Individualism, Secularized Society, and the Meaning of Life: Pt. 1

Arguably, late modern individualism, which lends itself to an instrumentalizing of relationships, both reflects and reinforces modern secularized society. (That’s a mouthful.) In other words, given the overabundance of individualistic pursuits of ‘life plans’ found in late modern society, the tendency to treat others as a means to one’s own ends is both a sign of and a source of the rampant secularity we often find around us. Put briefly, secularized society fosters individualism; and individualism reinforces secularity. Why do I believe this? There are several connected reasons.

First, on a completely secularized social outlook, it is impossible to put forward an objective sense of the meaning of life. The famed (secularist) social and political theorist Ernest Gellner coined the term ‘modular man’ in referring to the malleability of life’s meaning which derives from a lack of objectivity in modern society (Gellner, Conditions of Liberty, pp. 97-108). This ‘modularity’ of individuals was, according to Gellner, a necessary condition to ‘Civil Society’: for only when man is modular is he able to construct his various identities, loyalties, allegiances, entering and renegotiating social contracts as he sees fit. However, such modularity comes at the high cost of social fragmentation, (Gellner, Conditions of Liberty, p. 104), what Peter Berger famously calls the ‘homelessness’ of the modern mind (See his, The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness). And this social fragmentation or homelessness makes the articulation of an objective sense of life’s meaning performatively impossible, conducing a plurality of views and an attendant individualism.

The social philosopher Kenneth Stikkers puts it rather poignantly:

‘Modern medical technology . . . might be able to relieve the suffering of the child who is ill, and even save his life, but it has nothing to say to the mother of that child about the meaning of his suffering should he die. Modern medicine may prolong human life but cannot address the meaning of that life’ (Stikkers, Problems of a Sociology of Knowledge, p. 12).

In the secularized sociality of modernity, life’s meaning disappears.

And the reason that modern secularized society lacks the resources needed to articulate an objective meaning of life, Berger argues, is that it fails to secure a ‘sacred order’ which in premodern societies was ‘provided by religious traditions’ (Berger, Facing up to Modernity, pp. 91-92). What remains, as the (secularist) sociologist Zygmunt Bauman notes, is either a certain negative freedom – i.e., freedom as ‘meaning-creation’ for those brave enough to bear it (Bauman, Globalization, p. 18). In both cases, the universal condition is a loss of any objective meaning to life. As Harvie Ferguson remarks, in late modern society ‘identity is transitory selfhood’ (see ‘Glamour and the End of Irony’, in The Question of Identity, pp. 8-9). Yet, as Bauman rightly suggests, the human person, having “acquired the ability of articulated thought,” inevitably asks and seeks an answer to the most fundamental question of their existence: that of life’s meaning (Bauman, In Search of Politics, pp. 31-32). But an objective sense of life’s meaning is practically precluded given the secularized and pluralized context of late modernity. What is needed, therefore, is a robust reassertion and recovery of the moral ‘canopies’ or worldviews which come from religious traditions of our premodern past.

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