Overcoming the West’s Divided Society

CONFLICT 'Traitor, now is thy death day come'

The 2020 Presidential election in the United States demonstrated one clear overall message. The country is sharply divided into two camps: “progressives” and “conservatives”. The competition was not a race between two men but a battle for completely different—perhaps incompatible—sets of values and ways of life. However, this gulf is symptomatic of a wider split that is a blighting Western culture. Ireland is no exception to this general rule.

Hope in a bright future?

[T]oday’s Ireland is full of things not yet known with certainty but things which are most certainly different from and mostly better than the past. So spoke Ireland’s President Mary McAleese in 2003, 17 years before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived. This is a salutary reminder that the future may not always be brighter than the past.

In a previous article (The Future of Human Identity here) it was pointed out that humanity must remain vigilant, particularly in relation to how society will proceed in relation to artificially changing the human genome, a development that has already begun. In other words, we need to protect human identity (i.e. according to the scientific definition of the concept here).

The article pointed out that society needs to have available a sufficiently strong steering mechanism to redirect its course of development and/or apply the brakes if our future comes under serious threat. Although it is far from clear if such a scheme is possible to devise today, many forces are working to make it difficult to implement. One factor of serious concern is the lack of a robust center between “progressive” and “conservative” factions in society. There tends to be an overriding optimism that sees the “new” as always being better than the “old”. Political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christina Welzel express this when they suggest that autonomous choice is a good thing and certainly more positive than … the retarding influences of tradition.[1]

Such optimism is contagious and has been shared by the main Irish political parties and the more “progressive” elements in the EU to such a degree that there is a tendency to dismiss or even ostracize opponents. This is another example in which the world appears to be irreversibly divided between factions. At present, “progressives” tend to be in the ascendant.

The world appears to be irreversibly divided between factions

Despite being part of a highly fractured society, most EU and Irish political leaders insist on ignoring or diminishing the notion of internal divisions. Where outliers do exist in numbers that cannot be ignored (e.g. Poland and Hungary), they tend to be classified as a fringe element (far-right). EU’s President von der Leyen recognizes that conflict is about difference while peace is about respect for difference. Ireland’s Project 2040 comments that our greatest asset is, perhaps, our social cohesion built on shared values. Fine Gael wants a society in which nobody feels left out. Fianna Fáil promotes an Ireland for all. Reality, however, is far removed from these utopian sentiments.

Recognizing incompatibility

A very different picture emerges when faith communities in Ireland, especially those of the Catholic Church, are the focus of attention. In a relevant feature in the Irish Catholic, Michael Kelly points out that: While one’s parents and grandparents might’ve comfortably found themselves at home in either of the two big political tribes, these parties are increasingly a cold house for people of faith or those who continue to cherish the right to life of the unborn. … Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil now pay even lip service to the concerns of people of faith. These people … are now strangers in what was their political home.[2]

Similar noises are coming from the USA. The National Catholic Register reports that: The eight-year Obama-Biden administration produced more friction between the Catholic Church and the federal government than any other administration in our lifetime.[3]

Associate professors Nicholas Charron and Monika Bauhr in their paper (In God we trust?) examine what they call two types of “European identity”: civic and religious. The former expresses itself in a citizens’ sense of “constitutional patriotism”; the latter is an identification with Europe based on the dominant religion: Christianity. They conclude that “civic identity” … is much more in line with the goals of the EU.[4]

What few people are prepared to face openly is that traditional Christian standards and what the EU regards as the core of its civic values are incompatible in many respects (especially in relation to being pro-life and the recognition of marriage as being an exclusive arrangement between a man and woman). This helps to explain why the main traditional parties in Ireland, which are now aligned with EU thinking, have little sympathy for the Catholic faith-community in the country despite their long-held traditional alliances. It also helps to explain the EU’s reluctance to recognize its evolution from a Christian base and its underlying irritation with people of faith.

