May 2, 2016: Enlightenment, we owe you, but do those non-believers you made have a future?

When I was a small boy I found myself – not without resistance – in the pews of First Christian Church. For a five year old there was nothing more cruel than to willfully attire a child in his Sunday best. A little boy’s suit to cinch the torso, a colorful noose to restrict blood flow to the brain, and pants that I’d already outgrown. Added to this cotton confinement was the packaging of humans shoulder to shoulder in long wooden pews intended to stifle a child’s need to fidget. Had I known such treatment might be imagined as micro-aggressions, I’d have been well fit for our current campus tantrums.

My imagination cut off from the physical world, I was at times forced to surrender to the sermon. While ours was a church not fond of fire and brimstone, I did pick up bits and pieces of what even to a child seemed like highly contradictory messages: God’s love, God’s slaughter. But I never got much clarity on apparent incongruities. Either adult patience for childish questions was lacking, or adults didn’t have an answer either.

Much later at university, I broke the mental speed barrier of mathematics. Exceeding that boundary hit me like a sonic boom, knocked off my feet by the power of mathematical sciences. Not only to describe the natural world with amazing accuracy, but predict its future actions. Despite hollow assertions by a few postmodernists not yet forgotten in their graves, that mathematical conduit between mind and the physical world reveals Truth about nature. Those planes, trains, and cell phones behave just as scientific prophesy said they would. Science works.

In those far off college years, lingering contradictions about the world expressed by ancient writings of a relatively passive religious upbringing were revived. I’d get to the bottom of those religious riddles the same way I solved physics problems. I decided if God gave man reason, God given reason insisted satisfaction. No equivocations, no excuses, no mysterious ways.

Will and Ariel Durant penned well what I, like others before me, discovered, “Just as the moral development of Hellenes had weakened their belief in the quarrelsome and adulterous deities of Olympus, so too development of the Christian ethic slowly eroded Christian theology. Christ destroyed Jehovah.” [1] Morality evolves. Immoral slaughters in the Bible were not like differences in the comprehension of quantum mechanics between humans and chimps. As though only God could understand his murder of innocents, while mere humans dare not ask. To me, this was mythologized politics, made by people for people. That’s why the gods of every religion I studied, including the Bible, were so suspiciously human in their frailties. Which was not, nor could it be, a denial of higher powers. Rather a denial of human claims about those powers.

Mix this approach with a born iconoclast, socialized in the anti-authority post-Sixties Seventies, and I was primed to embrace goals of European Enlightenment when I finally met it. As Peter Gay (1923-2015) wrote in his National Book Award winning volume, “Enlightenment united on a vastly ambitious program, a program of secularism, humanity, cosmopolitanism, and freedom, above all freedom in its many forms…freedom, in a word, of moral man to make his own way in the world.” It was a Greek revival that in Gay’s gesture to Kant said, “Dare to know: take the risk of discovery, accept the loneliness of autonomy.” [2]

So I did. And was rewarded, materially, as are most of us in the West. With skills refined by Enlightenment’s natural philosophers like Bacon and Newton, one can not only predict the future, but combined with Adam Smith’s economic system from the same era, one can buy it. A period we call retirement. No more begging feudal lords for a portion of the food we grew ourselves to keep us in old age.

As with all social movements, Enlightenment was not without conflict. “The philosophe’s perception of a distinction between mythmaking and scientific mentalities was the perception of a fact,” writes Gay, “but since they came to it first through their position as critics and belligerents, they almost invariably converted the historical fact into a moral judgment, praising, indeed identifying themselves with one mentality, and denigrating the other. They translated their insight into an indictment.”

Likewise, when faced with campus preaching of Creationists, I went on the offensive. Disgusted with their intentional misrepresentations of science; their product of doubt, like the tobacco, lead, and global warming denier industries with word games seemingly plausible to a scientifically ignorant public; their indictment of science as a theory as though that meant a hunch, like cell theory, electrical circuit theory, Newton’s theory of mechanics, and their great nemesis the theory of evolution, all used daily to build real things. By that time I already knew Jesus did not say, “Know the lie and it will set you free.” [3]

Above all, Creationists had no models of nature. All they could do was build glass arguments, or put words in the mouth of scientists, then tell how wrong they were. It was clear that until Creationists were able to provide a more successful model of nature, corporate powers like ExxonMobil, Alcoa, and Cargill would use science to expand their empires. It was also apparent that each time Ken Ham, ICR.org, or the Discovery Institute claimed errors in science in their Creationist “museums,” websites, or books, they showed how enslaved they were to it. Creationists proved to be as wrong as those scientists who fail to realize that the deepest facts of human nature are deaf to scientific explanations.

