November 20, 2002
BEWTWEEN THE SACRED AND THE SECULAR:REVIEW: of Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity By Darrin M. McMahon (Damon Linker, February 2002, First Things)
As everyone knows, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America is filled with valuable observations about the United States. America?s unprecedented social equality, its freedom, its vibrant intermediary institutions, even its volatile racial situation-all of these subjects are treated with a depth and subtlety that have yet to be surpassed. And then there is Tocqueville's revealing, and less frequently noted, discussion of the surprising relationship between Enlightenment and Christianity in America. The United States is a country, he claims, that combines widespread Enlightenment with a deep and abiding faith in God. Just as, for Americans, "it is the observance of divine laws that guides man to freedom," so it is that "religion . . . leads [him] to Enlightenment."
In Tocqueville's native France, as throughout much of the European continent, things were very different. Since the early seventeenth century, the age-old ideals of civilization and intellectual Enlightenment had been employed as weapons in an ideological campaign. While many thinkers continued to seek knowledge for the same reasons philosophers had pursued it for millennia-for its own sake, in order to glorify God, to satisfy human curiosity-others had a different aim. Such figures as Hobbes, Spinoza, Bayle, Locke, Voltaire, Diderot, Helvétius, La Mettrie, d'Holbach, Rousseau, Condorcet, and many others-Europe's first intellectuals-wanted above all to use recent scientific discoveries to inspire skepticism about the truth of the Christian religion, and thus to undermine its spiritual authority. To be sure, not all of these writers went as far as Voltaire's Écrasez l'infâme! Some, like Locke and Kant, wanted merely to reform, or liberalize, Christianity. (At least Protestant Christianity. For Locke, Catholics, like atheists, must not even be tolerated.) Yet their program of Enlightenment was based on a series of deeply anti-Christian and even antireligious assumptions.
For the vast majority of the philosophes, orthodox religious belief was inspired by nothing nobler than ignorance and fear. Lacking knowledge of the true causes of events within the world, most people live their lives in a terror that can be diminished only by embracing comforting superstitions. This situation-which, according to the leading figures of the Enlightenment, prevails whenever and wherever people lack knowledge of the natural world-was made considerably worse in Europe by the presence of a class of clergy who claimed to possess esoteric knowledge that entitled them to rule the ignorant and fearful masses. Genuine Enlightenment thus requires both that intellectuals dispel superstition by popularizing the findings of modern science and, even more importantly, that they use a potent combination of reason and rhetoric to discredit the Church's claim to rule in spiritual matters. (When it comes to the issue of whether the Enlightenment relied more heavily on reason or rhetoric in its battle with orthodoxy, it is useful to recall Gotthold E. Lessing's comment that the philosophes didn't so much refute religion as attempt to laugh it into submission.)
More than three centuries after it began, the assault on the Church in the name of antireligious Enlightenment has been quite successful. England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland-today these are more or less secular societies. As Tocqueville noted, the situation has been somewhat different in America, where, for much of our history, Enlightenment has not been defined in opposition to religious faith.
The question implicated here is of vital importance: Would it be possible for other societies to replicate America's success in reconciling religion and Enlightenment, and can even America maintain the delicate balance? It can hardly be a coincidence that America, which has thus far struck the balance, is the most successful nation in human history, but can others follow suit? Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2002 6:59 PM