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Church and State, God and God Gene

edward-vii-coronationWhether or not God exists there cannot be much doubt about the existence of (to use a crude shorthand) a ‘God gene’, the innate propensity of  most people to believe in gods and/or the supernatural and, at least to a degree, to base their behavior on those beliefs.

The fight of the Dawkins brigade against ‘sky fairies’ is thus, in most cases, a waste of time. What matters is not God, but the particular god that people worship. Whatever the sentimental, empty-headed or (hullo, Karen Armstrong) propagandists might claim all religions are not simply varying routes to the same ‘truth’. The difference between religions matters, and it matters a great deal. Some are benign, some are not, some leave the rest of us alone, some do not.

In that connection, it was interesting to read this in the course of an interview by Spiked Review with writer Anthony Gottlieb, the author of The Dream of Enlightenment, an account, as Spiked puts it, of “that ‘150-year burst’ of intellectual energy that begins in Northern Europe after the Thirty Years War, and stretches up to the eve of the French Revolution”:

Several of the thinkers in The Dream… are quite rightly seen as pioneers or antecedents of forms of secularism, of the idea that church and state should be kept separate. Nowadays, when we think of the separation of church and state, we tend to think of it in terms of the First Amendment, where Americans hold that there should be no state religion.

But for the pioneers of secularism, church and state are not so easily parsed. Take Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), for example. They’ve both been characterised as being in favour of the separation of church and state, of getting rid of a state religion. Yet, in fact, both believed that it was important to have a state religion. And that’s because they, like many of their intellectual brothers in arms, were concerned not with getting rid of state religion but with weakening the power of the priests, the power of institutional religion. They wanted to take away the church’s power and give it instead to the state.

That’s because, as they saw it, the best way of ensuring that religion didn’t lead to all sorts of trouble was both to police it, and to make sure that the state religion was peaceful, non-disruptive, and not run by these mad priests. So Hobbes and Spinoza ended up advocating state religion, rather than opposing it….

There’s something to that, especially if that state religion is mild, unassuming, tolerant– light on superstition and with a proper sense of its place: At its best the Church of England comes to mind.

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Islam: Enlightenment or Reformation?

Bishops_Bible_Elizabeth_I_1569Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been calling for an Islamic ‘reformation’. Dan Hannan is not so sure that that’s right:

What, though, do we mean by “Reformation”? Most people mean that they want a more modern Islam, one which accepts the separation of church and state, the equality of women, the supremacy of Parliament and so on. This, though, is very far from what the Christian Reformation was about. Its architects were not seeking a cuddlier, more ecumenical version of their faith. On the contrary, just like today’s Salafists, they wanted to purge and purify, to go back to an older and more demanding template, one more closely tied to the Scriptures….

Instead of a Reformation, we might do better speak of an Enlightenment. The reconciliation of Christianity with secularism and pluralism owes less to Luther and Calvin than to Milton and Locke. The West, over the centuries, became less cruel, more intolerant of torture and violence, readier to see other points of view, keener on individual rights and on democracy – and, as it did so, certain religious strictures dating from the Iron Age fell naturally into desuetude.

The abolition of slavery, for example, was a process largely driven by evangelical Christians. Not because they had suddenly discovered Biblical verses condemning servitude – there are none – but because their understanding of their faith had adapted as their world became kinder. Likewise, the reintroduction of slavery in ISIS-held territory revolts most Muslims, not because of any Koranic injunctions – again, there are none – but because the institution belongs to an older, uglier epoch. We have, as the saying goes, moved on.

Dan is right, but there is something else. The Reformation was a rejection of a united Christendom—a Christian ‘ummah’, if you like, an idea already badly damaged by the split with Eastern Orthodoxy— and, in essence, its replacement with something more secular, a series of national (protestant) churches subordinated to local secular authority rather than universalist Rome. As such it was both an intellectual and a political process.

As I posted here, England’s Henry VIII went to his deathbed considering himself a good Catholic. His dispute with Rome was not over theology, but power. Henry wanted more of the latter (and Anne Boleyn too) but the underlying (and ultimately more important) question was whether England should be governed by English laws or those of some alien authority. Henry VIII, quite correctly, if for self-interested reasons, said that the law begins at home. Within a few decades the Church of England had set off on its own.

Meanwhile, the Peace of Augsburg (1555) had accepted the principle that within the Holy Roman Empire, the rule that would apply would be cuius regio, eius religio. As the local prince worshiped (the choice was between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism) , so would his people.

And it’s hard not to think that Christianity’s intellectual authority of was not dented by this development. The notion of a universal overarching truth had been trashed and what’s more, particularly in northern Europe, God had, in a sense, been reduced to a rank below Caesar, a demotion that must, I suspect, played its part in clearing the way for the Enlightenment.

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Religion and rights

A review of a new book by Simon Schama about American culture makes the usual argument that religion, not Enlightenment values, was responsible for abolishing slavery and expanding civil rights for blacks:

The main weapon in both the fight against slavery and the struggle for civil rights was shame, which has always been a peculiarly effective part of religion’s arsenal. It wasn’t, after all, the appeal of Enlightenment ideas that shattered slavery or modern rationalism that ended segregation.

writes David Shribman in today’s Wall Street Journal (reviewing Schama’s The American Future).

No question that many abolitionists were motivated by their faith to fight slavery.  But the argument that we can thank religion for the abolition of the slave trade runs up against the fact that the slave trade went on for centuries without protest from the Catholic or Anglican Church hierarchies.  Southern Protestant denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church, supported slavery, correctly citing Biblical injunctions that slaves should obey their masters and expect their rewards in heaven.  Surely priests and ministers know as much about the requirements and implications of religious values as anyone else.  There is nothing uniquely religious about “shame,” as Shribman claims.  And it is unpersuasive to claim that enlightenment ideals of equal rights and universality had no influence on the abolition or civil rights movements.   Darwin opposed slavery as a violation of the brotherhood of man. 

The vitality of American religious life that Shribman and Schama celebrate resulted, by his own account (by now a ubiquitous conceit), from the separation of church and state.  Such separation was a purely Enlightenment concept, created by 18th century rationalists to end the blood-letting that has been so frequent a consequence of totalizing religious conviction.   The churches didn’t voluntarily come forth and say: “Never mind.  We don’t really want our secular power after all.”

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The arational conservative

Yale Brought Me to Conservatism:

I can only describe the moment as an epiphany, with all that that implies. “An age of prudence” was my own age of rationalism. There was no reason to exist. But I did: not because I could prove it, or because I knew, but because in that utterly human moment of terror and sacrifice that gave meaning, I recognized that it didn’t matter. I didn’t need a good reason to love. But I did.

I have said very little so far about my politics. The entire edifice of my beliefs had rested on that rationalist Weltanschauung. I had been liberal in the classical sense: I had considered Man as an atomized, self-complete individual, engaged with the world through choice and rational thought. When the framework for that conceptual system fell apart, so too did its results.

The Enlightenment was greatness. Two centuries after its denouement it is in fact conservative to defend it. Rational physical systems pervade our lives. But the power of the Enlightenment conceit, rationality’s moment of hubris, stopped at the limits of society and psychology. The sciences of society are still primitive affairs, and one could argue that psychology is still a science in its infancy if powers of prediction are any judge.

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