Why the main traditional parties in Ireland have little sympathy for the Catholic faith-community

The gulf between the traditional Irish parties which have become more “progressive” over time versus those elements that still abide by a traditional Catholic ethos is a fruitful area to study because it illuminates much of what is going on in contemporary society, albeit in a underreported or under-emphasized manner, precisely because it is difficult or uncomfortable for either side to discuss openly. The traditional parties don’t want to reveal their innermost thoughts to the public at large for fear of losing votes; the EU does not want to create divisions in their efforts to create what they call a common “identity”; Catholics leaders are reluctant to further raise the wrath of society against their congregations. Many hope that these rumbling undercurrents will just melt away in time and many assume they will as older generations die off.

Achieving an equitable balance

However, the conflict provides a valuable opportunity to examine how “progressive” and “conservative” elements may be able to coexist despite holding incompatible worldviews. History has shown that the forced elimination of one set of perspectives in favor of the opposite does not work, particularly in the realm of faith. Furthermore, the future promises the development of ever greater incompatibilities in societies as new technological changes become available to induce ever more radical and artificial changes within the human genome. Those who, today, see objections to IVF treatment as being extreme may themselves baulk at the idea of letting a human-monkey chimera come to term even though such mixes have been achieved in practice at the embryonic stage.

As social seismic forces increase and as ever-more radical practices are introduced in science and medicine, fissures will develop between groups that were former allies, forcing the dividing line between “progressives” and “conservatives” to fracture and split repeatedly. Many, who formerly considered themselves to be open minded will find that a point is eventually reached in which they become uncomfortable with “progress”. Rather than a level plain the social landscape will resemble a highly fragmented canyon of fault lines unless a different trajectory to the one we are on is adopted. Divisive and incompatible worldviews promise to be with us into the foreseeable future. How do we deal with such a scenario?

One way to avoid increasingly deep conflicts and divisions within society is for humanity at large to develop better ways to incorporate apparently incompatible worldviews together. How? The first step is to alter our notions about what is meant by “progressive” and “conservative” elements.

“Progress” can only be attributed to actions that benefit mankind in the long run. If something goes badly wrong when interfering with the human genome, the process will not have been considered “progressive” and advocates responsible for the calamity will be viewed as pernicious. Likewise, “conservatives”, who are often seen as outdated, overly restrictive, narrow minded and backwards will be perceived as prudent and sensible in the aftermath of a human catastrophe. The terms “modifiers” and “stabilizers” are more apt terms. Without modifiers no progress will be made; without stabilizers humanity is exposed to unprecedented risks. Both are valuable.

In other words, both “modifiers” and “stabilizers” (and this includes faith-communities) must be recognized as having a vital role to play rather than one side being favored over the other. Where it gets difficult is reaching an equitable balance. To assist in this process, the center ground that separates “modifiers” and “stabilizers”, which is abysmally weak in the West, ought—as a matter of urgency—to be strengthened. For this reason, leading institutions like the EU and the UN must adopt a radically different strategy and begin to perform the much more difficult but important role of facilitators between forces of modification and stabilization rather than being, as they are now, ideological players.

Raymond M. Keogh


[1] Inglehart, R. and Welzel, C., 2008. Modernisation, cultural change, and democracy. Cambridge University Press; pp. 3, 5.

[2] Kelly, M. 2020. Having the courage to leave our political tribe behind. The Irish Catholic here

[3] Warsaw, M. 2020 (October 2). Religious Freedom Is on the Ballot. National Catholic Register; full reference and Publisher Note here

[4] Charron, N. and Bauhr, M. 2020. In God we trust? Identity, institutions and international solidarity in Europe. Journal of Common Market Studies here

Image Illustration by N. C. Wyeth from page 306 of The Boy’s King Arthur: the death of Arthur and Mordred – “Then the king … ran towards Sir Mordred, crying, ‘Traitor, now is thy death day come.'” Wikimedia Commons here