While my hair still sets fire when I’m within earshot of Creationist propaganda, I’ve softened since those years when I’d drive down to San Diego just to argue with ICR.org. I see that I was just as guilty as Creationists for what Joseph Campbell said was missing the message for the symbols. [4] And I understand more about why believers of any stripe feel the way they do, why they seek comfort that modernity doesn’t provide, why they want to save something of tradition vs. fickle adulation of the new. I understand why they believe, but not yet how. I see this not simply because my own mortality is realized, though surely that contributes, but because I’ve recognized two realms of Truth, nature and human nature. When I replaced religious supports in my life with what could be proven, I was trying to reconcile a much elaborated approach to the human condition as we experience it, with an approach to nature as it is. In Marcel Gauchet’s words, our approach to the human condition in religious form provides an “illogical solution to our illogical condition” (being alive and having to die). [5] Bio-chemistry, physiology, physics provide no satisfactory answer to this problem. As the Durants ask, “Has all the progress of philosophy since Descartes been a mistake through its failure to recognize the role of myth in the consolation of man?”

Hence, Enlightenment and I are not as cozy as we once were. How that shakes out will take years to size up, but Enlightenment has been getting some bad press on this blog. It’s not new. “Ever since the fulminations of Burke and denunciations of German romantics,” writes Gay, “the Enlightenment has been held responsible for evils of the modern age.” While there are plenty of dispersions yet to cast, I will remain grateful for what those Europeans did.

But now that our freedoms have been won, and our “loneliness of autonomy” taken to its extreme, is this what we wanted when we jettisoned those illogical solutions to life’s illogical condition? As Chantal Delsol compares our eras, “Ideological man thought his combat for a radiant future symbolically inscribed his acts in capital letters in an immortal future world. Life had meaning; it stood for something, and could therefore quietly disappear behind its points of reference. Death did not mean an absolute end; it was subordinated to something greater and therefore devoid of any sense of catastrophe.” [6] Enlightenment chastened us with a biological expiration date, forgotten after we hit the dirt.

I’m reminded of a remark my niece once made concerning the age of a relative who was 90 at the time. It was an annual family gathering when she said, “That’s so old. I’d never want to live to be ninety.” I replied, “And you’ll be dead for countless trillions of years. Ninety sounds like a long time?” Half the attendees laughed, the other half, stunned. Leading one to respond, “That’s why we believe in everlasting life through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” And I’ll bet it is. The conception of infinite finality certainly troubles me on those rare occasions I fail to keep myself furiously busy.

I’m not suggesting a return to that good old time religion, but rather a balance of two realities, nature and human. Sadly, societies are like oscillators; they oscillate, forever out of balance. Though idealized harmonic oscillators swing smoothly, real ones, like real civilizations, aren’t so well behaved. They possess nasty nonlinearities, sent on some trajectory by a movement, whipsawed by a counter-movement. It makes me wonder if the arguments of Richard Dawkins, Laurence Krauss, and E.O. Wilson gaining ground in the non-believers direction won’t one day soon be due for a damping theory. A theory of existence that accounts for undeniably rational facts of our natural world, and the irrational human condition as it is, much as some of us wish otherwise.

So what do all these spiritual ponderings have to do with a blog dedicated to political philosophy? Because political philosophy is dependent on a moral base, and morality has been historically dependent on religion or reason. As noted last time, philosophers have never successfully provided a reasoned argument that would bind people to moral rules the way an always watchful God did (a look to history shows this far from perfect). As the Durants wrote, “No reconciliation is possible between religion and philosophy except through the philosopher’s recognition that they have found no substitute for the moral function of the Church.”

As statistics noted in past postings attest, that watchful God is in retreat in the West, which leaves us with questions about the future. As Michael Polanyi has it, “Christian beliefs and Greek doubts are logically incompatible; and if the conflict between the two has kept Western thought alive and creative beyond precedent, it has also made it unstable.” [7]

Personally, internally, maybe so. Externally, in civilization, maybe not. Perhaps the trite nature of our modern disputes is a tolerable outcome compared to what it was when people were so certain of their faith they’d engage in a Thirty Years War. I can see both sides of this coin. But I haven’t given up hope on a synthesis that does what so many have claimed can’t be done. If nothing else, such pursuits keep me furiously busy, concealing that expiration date.

Until next time, the first Monday and 4th day of July, 2016.


[1] Will & Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History, Simon and Shuster, 1968
[2] Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Birth of Modern Paganism, Norton, 1966
[3] John 8:32
[4] Joseph Campbell, The Power Of Myth, Doubleday, 1988
[5] Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, Princeton University Press, 1999
[6] Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen: The Search For Meaning in an Uncertain World, ISI, 2010
[7] Michael Polanyi, Harry Prosch, Meaning, University of Chicago Press, 1975
Revised for word choice and clarity, 11/27/2018.
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Published on May 02, 2016 08:57
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