles, no longer relying on a fundamental groundswell of liberty friendly belief. In short we can no longer rely on others explaining the idea of liberty and natural right, that government is neither god nor our master: we must do it ourselves. If we don’t then we may find that we survived the Mayan apocalypse but became victims of a political one, and that could be just as terrifying.