History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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Darwinists have no claim on the Enlightenment

December 17th, 2010 · No Comments

Review of Science and Religion VSI

Let’s get the first misunderstanding out of the way. Despite its comprehensive overthrow by the Enlightenment – what Jonathan Israel calls “theology’s loss of hegemony in the eighteenth century” (Israel, Jonathan. Enlightenment Contested (Oxford: University Press, 2006), 68) – religion still has a disproportionate footprint in the public sphere, even in places where the Enlightenment originated and flourished. Counter-Enlightenment forces were very effective in preserving the structures of ecclesial power that existed in Europe and in societies whose majority populations derive from European immigration. Religious belief itself made successive accommodations to scientific discoveries and the liberal, democratic political arrangements that originated in foundational philosophical works of the Enlightenment. These continued accommodations were in the nature of a steady retreat of religion and theology in the face of the growing success of science in producing reliable descriptions of the natural and human world. The liberal face of religion, thus revealed, acknowledged these successes, yet the heart of religion remained obdurate and unmoved. The forces which kept religions united and effective, as religions, were the beliefs which had been subverted by science. Surrounded by the protective glacis of liberalism, these beliefs were the citadel, without whose existence religion as religion would have simply perished.

This kind of analysis looks all too plausible, and up to a point it is excellent, but it misses many points. First of all it confuses the hegemony of religion (Christianity??) and religion itself, and the Protestant Reformation, the first beacon of modernity, was the main trigger of that loss of theocratic hegemony. But OK, the Enlightenment finished the job. But look again: figures such as Kant and Hegel and many others produced an intelligent continuation/completion of the Protestant phase, very much the creators of a robust secularism that was at the same time able to both make use of critique the rising hegemony of science, or scientism. Hegel is problematic and I am not one of his followers, but he understood that the Protestant Reformation needed a continuation and final phase, and the sudden reversal of his gesture in the coming era of positivism shows the dialectical firestorm at work. It is easy to poke fun at Hegel but the reductionist scientism that arose in his wake reminds us of the steadier hand of Kant, and the keys he provided to assess a robust secularism. In general the Enlightenment is a massive balance of opposites, as, indeed, Hegel suggested with his idea of the ‘dialectic’ (almost as equal and opposite confusion to scientism), which pointed to this field of opposites.

These commentators in the New Atheist movement act as if Darwinism, science, and the New Atheist movement had some monopoly on the Enlightenment. But the Enlightenment was as critical of Newton as it was his greatest fan. The Romantic movement (note the reviewer takes a swipe at the Counter-Enlightenment) attempted to correct the imbalance of monistic physicalism, etc, etc..
In general these science/religion debates are brain-dead from the word go.
The attempt to make Darwinism, bad science, and obsessive anti-religion the first born of the Enlightenment is false.
And in any case, the loss of theological hegemony opened the floodgates of the globalization of religion, witness the massive onset of New Age movements, vexed outcomes mixed with the arrival of some moments of real religion.

These commentators fail to consider that however problematic religion the concoctions of Darwinists, and narrow reductionist devotees of scientism are worse, and a degeneration of the Enlightenment. The attempt to replace the legacy of religious and philosophic ethics with Darwinian junk science on altruism is a notable example of the way that religion gets revived by the progession of science into decline as Big Science.

Nonetheless I agree that Christianity is a frustrating entity to deal with. It defeats its opponents, yet offers little in the way of real religion, as Eastern thinkers have repeatedly pointed out. But if you try to produce something even worse in the form of Social Darwinist crypto-Nietzschean nihilist pseudo-secularism foisted on a bunch of kids, Christianity is certain to endure. The need is to transcend past religions, not simply destroy them.

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