Friday, December 22, 2006


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Religion and Enlightenment: A Reply to Shweder's "Atheists Agonistes"
By Thomas Riggins

Recently the New York Times published an article by Richard A. Shweder (11/27/2006) a professor at the University of Chicago. Shweder's article is an attack on the Enlightenment tradition and indirectly gives a boost to the antiscientific and superstitious ultra-right political environment in the US, so recently trounced in the midterm elections. Shweder's description of the Enlightenment tradition is historically inaccurate and wrongheaded, as I hope to show.

The author seems to think that there is a vast secular movement abroad in the land, derived from the Enlightenment, to denigrate religion and religious people. He tells us that "pious" mention of "God" is "one of the ways to bring a certain type of dinner party to a halt." I am sure it is. Just as "impious" mention of "God" is a way to bring other "types' of dinner parties to a halt.

Not only will the "pious" mention of "God" disrupt a certain type of party but so will expounding the theology offered "in evangelical churches." He says that "is likely to produce the same effect." Well, I'm not surprised. Outside of a church supper if someone starts spouting off about "sinners, apostates or blasphemers," and the "promise of salvation" it might very well put a damper on most dinner parties.

Shweder thinks the dinner parties most affected by this sort of behavior are those given by "cosmopolites who live in secular enclaves." Since a recent Newsweek poll shows that about 80 percent of Americans are religious (believe in "God" and the Bible), I can't image where these secular enclaves of cosmopolites are located (but there must be a big one at the University of Chicago) which so upset Mr. Shweder.

In any event we are informed that for the aforementioned "cosmopolites," "religion is automatically associated with darkness, superstition, irrationality and an antique or pre-modern cast of mind." Not only that, "but it has long been assumed that religion is opposed to science, reason and human progress; and the death of the gods is simply taken for granted as a deeply ingrained Darwinian article of faith."

How can one take such an expostulation seriously? There is no such thing as such a "Darwinian" article of faith as that proposed by Shweder. Many, perhaps even most, scientists maintain that science (including Darwinism) and religion deal with different areas of human experience. In fact one of the greatest of the "Darwinists", the late Stephen Jay Gould, maintained exactly this position and advocated greater mutual understanding between science and religion. In other words, Shweder has a created a straw man to knock down in order to make his arguments, lacking in merit, look better than they are.

Shweder's actual target, it turns out, is not the Enlightenment at all (as we shall see) but three contemporary books by secular humanists which he considers to be over the top. The books are "Breaking the Spell" (Daniel Dennet), "Letter to a Christian Nation" (Sam Harris), and "The God Delusion" (Richard Dawkins).

Why, the author wonders, are these atheists so provoked at religion? Why are they attacking books "dictated or co-written by God" and believed in by 2.1 billion and 1.3 billion "self-declared" Christians and Muslims respectively? He decides the reason is that "secular society" is attacking religion because it fears that "it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real." Marxists should take note. Since Marxism is a product of the Enlightenment, it would be embarrassing if it turned out to be more illusory than religion: especially after that "opium of the masses" crack.

The article goes rapidly down hill from this point. He says the Enlightenment has its own version of Genesis "and the themes are well known." The Enlightenment was not really interested in Genesis. The author has confused Darwinism, a product of mid-Nineteenth Century British science with the mid-Eighteenth Century "Enlightenment" movement which was basically a political movement against despotic government as well as against authority as the basis of personal belief and understanding of the world.

Here is the author's simplistic description of the "Enlightenment" as he thinks it is seen today: "The world woke up from the slumber of the 'dark ages,' [most people call this the "Renaissance", it was 400 years before the "Enlightenment"-tr] finally got in touch with the truth [this is nonsense, the 18th Century thinkers only said they wanted to search for the "truth" not assume they had it already because King and Pope said so] and became good about 300 years ago in Northern and Western Europe." Nobody, by the way, uses the word "good" in this context. The question for the Enlightenment would have been, for example, if one wanted to know how many, if any, moons Jupiter had would it be better to look in the Bible or Aristotle, or to use a telescope. I don't think this would be an "illusory" method to adopt.

Shweder thinks that what the Enlightenment represents can be seen as "religion (equated with ignorance and superstition)" giving way to "science (equated with fact and reason." But this is not the Enlightenment story at all. The Enlightenment was not hostile to religion. Both Thomas Paine and Voltaire, for example, as well many of the most noted figures of the Enlightenment, believed in God and subscribed to personal religious beliefs. The issue was what attitude to take about some forms of state sponsored organized religions and their political agendas as well as their outright violent persecutions of individuals and groups that disagreed with them. The great Enlightenment figures did indeed battle for tolerance and the rights of all people to their religious beliefs as long as they did not try to deny those rights to others.

The author is correct on some aspects of the Enlightenment's views on science. Science was embraced as a way to understand the natural world, to find the causes and cures of diseases, and to improve human life in general. Science also used reason and the search for facts to carry out this program. However, I cannot think of one great Enlightenment figure who claimed that only science could use "fact and reason."

Shweder's description of the Enlightenment is so off base that it is difficult to understand what his game plan is. He says the Enlightenment "blueprint" was designed to "remake and better the world in the image and interests of the West's secular elites." But surely the propagation of such Enlightenment values as human rights, religious freedom (including the freedom not to be religious), public education, public health projects, scientific advances in our understanding of nature, the end of absolutist political regimes and their replacement by representative governments, was in the interests of the vast majority of the populations of the countries where the Enlightenment took root.

"Science has not replaced religion," the author proclaims thinking this is a defeat for Enlightenment thinking. But it was never the intention of science to replace religion as such. As I mentioned above, many Enlightenment figures were not at all hostile to religion (Immanuel Kant comes to mind), only to dogmatic, narrow minded, dictatorial religious elements using religion for their own selfish purposes.

But in one sense, the only sense intended by the Enlightenment, science has replaced religion. Concerning matters of fact with regard to the natural world, in astronomy, physics, chemistry, medicine, etc., educated people in general (not just "secular elites") turn to science for explanations and guidance. Tsunamis and hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic activities, are no longer explained in terms of religious dogmas. Religious leaders who explain events such as 9/11 as due to God's dislike of gays are increasingly finding themselves discredited.

Shweder ends up deciding that since so many people believe in religion, even if religion is a delusion "it is a delusion with a future." Marxists, of course, believe that the widespread acceptance of religion is due to socio-economic conditions which manifest themselves as religious beliefs after a long process of alienation and reification. Widespread religious dependence is a sign of our backward social conditions, even in the 21st Century. Shweder holds that a "shared conception of the soul, the sacred and transcendental values may be a prerequisite for any viable society." This would seem to preclude multiculturalism and societies that tolerate different, rather that shared, conceptions. Shweder's view may be shared by many religious people, but it is definitely pre rather than post Enlightenment in its spirit.

In conclusion, I will only state that people such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, both militant atheists and "pop" philosophers and scientists, are not representative of Enlightenment thinking in general, although they, as most modern thinkers, have been influenced by some aspects of it.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

1 comment:

FSJL said...

I find the assumption that the Enlightenment was a single 'thing' interesting, and beyond naïve. In truth it was a complex of processes that fed off each other (and some of which suppressed others).