Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Enlightenment Mythology

When does a misconception become a myth? When intellectuals embrace it. There is always plenty of ignorance to perpetuate misconceptions, but when the educated promote a false idea, is it not a sort of mythology? If so, then there is abundant reason to categorize today’s caricature of the Enlightenment, as a rejection of religious influence and thought, as a myth.

The caricature of the Enlightenment that is prevalent today is that, for better or for worse, those eighteenth century European intellectuals eschewed theological considerations in favor of a strictly secular perspective based on human reasoning. Religion and theology were out, science and philosophy were in. It is not difficult to see how this two-dimensional rendition can segue into the equally erroneous warfare thesis, which views science and religion in a continual conflict.

The latest example of this enlightenment mythology comes from a piece by historian Richard Wolin this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The title, Reason vs. Faith: the Battle Continues, indicates Wolin’s thesis. Not only does he promote the Enlightenment caricature discussed above, but he superimposes it on contemporary debates as well. The Enlightenment’s target was religion and today we have religion's neo-Darwinian detractors. Wolin writes:

A cursory glance at the major cultural divide of our day suggests that, in many respects, we haven't gotten much beyond the landmark dispute between faith and reason that separated the leading lights in Hegel's time.

In fact, both eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers as well as today’s secularists, such as the evolutionists, are every bit as religious as anyone else, and probably more so. The fact that they conclude for reason and naturalism does not lessen the theological calculus that got them there.

Indeed, it is precisely their metaphysics, rather than mere logic and observation, that mandates their truths. When Enlightenment thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, or contemporary evolutionists such as Ernst Mayr, proclaim that their naturalistic narrative is a fact beyond dispute, it is merely a secular-sounding conclusion based on a long religious argument. We need to move beyond the simplistic “reason versus faith” caricatures of modern thought.