Time to update Rockwell’s Four Freedoms By Karl Albrecht

Freedom from religion now included in list for digital age

This article originally appeared in the April/May issue of Mensa Bulletin and is reprinted here, edited for length, with permission.

By Karl Albrecht

The beloved American artist Norman Rockwell, when asked to explain his distinctive approach to painting, said simply, “I paint the world the way I want it to be.”

Rockwell spent much of his early career in the small town of Arlington, Vt., where he absorbed the essence of American life, experience and values, far removed from the frenetic urban environments that seemed to attract so many other artists and intellectuals.

Rockwell painted his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post at 22, and he produced another 321 covers over the next 47 years.

Many of us feel a sense of nostalgia, and even loss, at the passing of Rockwell’s America.

And for many others, the relentless march of all things digital seems to be a mixed blessing. Techno-venture capitalist Peter Thiel recently lamented, “We wanted flying cars, and we got 140 characters.” Paradoxically, we seem to be more connected and less intimate than ever before.

Rockwell’s series of four paintings called the “Four Freedoms” probably ranks as his most memorable affirmation of what Americans believe — or, at least, want to believe. Taking his lead from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, in his 1941 State of the Union address, cited “freedom of speech,” “freedom of worship,” “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” as primal needs of a society going through the compound agony of economic depression and looming world war, Rockwell portrayed them as images of simple, ordinary Americans in ordinary circumstances.

We can wonder: Fifty years from now, will these and other Rockwell icons still be part of the American cultural memory, or will they have faded from our collective consciousness?

The digital environment that we’ve created is now creating us. It seems to me that we now need to claim and celebrate several additional “freedoms.” Now, I believe, it’s time for a “New Four Freedoms,” all of which involve “freedom from”:

• Freedom from Media
• Freedom from Commerce
• Freedom from Politics
• Freedom from Religion

Admittedly, these four new candidates lack the sentimental appeal of Rockwell’s (and Roosevelt’s) original four. But they might enable us to enjoy the original four for a while longer, at least. The big difference is that the New Four must come from within — they are not bestowed upon us as civil liberties by “society.” They are mental, emotional, and spiritual freedoms, which we can acquire and retain only by conscious choice.

Freedom from Media

Freedom from media means exercising the right to choose when to tune in to the all-pervasive electronic culture and when to switch it off. Media addiction, or at least media habituation, is probably much more widespread than many techno-advocates realize. As with many other forms of addiction, its victims typically prefer denial to introspection.

Are we becoming a society of people who fear both intimacy and solitude, and who can’t find joy in silence? The collective consciousness of our culture has become an ocean of commercially constructed images and sounds, which soaks into our senses almost every waking hour. What we call “the news” has become an endless parade of talking hairdos that cue shocking, amusing and entertaining film clips. Beat poet and philosopher Allen Ginsberg warned, “We’re in science fiction now, man. Whoever controls the images —the media — controls the culture.”

I became a “media vegetarian” more than 15 years ago, when I threw the TV out of my house, eliminated all incoming broadcast signals and began to accumulate a video library of quality educational programs, documentaries and classic films. I’m not tethered to a smartphone every waking minute. I don’t have a Twitter account or a Facebook page. I even “fast” from time to time, deliberately limiting my input of all screen media, to free my brain’s processing capacity for creative activity.

Freedom from Commerce

Freedom from commerce means exempting yourself from the never-ending onslaught of selling messages, 24/7, everywhere you go.

We’ve evolved into a society in which we as citizens are automatically deemed obligated to produce and consume at the maximum possible rate — it’s our duty as good citizens and our birthright as people of privilege.

The Christmas buying season, our annual guilt spasm, has become a threadbare cultural habit with very little social or spiritual meaning attached to it anymore.

We needn’t feel guilty about reducing our levels of consumption and discretionary spending; the economy will adjust, as it always has. We can savor the joys and benefits of the enterprise economy without becoming addicted to the compulsion to consume.

Freedom from Politics

Freedom from politics means letting go of emotional attachment to any brand-name political party, ideology, tribe or hero figure. Again, many people have deluded themselves into thinking they’re independent, self-made thinkers, even though they’ve voluntarily enslaved themselves to one of the competing political brands. Slogans like “I don’t vote for a party, I vote for the person” help them rationalize their steadfast allegiance to the beliefs and opinions preached by their chosen tribe.

The quintessential irony of American political discourse seems to be the fusion of willful ignorance with absolute conviction. Another acerbic writer, Germany’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, said, “There is nothing quite so frightening as ignorance in action.”

Psychologist Abraham Maslow spoke of the need for the modern human to develop and assert “resistance to enculturation” — the capacity to see through the prevailing cultural propaganda and form one’s independent worldview. Ernest Hemingway preferred a somewhat more blunt characterization. He declared that a writer needs a “built-in, shockproof bullshit detector.” I and others have softened the language a bit, expressing it as the skill of “crap detecting.”

Freedom from Religion

Freedom from religion might involve a bigger challenge for some Americans than for others. The following discussion might even engender apprehension, anger or hostility in some readers, depending on where they are currently in their spiritual explorations.

The American society remains, firmly, a pre-scientific society, and the popular culture an anti-intellectual one. Americans love to buy and use the most exotic products of advanced technology and engineering, but few of them seem to understand — or accept — the most elementary principles of scientific thinking.

Apparently, science class is not having much impact. As with all of the Earth’s other cultures, more Americans are willing to embrace supernatural explanations for reality — religious creation stories, mythical god figures, and angels, devils, and miracles — than scientific, evidence-based propositions.

Surveys repeatedly indicate that nearly 30 percent of Americans completely reject the scientific concept of species evolution — ranking them 29th worldwide in scientific orientation, just ahead of the people in Turkey. Probably more than half of the others cannot accurately explain its core proposition. Forty-six percent of them identify as believers in one of the major brand-name religions. Twenty-eight percent say they believe in angels. A similar number claim to have seen UFOs. When members of Congress and presidential candidates declare that the Earth is 6,000 years old, or that the concept of global climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government, clearly we still have a long way to go.

Nonetheless, I surmise that about half or more of Americans may be getting close to the emotional tipping point at which they can let go of the last traces of the religious stories and superstitions that were implanted in their brains as impressionable children. As they reflect on the grandness of the universe, and come to peace with the idea that their own existence is a cosmic crapshoot, they can evolve to a new kind of faith. That is the faith of not knowing — a neo-scientific orientation that finds comfort in the sheer fact of existence.

When they realize that praying to an old white guy with a beard, who looks like Charlton Heston and lives up in the sky, brings no more existential comfort than simply marveling at the fact that the universe allows them to exist, they may leave behind the magical-supernatural worldview and embrace the promise of scientific investigation.

Belief in the essential premise of science — that knowledge and understanding are forever evolving — is actually a deeper and more profound “faith” than worshiping the old white guy with the beard.

Karl Albrecht is a management consultant, lecturer and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy.

Freedom From Religion Foundation