Carl Trueman’s book Strange New World examines both the philosophical origins and the impact of the sexual revolution we are witnessing today. In May 2023, Trueman and editor-in-chief Hamza Yusuf engaged in an onstage conversation moderated by editor Safir Ahmed. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: Dr. Trueman, in your book you trace the intellectual genealogy of the sexual revolution back to the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who thought that our natural, and perhaps moral, self results when we act outwardly in accordance with our inner feelings. Why did you choose Rousseau as the beginning of the sexual revolution story? And why do you think Europe was the cradle from which these ideas emerged?
Carl Trueman: I chose Rousseau because I felt he was representative of a particular moment: in the eighteenth century, in both religious and relatively irreligious circles, people wrestled with the question, “Where is authority to be found?” And you ask a very pertinent question: What is it about Europe?
I think we have to say it’s the Reformation, and the invention of the printing press, that led to a tremendous disruption of traditional external authority structures, which then led to several hundred years of philosophical wrestling with, well, “Where is authority to be found?” We see this perhaps most dramatically in Descartes: Of what can I be certain? Where can I find that place where I can stand and be certain?
In Christianity, at the same time Rousseau was coming up with his idea of expressive individualism, this granting of authority to feelings, Jonathan Edwards, the New England Puritan, was writing a famous work, Religious Affections, where from a very Christian perspective he wrestled with the same problem: What authority do we grant inner feelings, given the problematic nature of external authority? I find Rousseau to be a brilliant representative and articulator of that position.
Also, his theories about education really undergird and still influence a lot of modern theories of education. In the broader, generic, Protestant American world, child-centered learning has proved very important. That tracks back to Rousseau, who held that education is not the Aristotelian idea of taking hold of a little savage who’s got all the right instincts but just needs to be bent and shaped into a civilized member of society; rather, for Rousseau, education acknowledges that the child is fundamentally sound, and the school is there simply to allow them to express that soundness.
Hamza Yusuf: What’s interesting about Rousseau is that he wrote this treatise on education, on how to raise a child, and yet he abandoned all five of his children, who ended up in terrible conditions in France. Voltaire was the one who actually outed him because he was telling everybody how to raise their kids but he abandoned his own kids.
CT: It was infanticide in practice.
HY: Exactly. That seems to be true of a lot of these theorists—Marx is another one; people forget that his children committed suicide. There’s a lot of suicide around these people telling us how we should do things, and none of their theories comes from revelation or reason but from appetite.
Q: Shaykh Hamza, do you think Muslims, especially in the West, are susceptible to these ideas that animate the modern self?
HY: I think Muslims are as susceptible as anybody if they’re far from their religious tradition. Once they lose the grounding of their tradition, they’re open to everything. Sophistry is obviously very powerful; it’s won over many societies and cultures over time. The people who can undermine sophistical reasoning usually have to be very well trained and must be speaking in public.
People like Dr. Trueman are out there speaking a truth that needs to be spoken. I know people who are getting death threats for just having an opinion about something that all of us should think deeply about given the impact that it’s having on us. I’m very concerned about the Muslim community, and I do see Muslims imbibing a lot of these ideas, sometimes without even realizing it. Increasingly, we’re seeing Muslims taking as imams people like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Q: Why do you think the Islamic tradition never produced a Rousseau?
HY: By the time people like him showed up, in the eighteenth century, the Muslims were pretty ossified. To be fair, Islam is a theocentric tradition, and that theocentricity has survived well into the twenty-first century because there were a lot of antibodies to suppress some of these ideas. But they did come in. Intellectuals were reading these ideas; certainly in the nineteenth century, we see the influence of European thought on scholars like Muhammad Abduh, who wanted to be the Luther of the Islamic community.
HY: We have this concept—within Christianity too—of qalb al-ĥaqā’iq, the inversion of realities. This is something the devil is noted for, to invert things. You centralize the marginal, and you marginalize the central. One of the key aspects of critical theory is to do that, to flip things, to foreground the background. In some ways, it can be a useful exercise because you see things that you hadn’t noticed before.
