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by David Snoke
Ideas have consequences, especially ideas about new ways of thinking about all of society. It has become common among Christian conservatives to say that the Enlightenment movement of the 1700’s led eventually to the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism. In this essay I will give qualified agreement with that statement. There are two qualifications to this, however. One is the question of whether the Protestant Reformation laid in many ways the basis of the Enlightenment, so that Christians themselves were partly responsible for the movement. I will reserve this question for a future essay, but just mention here that I believe the Reformation did lay some of the basis of the later Enlightenment. The second is the question of whether the Enlightenment was correct, at least to some degree, in its critique of prior systems of thought. I will address this at the end of this essay; I think that it did have many valid points, but threw out the baby with the bathwater.
To start, of course, we must ask what we mean by the Enlightenment. It is fair to say that there was not one Enlightenment, but at least three, in France, England, and Germany, with important differences. But one can still talk of a “spirit of the age” that ran through this whole, I take the following as representative: in the UK, Hume (1711-1776), in France, Voltaire (1694-1778), in Germany, Goethe (1749-1832), and in the US, Thomas Paine (1737-1809). The basic premises of this spirit of the age can be summarized as follows:
The above themes are clearly present in the 1700’s and 1800’s. In the mid 1800’s the movement evolved to embrace Darwinism and socialism, though both of these existed in root form much earlier. Darwin explicitly introduced the ideas of genocide and breeding of humans (I will not give citations here, but I have multiple quotes of Darwin on this, and later quotes of people who understood Darwin clearly to be teaching these ideas, as obvious conclusions of his premises) though even earlier, the idea of letting the weak of humanity die off passively was already prevalent. This led to a robust eugenics movement in the US and Europe, not just Germany. Darwin argued directly from the Enlightenment concepts I have given above, including and especially the idea that white European males sat at the pinnacle of upward evolution. Marx and other socialists, also working from the Enlightenment modernist world view, made explicit the idea that force should be used to revise all of society by the intellectuals following clear scientific thinking, rather than allow society to bumble along haphazardly.
Many have documented that Hitler did not come up with the ideas of genocide, experimentation on humans, and human breeding, but rather got these ideas from the leading intellectuals of his day in the eugenics movement. Stalin did not attempt this kind of eugenics project, but drew his inspiration directly from the above two sources: from the modernist socialism of his day, he embraced the need to “break a few eggs” as necessary for the upward evolution of humanity toward the scientifically decided goals for society, and from Darwin he embraced atheism, so that he did not need to worry about old moralities.
Post World War II, the modernist movement with its strong confidence in European superior perception of the truth, and the eugenics movement, became discredited. But many of the same underlying Enlightenment thinking is still with us, including 1) a continuing strong sense of the upward evolution of mankind (think Star Trek), 2) individualism and lack of sense of covenantal commitment to anyone, 3) rejection of traditional morality simply because it is a thing of the past, 4) willingness to use governmental power to re-educate all people into the program determined by intellectual elites (cultural genocide of improper religious beliefs, rather than physical genocide), 5) willingness to use intellectual detachment to overrule moral sentiment, so that, e.g., a modern person can look at an abortion of a preborn child a feel no more emotion than an Enlightenment modernist viewing the vivisection of an animal, and 6) the use of the triumphs of “science” as a trump card to reject all rival views, even though the science cited is mechanistic physics with little relation to the subject at hand.
Having said all this, does that mean we can learn nothing from Enlightenment writers? No—I would say that the Enlightment has also contributed a great deal to the world, which Christians can affirm. First, the emphasis on intellectual rigor and the call to respect the life of the mind, using our minds deliberately and carefully, is one that every Christian can embrace. The Enlightenment writers, in ascribing this type of thought to a more highly evolved state of humanity, ignored many other explanations for the unique growth of European logic, science, and technology, including 1) a period of time of economic flourishing due to the opening up of global trade, that allowed the existence of a “leisure class” (which Newton belonged to) that had the time to put into pure thinking; 2) near-universal education due to the concerted efforts of Reformation churches to raise up the status of the lower classes, which significantly broadened the number of people engaged in intellectual thought and enabled people like Faraday to rise from obscurity; and 3) the effect of Christian revivals at the time of the Reformation and afterward, which led to a broad consensus on the value of hard work (the Protestant work ethic) and basic honesty in transactions. Peter Harrison and others have also documented some very basic philosophical points introduced at the time of the Reformation by people such as Francis Bacon, which relied heavily on biblical concepts.
Second, the Enlightenment rightly critiqued the dysfunctional nature of feudal European arrangements not only for the poor but for all of society. The Bible does commend covenantal connection to others and obedience to those in authority in a society, but it also strongly teaches the concept of one law for all people, with no classes of people with greater rights, and the intrinsic equality of all people.
Third, the idea of changing society to become better, even if that means departing from traditions, is intrinsically compatible with the Christian concept of repentance by individuals and societies. Jesus called his followers to reject the traditions of the Pharisees, and the Reformers called Christians to reject dead traditions of the Catholic church, on the same basis, namely that God’s Word, the Bible, stands above all traditions of men. Many writers have pointed out, e.g. Tim Keller, that the notion of progress in society is actually more compatible with Christianity than with atheism, because progress implies an ideal by which society may be judged, while atheism that rejects any absolute morality has no yardstick to measure the goodness of a society. At the time of the Enlightenment, atheists working for social change argued that absolute morality could be obtained by means of “self-evident” logical principles, but this program has largely been discarded as unworkable in the present day.
At the same time, it is impossible to miss the spirit of pride in Enlightenment writing, the spirit of racism (Hume, for example, dismissed the Bible largely on the basis of anti-semitism, that it came from “a barbaric people”) and elitism, and lack of respect for wise people from other cultures and other time periods. “Conservatives” at their best, whether Catholic or Protestant, do not reject the idea of any change, but believe that we can learn from the generations before us, that modern ideas are not always better, and certainly not just because they are modern, and that changing society rapidly can lead to much greater harm than incremental change, even when the goal is good.
David is a physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. He received his bachelors degree in physics from Cornell University and his PhD in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for The Aerospace Corporation and was a visiting scientist and Fellow at the Max Planck Institute. His experimental and theoretical research has focused on fundamental quantum mechanical processes in semiconductor optics, i.e. phase transitions of electrons and holes. Two main thrusts have been Bose-Einstein condensation of excitons and polaritons. He has also had minor efforts in numerical biology, and has published on the topic of the interaction of science and theology.