June 16, 2009


Reason vs. Faith: the Battle Continues (RICHARD WOLIN, 6/15/09, The Chronicle Review)

In 1802 Georg W.F. Hegel wrote an impassioned treatise on faith and reason, articulating the major philosophical conflict of the day. Among European intellectual circles, the Enlightenment credo, which celebrated the "sovereignty of reason," had recently triumphed. From that standpoint, human intellect was a self-sufficient measure of the true, the just, and the good. The outlook's real target, of course, was religion, which the philosophes viewed as the last redoubt of delusion and superstition. Theological claims, they held, could only lead mankind astray. Once the last ramparts of unreason were breached — our mental Bastilles, as it were — sovereign reason would take command and, presumably, human perfection would not be long in coming.

Soon legions of skeptics and naysayers emerged to cast doubt on the Enlightenment's presumptuous self-conceit. By making the lowly human intellect the measure of all truth, weren't the philosophes arbitrarily isolating humanity from the possibility of attaining a higher order of truth? Who would really want to inhabit a totally enlightened universe, denuded of mystery, plurality, and sublimity? What if ultimate reality weren't attainable by the prosaic methods of cognition or secular reason? What if, instead, the Absolute had more to do with the faculties of the imagination, intuition, or the unfathomable mysteries of the human unconscious?

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. For with the notable exception of Western Europe, on nearly every continent, religion seems to have found its second wind. And it would be difficult to deny that this global revival of spirituality has occurred in pointed reaction to the broken promises of enlightened modernity. Nineteenth-century utopians like Charles Fourier speculated that, once industrial society was perfected, rivers and lakes would pulsate with lemonade, public fountains would overflow with salmon, men would learn to fly, and wild beasts would do our hunting. Instead, as we confront on a daily basis the dislocations of Western modernity — teeming cities, urban blight, industrially scarred landscapes, massive pollution, and climate change of eschatological proportions — it seems as though Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West was more clairvoyant than Fourier's odes to universal harmony.

Prominent secularization theorists like Peter L. Berger who, as recently as the 1960s, openly conceded religion's demise, are having to radically alter their forecasts. They have had to invent new concepts and categories to describe the phenomenon of religion's unexpected global resurgence. The philosopher Jurgen Habermas now felicitously refers to the advent of a "postsecular society" to characterize religiosity's remarkable staying power. In recent works such as Between Naturalism and Religion (Polity Press, 2008), he questions whether modern societies possess the moral resources to persevere without relying on their religious roots — the Judeo-Christian basis of secular ethics, for example.

Of course, Hegel/Descartes only triumphed in Western Europe. Within the Anglosphere, Hume had already disposed of the notion that the belief in Reason was itself rational,/a> and every great English philosopher thereafter was a skeptic of Reason.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 16, 2009 6:30 AM
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