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Please can we have our Enlightenment back?

Hywel Williams says the faddish atheism of Hitchens and Dawkins is a subplot of the war on terror that misrepresents the true spiritual context of the 18th-century Enlightenment

4 July 2007

2:05 PM

4 July 2007

2:05 PM

It must be odd being God these days. Revealed religion generally — and the Christian God in particular — are often in the dock, screamed at by literary types with a name to make or a reputation to uphold. Christopher Hitchens, in the latest of a series of pamphlets presented in book form, thunders in his title that God Is Not Great. For Richard Dawkins, rather famously, He is delusional. While A.C. Grayling ventures in What Is Good? that ‘religious morality is . . . anti-moral’ as well as being, apparently, ‘inimical to modern interpersonal relations’.

The modern apostles of ‘reason’ constitute a thriving business, and it’s the war on terror that gave them a chance, with its talk of fanaticism that has to be extirpated. The creation of a literary sub-genre of confessional polemic — ‘Why I Hate God’ — may not have been top of the list of White House war aims during recent years, but irony is one of history’s best tricks: American evangelicalism in its political guise has created the conditions in which evangelical secularists can earn some decent royalties.

This is an episode in the history of the English intelligentsia — which need not mean that it’s particularly intelligent. It’s just terribly well packaged as, enchanted by themselves, the authors castigate the irrational past. For Grayling, in his A-level General Studies kind of way, the middle ages were just terrible — a ‘thousand years of religious hegemony over thought’. But deliverance was at hand as soon as the representative scribblers of the Enlightenment arrived to switch on the 18th-century lights. Once that had happened, ‘it was impossible for their opponents — chiefly the forces of reaction in Church and State — to hide in the shadows’. Collapse therefore of thinkers in black hats and soutanes, as the white-hatted good guys arrive to lift the intolerable burden of ignorance off our shoulders. This is surely 1066 and All That rewritten as a history of ideas.

Signing up for ‘the Enlightenment’ involves some self-important positioning that really boils down to ‘Voltaire — c’est moi’. That way you can look brave, say ‘dare to know’, and sound like an embattled minority. A cleverer — and funnier — contemporary voice has also claimed to represent a resumption of Enlightenment values. Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World scored several direct hits on various types of modern irrationality, from new-age spirituality to management-speak. And his book’s success showed the widespread suspicion that our political and bureaucratic masters may sound rational even when pulling a fast one. But that intuition is absent from the works of Wheen’s limping epigoni, wedded as they are to a naive view of reason’s progress as an inevitable ascent to be achieved by all those of goodwill.


Dan Hind has had the excellent idea of showing the sentimental self-regard that lies behind all the contrived foaming at the mouth about reason and religion. In The Threat to Reason he fizzes away to brief but lethal effect, showing how what he calls the ‘Folk Enlightenment’ distorts the real 18th-century past. But he also shows how the pride of such an enlightenment means that it ignores forms of unreason that are wired into the modern state — such as pharmaceutical companies making millions from government. The fact that the NHS Prozacs thousands of the unemployed into dependency shows what happens when science fails to live up to the standards of the genuine Enlightenment project in all its openness. When it gets trapped within private interests its results can be perfectly ‘good science’ and still be vicious to the general interest.

‘What is Enlightenment?’ — Immanuel Kant’s question in his great essay — continues, unsurprisingly, to produce varied answers. Voltaire’s famous ‘Ecrasez l’infâme’ failed to specify what exactly was the monstrous thing that had to be got rid of. That was what made it such a good slogan. In England and France there’s a tradition of just over a century that emphasises enlightenment’s secularity and agnosticism, its defence of the autonomous individual’s freedom. But that kind of enlightenment only really emerged into view in the late 19th century, when Victorian intellectuals and Third Republic secularists were opposing Christian influences in public life. Voltaire and Kant were posthumously co-opted into these campaigns in the histories of the Enlightenment written at that time.

 But Kant was always — at the very least — respectful of the Lutheran Church in which he was brought up. His family was attracted to Pietism (a brand of Lutheranism that emphasised the inwardness of the heart’s religion), and the movement’s influence is palpable in Kant’s philosophical account of how faith provides its own assurance. Voltaire certainly scorned the idea of miracles and of a transcendental being ready to intervene at any moment in daily life. But his deistic affirmation in the existence of a conveniently remote God was none the less perfectly sincere. His main object of attack was power exercised in arbitrary and secretive ways — a position that does enrol him in the founding fathers of liberalism. Though it’s also fair to recall the embarrassingly ingratiating attitudes of philosophers such as Voltaire and Denis Diderot when it came to cultivating such ‘enlightened’ monarchs as Frederick of Prussia and Catherine of Russia. Enlightenment in England was, as we might expect, less insurgent in tone than it was in France’s and more sociably co-opted into establishment truths about the balance of power between judiciary, executive and legislature. It seems that we get, for the most part, the kind of ‘enlightenment’ we want to imagine into being.

But it’s in the relationship between science and philosophy that the latter-day stereotypes about the Enlightenment really collapse. Far from being allies — with brave philosophy egging on scientific progress — they were in fact enemies. Aristotelianism — a hangover from mediaeval scholasticism — was still dominant in 17th-century philosophy and rightly seen as a dead hand by experimental scientists. Moreover there is hardly a single scientist of the Age of Enlightenment who was not a professing Christian of some kind. Baron d’Holbach’s thoroughgoing materialism was entirely exceptional — which accounts for his notoriety. Newton’s Unitarianism meant that he doubted Christ’s divinity, but that still means he was in a serious tradition of religious thought — and one that had a profound impact on his portrayal of the regular and uniform laws of classical physics. And — most awkwardly for our modern polemicists — what scientists meant then by ‘reason’ could involve much of what we would now call magic. Francis Bacon’s prose seems coolly lucid until we remember his dabbling in the occult, and Newton was keen on alchemy.

David Hume’s sceptical refinement makes him the Folk Enlightenment’s pin-up boy. But it was that same scepticism which made him doubt science’s objectivity: genuine knowledge, he said, was based on sensory evidence, and science was therefore authentic enough. But for Hume that also made science subjective — the product of one person’s experience. It’s also Hume who taught us how weak a thing reason really is — a ‘slave of the passions’, as he puts it — reflecting our interests, ambitions and prejudices. A little less cockiness about reason as
their private possession might cure our present-day crusaders of their vulgar certitudes.

Hywel Williams is a contributing editor of The Spectator.


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