RELIGION IN THE AGE OF REASON
This is the Age of Enlightenment, a time of shedding light on ignorance, when light itself has come under scientific scrutiny, and knowledge has thereby increased remarkably (think of Newton, and Einstein). It might also be the Age of Aquarius, if the water carrier is there to pour cold water on the menacing fires of religious enthusiasm and the noxious flames of passionate dogmatism.
The ‘Enlightenment’ movement of the 18th century has been indicted as the undivine creator of selfish immoral individualism; cultural imperialism; the Terror in the French Revolution; the horrific Holocaust in the Third Reich; the destructive Atomic Bomb in the Land of the Free; and the unhealthy global warming or climate change on Planet Earth. In the face of this indictment, Phil Badger of Sheffield asks:
‘What’s Wrong With The Enlightenment?’ (Philosophy Now, 2013) [Thanks to Li Dong]
In his essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1784) Immanuel Kant summed it up:
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” Therefore we must think for ourselves, and resist tradition, convention, or authority as sources of wisdom and knowledge. The individual person could now be seen as equipped to decide matters of both empirical fact and moral value for himself (‘herself’ came a bit later, Badger adds; but let us say “themself”; MSWord changed that to “themselves” without my permission).
(Sorry, but for writing Chinese and English one must obey the orthographic tradition and ask a teacher or a lexicon how to write every single word in the language; no room for messing about and being clever and doing it my way. Bat ay stil chuuz tuw duw it may wey.)
In India, long before the European Enlightenment (two millennia already), the word enlightenment (or bodhi, its Sanskrit and Pali equivalent) appeared in the Buddhadharma, the teaching of Gautama the Buddha. The idea of skepticism (as practised in the modern scientific method) is nicely formulated in the Pali Kâlâma Sutta (or Kâlâma Sûtra, in Sanskrit; sutra/sutta,‘a thread’). [Thanks to Thana na Nagara]
The Buddha opposed blind faith, dogmatism, and belief obtained from specious reasoning. He was practically an atheist, in that he said we should not go to gods for help with our personal problems. He started out from the event of a light going on inside his darkened head, a mystical experience of illumination or enlightenment in which he saw it all, so to speak, as he was seated under a species of fig-tree; but he was nevertheless a philosopher (promoting right thinking) and a psychologist (showing a pathway to happiness through right thinking for elimination of stress and misery), as well as the founder of a religion.
This text (a discourse delivered to the people of the Kalama clan) is the Buddha’s charter of free inquiry for the establishing of truth; his advice is to be wary of information coming from: repeated hearing (hearsay), tradition, rumour (the news media), scripture (authoritative texts), surmise (suppositional reasoning), axiom (philosophical dogmatism), specious reasoning (common sense, elegant, and beautiful, and ‘special’, but wrong), bias (in personal opinion), another person’s apparent competence (experts!), recognized authorities (such as monks and teachers).
Incidentally, the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) also began in the 18th century, and resulted in the formation of Liberal Judaism.
In Europe the progression from darkness to light went along the following lines.
The Renaissance saw the rebirth of classicism in the arts. Ironically, ancient gods were revived in this movement. Those naked bodies in the (Bible-based) statues and paintings of Michelangelo (1475-1564) conceal the fact that he belonged to a movement in the Roman Catholic Church for promoting greater spirituality; it was a secret society, which included an English bishop who just missed out on being elected Pope, and his rival was a tyrant. It desired devotion plus morality, faith and good works, piety and practising what you preach.
Individualism arose in the religious conflicts of seventeenth-century Europe: conscience and inner light, rather than the traditions and regulations of the Roman Catholic Church, should guide a person.
The Reformation brought back “justification by faith” and personal conversion, but there was still a desire for spiritual reform in the Lutheran Church, and the movement to restore piety is known as Pietism.
Jesuitism refers to the Society of Jesus founded by Ignatius Loyola in 1534; the members of this order were called Jesuits, and their roles were: defenders of the faith against the Reformation and missionaries to the heathen. Their spirituality was sincere (Francis), but the secrecy of their activities and the power they wielded sometimes led to their expulsion by civil and religious authorities.
Pietism arose in the 17th century, presenting a combination of religious faith with a moral lifestyle, and it had widespread influence, notably in Prussia and other Baltic states. The name of Count von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) is closely associated with it; and in England there was the Methodism of John Wesley (1703-1791), with his brother Charles Wesley as the prolific hymn-writer for ‘the people called Methodists’. To outsiders, this pietism was “enthusiasm” and “emotionalism”, and piety bringing “pie in the sky when we die”.
Jansenism was a Catholic sect, founded by Bishop Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), emphasizing the teachings of Augustine of Hippo (354-430); Pascal was attracted to it; abolished by the Pope in 1731.
Humanism was an extension of Renaissance ideas of personal autonomy and optimism. John Locke (1632-1704) spoke against the Divine right of kings to rule (James I); Locke declared that a ruler’s legitimacy depended on the consent of the ruled. This principle was enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence: it was a self-evident truth that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed”, and “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends” (namely inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it”.
Coincidentally, the age-old principle and practice in China was: when the mandate of Heaven was withdrawn from a corrupt ruler, a new dynasty was created.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident” [axiomatic? or discovered by reasoning?]: “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator [God] with certain inalienable rights”
(Of course the only rights and values that concern most citizens are their water rights and their property values, what the value of their property is.)
