Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Myth of the Enlightenment?

A Richard Shweder had a op-ed piece in the NYTimes on Monday, Atheists Agonistes. He wonders why the phenomenon someone called "AAAA" - the angry arrogant atheist attitude - is manifesting itself at this point in time.

One obvious answer that he considers is that it is a reaction to the increasing religious fundamentalism, both within and without America. But he speculates that perhaps it is because the myth of the Enlightenment is coming undone.

"The Enlightenment story has its own version of Genesis, and the themes are well known: The world woke up from the slumber of the “dark ages,” finally got in touch with the truth and became good about 300 years ago in Northern and Western Europe.

As people opened their eyes, religion (equated with ignorance and superstition) gave way to science (equated with fact and reason). Parochialism and tribal allegiances gave way to ecumenism, cosmopolitanism and individualism. Top-down command systems gave way to the separation of church from state, of politics from science."

But the world seems to be headed in a different direction. Hence an anxiety and AAAA.


Here, I continue without Shweder. One idea that is not working out is that Enlightenment values are based on objective truths about human nature and hence are universal. But these "universal" values are far from being accepted in the Islamic world, for instance. Why might this be so? My answer requires a digression.

Professor S.N. Balagangadhara (Balu) examined Western accounts of Indian culture and religion and found that the object of their descriptions is not recognizable to Indians - except those who have accepted the Western discourse. The Indian misunderstanding arises from a faulty understanding of the West. To give a probably not-so-good example, Indians identify the Western "God" with "Ishwara", even though the two are conceptually quite different, and then proceed to misunderstand everything the West says about "God".

The Western side of the misunderstanding is a bit more difficult to grasp. After all, don't they have the imprimatur of science? Hasn't the study of other cultures been ever more scientific ever since the Enlightenment?

We must detour a bit more. The social sciences say that religion is a universal. Since Christianity describes itself as a religion, Balu examines religion (in The Heathen in His Blindness) and asks what is it that makes Christianity a religion? The answer I will not explain here; but equipped with that answer, one sees that many cultures in the world do not have religion - the native Indian culture in particular does not have religion, and the construct of Hinduism as a religion is a mirage. "Hinduism" is a barrier to a truer understanding of India and must be discarded as a concept. What made the social scientists think that every culture has a religion?

The answer is that the Enlightenment is really a secularization of Christianity. One loses God, Jesus and the Bible, but retains the epistemology, metaphysics - the theology without the theos. It is Christianity that defined the non-Christians as having (false) religions; the Enlightenment thinkers and their successors continue to think of non-Christians as having religions. Science itself - as insight into the mind of God, an idea one finds echoed by Newton and Einstein - had religious roots and had to have arisen in a religious culture. The idea of God as sovereign who has delegated His sovereignty to a king or ultimately to individual humans and the human rights that arise from this sovereignty also arise from religion.

One of the implications of all this, to my mind, is that while Hindus do not have religion and are able to handle a rather incoherent 'secularism', Muslims do have a religion and if the Enlightenment is at its roots Christian, they must resist its values or abandon their religion.


Returning to Shweder - he thinks the Enlightenment story is a myth because any viable society needs religion. We think the Enlightenment is a myth because it is secularized theology. The understanding of cultural differences and managing them is a work just begun, it cannot be done within the current framework.

PS: the above is my understanding and is not binding on the authors cited.


Anonymous said...

What do you think of what was discussed in the Beyond Belief conference?


Arun said...

Will look at it, thanks for the link!

mark said...

interesting post. Re Einstein: didn't he say, when pressed, that he believed in Spinoza's god? I do not think he believed in a supernatural entity "God".

Arun said...

Whether Spinoza's God or the Biblical God, God serves an explanatory purpose in religion.