Freedom vs. the Common Good

There is always, inevitably, a tension between individual freedom and the need to work together for the common good. Neither idea can ever vanquish the other, and in extreme forms both are evil.

When individual freedom is elevated as the absolute measure of virtue, the result is anarchy. You wouldn’t enjoy real anarchy. If freedom is the only thing that matters, drivers will be free to race down the street at 80 mph through school zones. Polluters will be free to dump assorted poisons into your drinking water.

Conversely, if the common good is all that matters, everybody will be required to march in lock-step. Books that include non-approved ideas will be burned. The police will be able to invade your home to check for compliance. This is totalitarianism. You wouldn’t like that either.

And in any event, neither state of affairs is achievable. In the real world, the need to judge the relative merits of individual freedom and group solidarity in a given case is always with us. It can be a parlor game or a matter of life and death, but it never goes away, nor could it.

We band together to create institutions that we hope will work for the common good. The most important of such institutions are governments and religions. The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that when those two institutions get together, too much individual freedom is lost. They tried to set up a legal framework that would keep the two separate, but as events since then have proved, the framework doesn’t work very well.

The people who run large institutions tend to rise to the top because they enjoy having power. Having power means controlling other people’s lives. You may think your exercise of power is in the interest of the common good, or you may not care about that at all. In either case, individual freedom goes on the chopping block.

Because I’m distressed by the exercise of power (strictly in the service of the common good as they unilaterally define it, and don’t try to debate them, because they refuse to debate) by the upper echelon of the Unitarian-Universalist organization, I’m looking around for alternatives. I’d like to get together weekly with a group of like-minded people in order to discuss common concerns, maybe hear an inspiring lecture, and have some coffee and cookies.

The Satanic Temple appears, at first glance, to be a good possibility. Unfortunately, it’s much too small to be of any practical value. If I were an organizing type (which I’m not) I could start a local congregation, but I’m a bit concerned that the Satanic Temple goes too far in the direction of individual liberty at the expense of being aware of and concerned about the common good. According to their own website, they strive to “preserve and advance … individual liberties.” They “reject tyrannical authority.” They explain that “Satan is an icon … the heretic who … rejects all tyrannical impositions.”

That sounds nice, but who is to say whether a given authority is tyrannical or wise? Do you get to decide that for yourself?

We have, in this nation at present, a small but obstreperous “sovereign citizen” movement — a bunch of camo-wearing, gun-toting idiots who claim the right to ignore laws that they find personally inconvenient. Also, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos certainly enjoy individual liberty, and it would be hard to build a case that what they’re doing is good and should be supported. An important purpose of government is to rein in those whose individual liberties trample on the faces and bodies of others.

Governments are always imperfect, and the one we have at present is a good deal worse than that. Nonetheless, government is essential. Government is how we attempt (haltingly and ineptly) to work for the common good. Your taxes keep the street lights lit and the doors of the public library open, among dozens of other worthwhile social functions. And it’s an essential element of taxation that you don’t get to choose whether to pay your taxes. We all give up some personal freedom in order to advance the common good.

If you don’t like what’s going on, run for Congress. If you win the election, you’ll soon find out how little you can change. As Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst type of government ever devised — except for all of the others.”

The Satanic Temple is active in supporting social causes that I believe in, but their real vision is, transparently, about opposing the dominance of Christianity. I support that opposition, but it’s essentially negative. The same criticism applies to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is a much older and larger organization. I support what they’re doing, but it’s essentially negative. It exists in opposition to a social evil, but without proposing a social good that might replace the evil.

Secular values are very nice, but they lack a compelling appeal to the emotions. Secular values fail to martial the power of the unconscious mind. What we need are temples to Demeter.

Demeter was primarily the goddess of the harvest, but her mythology is larger than that. The essential point about Demeter as a philosophical idea is that we’re all part of the spontaneous ongoing flowering of life on this planet. Preserving and nurturing the works of Demeter is both a way of honoring the life of the individual — the individual tree, squirrel, snake, human, whatever — as it grows in its own natural manner, and also a way of working toward the common good.

As a symbol, Demeter doesn’t have the in-your-face baggage of Satan. Not only are we all children of Demeter, but Demeter is all we have. She is all we will ever have. Yet the worship of Demeter is free, for the time being at least, of the dogma that afflicts Christianity and other religions.

In some respects the worship of Demeter would be similar to the neo-pagan movement, but neo-paganism flirts with childish ideas about spiritualism and the occult. Also, its use of the terminology of witchcraft is, again, essentially negative. Calling what you’re doing witchcraft is a way of jabbing your thumb in the eye of Christianity — and as well deserved as that jabbing undoubtedly is, defining your movement by its opposition to something else is not a smart strategy. It doesn’t give you a vision of how to move forward.

I’m not an organizer or a standard bearer. I’m too old, and I don’t have the right social skills. So I’m just spitballing here, but I’m entirely serious. Demeter. If you want to start something, I’ll happily edit your press releases and web copy.

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