A noble affirmation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident” [axiomatic? or discovered by reasoning?]: “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator [God] with certain inalienable rights” (but not women and other inferior beings, such as slaves and homosexuals).
Note the flight of French philosophers to the courts of monarchs:
Descartes (1596-1650) to Queen Christina of Sweden
Cartesian rationalist scepticism
His stay with her was the death of him, having to get up at 4 am and walk through the snow to counsel her for the day.
He died a Christian, thinking only of the mercy of God.
Diderot (1713-1784) to Queen Catherine II the Great of Russia (1773-4, 7 months)
The Encyclopedia and the scientific spirit were his legacy.
Voltaire (1694-1788) to Frederick the Great of Prussia
He set up a place of worship on his estate, I have heard.
Two great thinkers, who bequeathed collections of thoughts:
Blaise PASCAL (1623-1662) Pensées (Thoughts)
Charles de MONTESQUIEU (1689-1755) Considérations, Cahiers (Notebooks)
His father was interested in the sciences, and at age 12 Blaise rediscovered by himself 32 propositions of Euclid; at 17 he composed a treatise on “Sections Coniques”; at 19 he constructed a calculating machine; he formulated Pascal’s principle in physics. He was influenced by Jansenism, and had a blissful mystical experience; he became an apostle and an apologist for Christianity.
His Pensées were fragmentary notes for a book directed to a libertine who had become entangled in the pleasures of the world and had forgotten about his need for salvation; he would show him the nature of humanity, and arouse unease in him about his ultimate destiny; he would point out the impotence of philosophies and religions to calm his disquietude, and then show him the way of salvation through the Holy Scriptures and the light of Christ.
The book would have two parts: Misery of of Man without God, and Felicity of Man with God.
“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” (277)
He presents his case with the idea of a wager: one could bet on the truth of eternal life, and practise devotion and morality, and ultimately if the eternal goal was not there, nothing would have been lost, since one would have had happiness in this life.
He came from an aristocratic family of parliamentarians, and lived in a castle.
To do great things, one must not be above people, one must be with them.
Classification of governments:
REPUBLIC : Head of government (president) < Citizens (equal in liberty)
MONARCHY : King > Intermediaries > Subjects (equal in obedience)
DESPOTISM : Despot > Slaves (equal in servitude)
Montesquieu conceives the universe as a field for methodical exploration.
The art of living consists in a methodical search for happiness (bonheur). “Il ne faut point beaucoup de philosophie pour être heureux; il n’y a qu’à prendre des idées un peu saines.” Happiness does not require much philosophy, just a few sound and sane ideas; one’s reason conceives these ideas and engages the will in conformity with them.
Proscribe passions. It is pleasant to love, but not to be enchained and fettered by love; it is nice having grand designs, but it is not good being tormented by ambition; accept the good things of fortune, but do not be subjected to their tyranny, since money is a good slave but a bad master.
Accept destiny. Reason disposes the soul to make the best of every situation (including his blindess), and to discern the good side of every thing and every person.
Cultivate pleasures. Reason teaches us to draw from life the greatest possible number of enjoyments. The highest joys are those given by the mind in solitude and recollection.
“L’étude a été pour moi le souverain remède contre les dégoûts de la vie, n’ayant jamais eu de chagrin qu’une heure de lecture ne m’ait ôté.”
The art of thinking involves a methodical search for truth (vérité).
Proscribe prejudices. Reason frees the soul from the prejudices that conceal the truth from it. He revels in observing disputes, concerning literature and religion. “La religion catholique détruira la religion protestante, et ensuite les catholiques deviendront protestants” (the catholics will become protestants). Excessively exalting one’s country is a prejudice. “Tout citoyen est obligé de mourir pour sa patrie; personne n’est obligé de mentir pour elle.” One must raise oneself above private considerations and assign each notion to its place in the universal order.
Accept reality. The worst prejudice is to reject the present order in favour of the fantasy of revolution. Be a good citizen in whatever country you are born.
Prepare the future. However, in politics he rebels against imposed traditions: “Je n’épouse pas les opinions excepté celles des livres d’Euclide.” All authority must be reasonable: “Une chose n’est pas juste parce qu’elle est loi; elle doit être loi parce qu’elle est juste.” Remember, he was the author of L’Esprit des Lois (1748), “The spirit of the laws”, a treatise on political philosophy.
The art of writing is a methodical search for effect. Montesquieu strives to write with order and reasoning, and also with irony and humour, putting “salt” (and pepper?) and style into his works. His first published book was Lettres Persanes (1721), “Persian Letters”, a satire on French society.
Of all the French philosophers, he was the most conscientiously an artist, a stylist.
All these French literary philosophers have exerted their influence on me; I was forced to study them by Sydney University for my Bachelor of Arts degree: Descartes, Pascal, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau (and all the romantics who came after him), also the playwrights Molière and Beaumarchais, Corneille and Racine, and eventually Camus and Sartre (but, unfortunately, not Proust).
Speaking personally, I am always reluctant to throw away old things (such as articles of clothing, and books, and gramophone records) until they are clearly threadbare or obsolete, or broken; and so I do not easily discard old characters (like Voltaire) and age-old concepts (such as God) because they might still be viable and come in handy some day.
God of the gaps, God the gap-filler in God-shaped holes.
Scientism, a new religion, everyone must think the same, according to the dictates of science, using the reasoning of the modern closed mind, which is blindfolded and blinkered against contemplating metaphysical matters.
Just a thought for the day. No doubt it will pass away tomorrow.