To understand a lot of the current madness, we can turn to an author and social anthropologist from Oxford, J. D. Unwin, who wrote a really important book in the 1930s called Sex and Culture. He studied eighty-six cultures and determined that the creative energy of a society becomes dissipated once it unleashes sexuality. He talked about prenuptial and postnuptial continence, or self-restraint, with the most important being prenuptial continence. When young people explore sexuality before marriage, it completely dissipates the energies of society.
He found that within three generations—and he identified a generation as thirty-three years—each culture, without exception, had lost monogamy, religion, and rational thinking. We are well into the second generation, because the first generation was the ’60s, when those ideas were abandoned. People may not realize that a lot of cultural events in the ’60s were already indicating some of these things. If you look, for instance, at the Beatles, they have Aleister Crowley on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In a BBC poll, Crowley ranked seventy-third on the list of 100 Greatest Britons in all of history.
Q: Regarding the current public discourse about sexual identities, some people—both religious and secular—are pushing back and framing this as an issue of freedom of speech or religion, which are ideas based in liberalism. Do you think that liberalism or secularism can fix or undo the problems they created?
HY: Political philosopher Aurel Kolnai wrote an article in 1951 called “Three Riders of the Apocalypse,” in which he saw totalitarianism within three ideologies: fascism, communism, and what he called progressive democracy or liberalism. The seeds of totalitarianism were there.
America’s founding fathers, especially Benjamin Rush, intended our system of government to be predicated on religious belief—they understood that a society cannot ground morality without religion. A secular person can be moral, but I would argue that their morality is the remnant of the Christian capital they’re living on. You can’t ground morality in secularism. It will always be positivistic, it will always be simply the arbitrary nature of the law, and then you’re in the Foucauldian world, where power determines what’s right and what’s wrong.
Today, religious people are powerless, the materialists have their voice, and there’s a little bit of a sense of payback, looking back at the repression and oppression throughout history.
CT: Philip Rieff, a Freudian sociologist, makes a point that Western society is in the unique position of having to justify itself, and he observes that it’s never been successfully done in history. Historically, societies looked beyond themselves to something transcendent to organize their social orders. That summarizes what you just said, Shaykh Hamza. One of the consequences of this is that you’ll see less and less confidence in the democratic process, more and more of the big societal questions will be decided by either executive order or the US Supreme Court, and everything will default to the Foucauldian powerplay: How many seats can we get on the Supreme Court? Will our man in the White House sign an executive order?
The social order is becoming very equivocal because it has nothing beyond it to ground it. I don’t think all the founding fathers were orthodox Christians, but they had some belief in God and in the moral shape of the universe that organized things.
HY: Yes, they understood that. I mean, even Hume arguably would have said you don’t want the masses to become atheists. The elite always understood the social utility of religion—in fact, that’s the Marxian argument against religion: it’s basically meant to control people. But it doesn’t explain why all the great world religions arose from the crucible of persecution—they weren’t in power.
I think what Brad Gregory calls hyper-pluralism is very dangerous because religio, this idea of millah (faith), is what holds and binds people together. Ninety percent of people in the US identified with Christianity only a few decades ago; now it’s 64 percent. This is Unwin’s argument: if religion goes, then monogamy and rational thinking go.
The hypersexualization of our culture and civilization, what some call the pornification of America, is a dangerous sign. Dorothy Sayers argues that when people lose religion, they often replace it with this Dionysian, bacchanalian, orgiastic sexual expression. The danger is that then, as Unwin said, society cannot sustain itself.
The Latin term for lust is luxuria, and a society that is so satiated that it begins to explore lust finds that it gets darker and darker as it moves along because it needs a higher level of stimulus. The eight daughters, or by-products, of luxuria are terrifying: self-love; hatred of God for depriving you of those pleasures; inconstancy; distraction; thoughtlessness, or ghaflah in Arabic; the abhorrence of the afterlife; then despair, because one of the reasons that you can constrain yourself sexually is your hope for achieving a greater glory, and once you lose that hope, you feel despair; and finally, love of the world. These are the result of somebody giving in completely to incontinence, which used to be a very important moral term in our culture.
