Friday, December 21, 2007

E2.0: Margaret Jacob: Enlightenment 1.0 as a Populist Movement

This is the second in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

Margaret Jacob, a professor of History at UCLA, was the second person to speak at the Enlightenment 2.0 conference. She was charged with providing some additional background information on Enlightenment 1.0.

Jacob pointed out that Enlightenment 1.0 is usually portrayed as a philosophical movement, and that we tend to study that era by studying the writings of 20 to 25 philosophs. Howver, Jacob wanted to argue that the enlightenment was substantially a populist movement – that it came from the people themselves.

Specifically, she traces the beginning of Enlightenment 1.0 to French religious intolerance. The French had required its citizens to profess Catholicism. This required that French protestants either (1) convert, (2) go to prison, or (3) leave the country. Many of them decided to leave the country. Where they went was to The Netherlands. The Netherlands had strict censorship laws, but those laws applied only to things written in Dutch. They did not care what people wrote in other languages – such as French or English. So, these French ex-patriots were permitted to print substantially anything they wanted about the French government and the Catholic Church.

They created a massive market for criticisms of these two institutions – religious and government institutions. One publisher at the time went so far as to publish and distribute a text, “. . . Three Imposters”. Those imposters were Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. That book was immediately banned, even though it was written in French – it had gone too far even for the Dutch authorities to allow. However, it is significant that the people at the time were able to consider launching this type of challenge.

This populist culture, then, gave the philosophs of the enlightenment their platform. This was not a case in which philosophs writing treatises lead the people in rebellion. It was a case in which people in (cultural) rebellion naturally gave the proverbial microphone to those writers who best expressed their sentiments. Indeed, this is a characteristic that distinguishes 19th century philosophs from philosophers.

Of course, this is actually a feedback loop. The philosophs did not just report what the people believed. They distilled and clarified that thinking. Readers, then, took the modifications and justifications that the philosophs proposed back to the people, altering Enlightenment 1.0 accordingly.

I want to contrast this story with the story that we have in America today – particularly in the light of recent events. We live in a culture in which the vast majority of publications do not come from enlightenment thinkers, but from religious thinkers.

What is the Catholic Church after when it bans the books on which The Golden Compass movie was based, and organizes a boycott against the movie? At the same time, a different move – one that condemns science and asserts that human salvation depends on faith and belief in God, breaks box-office records.

The hope is prevent a situation like that which existed in Europe in Enlightenment 1.0. By controlling the marketplace of ideas – by economically and, in some places, politically banning Enlightenment 2.0, the forces of unreason wish to create a culture in which people – particularly children – never have an opportunity to encounter things that question Church dogma.

There are two ways to argue against a movie, or a novel, or some other presentation that expresses ideas that one does not agree with. One way is to say, “These are the ideas that are expressed in that presentation, and these are my reasons for disagreeing with them.” These types of debates bring reason and discourse to the forefront, allow people the opportunity to weigh the arguments on different sides, and to draw a conclusion based on the reasons provided.

The second way to react to something one does not like is to demand that it not be said – or, if it is said, to demand that it be silenced as much as possible. This way people never get to hear the other side. This way the forces of unreason need not worry about defending their own side.

Of course, it is not at all difficult to imagine why the forces of unreason would be particularly concerned with what would happen if their ideas – and challenges to their ideas – were subject to open debate and a discussion of the actual principles.

Even the New Atheists – once they appeared on the stage – were effectively silenced within a few months, not by challenging the claims that these authors made in their books, but by condemning the authors as being ‘intolerant’ and ‘militant’. They used their economic power to shout as loudly as possible that the people can safely ignore what the “new atheists” had to say, not because they can be shown to have made mistakes, but because of the tone in which the “new atheists” spoke.

Again, the idea was not to engage the critics, but to silence them or, at least, to render them impotent and irrelevant.

The New Atheism caught the forces of unreason by surprise – they were not expecting it. Like any surprise attack, it took them a while to rally their forces and establish a solid line of defense. However, they seem to have done so, and now the attack is faltering. One scarcely hears about the “new atheists” these days except to hear denigrating and derogatory remarks by the defenders of unreason. Once again, the forces of unreason have taken control of the popular media.

Actually, the “new atheists” have let them. The “new atheists”, while they claim to be tired of being pushed around by the forces of unreason, actually seem quite comfortable with being pushed around by the forces of unreason. At least (other than complaining to each other in venues such as this blog where the forces of unreason seldom enter), or a few private conversations that scarcely make a ripple on the public scene, they seem content to do nothing.

Reversing this trend is going to take hard work and it is going to take sacrifice. It’s going to take a willingness to contribute money and labor to making sure that the forces of reason are heard – not only by those who already accept the primacy of reason, but by those who have not actually made up their mind. In particular, it will take effort to present the doctrine of reason to children in light of a solid wall of defense that demands that children learn only about faith, and discover reason only when faith has taken too firm a hold to be dislodged.

So, one of the things that I would like to recommend to my readers is that you go through some effort and spare some expense to promote the communication of ideas that the forces of unreason do not want communicated. Specifically, I would recommend:

(1) Widespread and loud denunciation of the forces of unreason decision to ban and bury ideas that they do not like rather than confront and discuss those ideas.

(2) Contributing to the production and distribution of materials that the forces of unreason wish not to see produced and distributed.

(3) Be vocal, particularly around children, in saying that there is no God, that the forces of unreason seem quite clearly interested in controlling the way people think by banishing ideas they do not like.

In short, make sure that these people do not succeed in creating a culture where a child might not ever confront the idea that there is no god until the mind has been too badly polluted for such an idea to take root.

It may be fun to pretend that we live in the universe where the quality of an argument is the only factor relevant to how persuasive it is. However, people cannot be persuaded by an argument they do not hear. Furthermore, people simply do not have time to evaluate every argument, so they are prone to take that which fits best into their pre-conceived notions, and not pay attention to what makes sense. They are prone to base their judgments on what the people they want to trust are saying. These are facts about the real world – facts that will not go away simply because somebody wishes it were otherwise.


Thesauros said...

Imagine - No Christians
If the population of the United States was 90% atheist and/or anti religious and only 10% Christian, do you think the chances of a Christian being elected President would be very good?

And based on how democracy is supposed to work, would it be fair that Christians would be shut out of the political process?

And would you, Alonso Fyfe, work to ensure that Christians had an equal opportunity to become President because it just wasn’t right that a minority view wasn’t represented at the top? Just wondering.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


There are 250 million different types of Christians in this country (no two Christians are alike), so it is impossible to make any blanket statement.

Depending on the specifics of the two candidates, there are a great many instances in which I would choose a theist (including a Christian) over a theist. Specifically, I think that Marxian communism and Ayn Rand libertarianism are worse ideologies than liberal Christianity, and would pick a candidate with the latter belief over either of the first two.

Such a person might be wrong about the existence of a God and the divine nature of Jesus, but there are far worse things that one can be wrong about.

Uber Miguel said...

I think I'd vote for almost any of the current democratic candidates (except more-Guiliani-than-Guiliani Hillary Clinton, perhaps.) than Neo-con atheist Christopher Hitchens, especially after that inexcusable military tirade against every "Moslem" at the AA conference.

Anonymous said...

On Islam:

Uber Miguel said...

Doug, please don't assume that since I disagree with Hitchen's call for the genocide of islamic believers that I condone the fruits of their foolishness.