The prevailing ideology of the West – a liberalism that aims at abolishing identity and replacing it with individualism – is actually the third such attempt to stop dividing humanity into Them and Us, Jonathan Sacks writes:
‘The first was Pauline Christianity. Paul famously said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” (NIV, Gal. 3:28). Historically, Christianity has been the most successful attempt in history to convert the world to a single faith. Today a third of the population of the world is Christian. But nations continued to exist. So did non- monotheistic faiths. Another monotheism arose, Islam, with a similar aspiration to win the world to its understanding of the will of God. Within Christianity itself there was schism, first between West and East, then between Catholic and Protestant. Within Islam there were Sunni and Shia. The result was that war did not end. There were crusades, jihads, holy wars and civil strife. These led some people to believe that religion is not a way of curing violence but of intensifying it.
‘The second attempt was the European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. After a devastating series of religious wars there was a genuine belief among European intellectuals that the divisions brought about by faith and dogma could be transcended by the universal truths of reason, philosophy and science. Kant produced a secular equivalent of the idea that we are all in the image of God. He said: treat others as ends, not only means. He also revived the prophetic dream of Isaiah, turning it into a secular programme for ‘perpetual peace’ (1795). Its most famous expression was Beethoven’s setting in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’, with its vision of a time when Alle Menschen werden Brüder – “All men become brothers”.’
‘The first two attempts were universalist: a universal religion or a universal culture. The third attempt, the one we have been living through for the past half-century, is the opposite. It is the effort to eliminate identity by abolishing groups altogether and instead enthroning the individual. The contemporary West is the most individualistic era of all time. Its central values are in ethics, autonomy; in politics, individual rights; in culture, post- modernism; and in religion, “spirituality”. Its idol is the self, its icon the “selfie”, and its operating systems the free market and the post-ideological, managerial liberal democratic state. In place of national identities we have global cosmopolitanism. In place of communities we have flash-mobs. We are no longer pilgrims but tourists. We no longer know who we are or why.
‘No civilisational order like this has ever appeared before, and we can only understand it in the light of the traumatic failure of the three substitutes for religion: nationalism, communism and race. We are now living through the discontents of individualism and have been since the 1970s. Identity has returned. The tribes are back and fighting more fiercely than ever. The old sources of conflict, religion and ethnicity, are claiming new victims. The anti-modern radicals have learned that you can use the products of modernity without going through the process that produced them, namely Westernisation.’