Q: People who believe in the traditional biological sexes, the binary of man and woman, face an argument in the public square that we should have some compassion for people experiencing gender dysphoria. Where do we draw the line between compassion and acceptance?
CT: It’s an interesting question. In a Christian context, if I were faced with a young man struggling with gender dysphoria, the first thing I would do pastorally is ask him to tell me how it started, why he thinks that way, how it presented itself. I’d want him to know that I care for him as a person. Secondly, no decent human being desires to see somebody suffering because they’re struggling with gender dysphoria, or same-sex attraction. The solutions we propose are not designed to hurt people; we want to help them. On gender dysphoria, the evidence suggests that physical transitioning does not solve the problem; suicide rates are catastrophic for people who transition, the same as they are for people who don’t, which suggests to me that the solution is not biological but something else.
That’s a preface to say that we need to care for the individual and to impress on them that whatever we do arises out of our love for them. Now, as a Christian, I’m going to point them to the Lord Jesus Christ. I’m going to have confidence that God can transform the person. That doesn’t always happen; we all struggle with things as Christians and we can spend a lifetime struggling with them. Maybe God does not take them away from us; nevertheless, I want to direct the person toward the supernatural.
My own view of homosexuality, transgenderism, and so on, is that these are not purely physiological or psychological issues; they’re spiritual issues as well, and therefore I want to bring some spiritual care to bear. Particularly with the transgender issue, I think a lot of it has to do with a desire to belong, a desire to be loved and affirmed. We all need to be part of a community, and a church should provide that hospitable community.
HY: To me, what’s happening with the children is abusive, and I think more people need to speak out against it. I don’t think children should be put on puberty blockers, which are not even FDA-approved drugs. I find it amazing that nobody seems to see that as problematic.
CT: When you think about that, you can make an analogy. There isn’t a single state in the US where a person under eighteen years old can get a tattoo, because that is regarded as too traumatic a change of the body. And yet transgender kids under eighteen can choose to go on puberty blockers—that shows you how perverted the thinking about children and their bodies is now in the United States.
HY: It’s the loss of rationalism—that’s Unwin’s argument. Our Prophet ﷺ predicted that we would see much more of these things—these are the tribulations of the latter days.
But there are related phenomena that we don’t fully understand. For instance, a lot of estrogen mimickers are found today in plastics. We have millions of menopausal women on estrogen pills and progestins. Hormone supplements, which are not normal to physiology, are flowing in their bodies. Many of them get pregnant during this time—we don’t know what that does to the developing fetus.
Regarding the question about compassion and acceptance, I don’t think there’s any one answer. But I concur with Dr. Trueman that we have to point people to the supernatural. One of our Prophet’s hadith says, “Do not leave me to my soul for even the blink of an eye.” Without divine aid, we can do nothing. The poet said, “If God’s aid is not helping the servant of God, then the things that most harm him are his own efforts.”
When I was going to school in Southern California, there was this group called Victory Outreach, and they worked with addicts who, by discovering their Christianity, gave up drugs overnight. We know the same is true with many Muslims. In certain communities, once they embrace faith in a deep way, everything can be overcome.
We definitely should have compassion for people because their tribulations are grave. We live in a very unnatural world. Lewis Carroll, who was a logician, a teacher of mathematical logic, wrote Through the Looking-Glass to show us what a world without reason would look like. We have gone through the looking glass. Humpty Dumpty has an argument with Alice about the meaning of words, and when she says, “It can’t mean that,” Humpty says, “It can mean whatever I say it means.” Who’s going to be the master? That’s the real question. Eventually Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall; that’s what’s going to happen to our world if it continues in its current direction: all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t be able to put it back together again.