Very interesting article in the Spectator: Please Can We Have Our Enlightenment Back? by Hywel Williams – appealing against the aggressive fundamentalist atheists. There are some great lines:
This is an episode in the history of the English intelligentsia — which need not mean that it’s particularly intelligent. It’s just terribly well packaged as, enchanted by themselves,the authors castigate the irrational past.
But the last 2 paragraphs are worth quoting in full:
…Moreover there is hardly a single scientist of the Age of Enlightenment who was not a professing Christian of some kind. Baron d’Holbach’s thoroughgoing materialism was entirely exceptional — which accounts for his notoriety. Newton’s Unitarianism meant that he doubted Christ’s divinity, but that still means he was in a serious tradition of religious thought — and one that had a profound impact on his portrayal of the regular and uniform laws of classical physics. And — most awkwardly for our modern polemicists — what scientists meant then by ‘reason’ could involve much of what we would now call magic. Francis Bacon’s prose seems coolly lucid until we remember his dabbling in the occult, and Newton was keen on alchemy.
David Hume’s sceptical refinement makes him the Folk Enlightenment’s pin-up boy. But it was that same scepticism which made him doubt science’s objectivity: genuine knowledge, he said, was based on sensory evidence, and science was therefore authentic enough. But for Hume that also made science subjective — the product of one person’s experience. It’s also Hume who taught us how weak a thing reason really is — a ‘slave of the passions’, as he puts it — reflecting our interests, ambitions and prejudices. A little less cockiness about reason as their private possession might cure our present-day crusaders of their vulgar certitudes.
A truly Christian worldview has never made it possible to espouse the absolute and final authority of human reason. But it is interesting to note that even Hume (right) saw the flaws in that.
The underlying fury, it seems to me, of the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and Sam Harris is not so much directed at Christianity (although they are of course wildly concerned about the influence some groups within Christianity have in politics, especially American politics – but it should be said that there are some other Christians who are rather concerned about that as well). It is all perhaps a matter of transference. The Christian right (and with them, wider theistic worldviews) are far easier and more obvious prey than the real shifts that are going on at a more philosophical level because these shifts have already reached street level. Postmoderns are incredulous towards metanarratives – yes, because of power claims, yes because of totalising and manipulative effects; but also because they distrust human reason, on precisely the grounds that Hume appeared to. (It’s just that they have taken things much further than Hume would allow.) And the atheist fundies can’t stand that. Nor can Christian, Muslim or any other fundy, for that matter.
Now, I haven’t swallowed it whole. We don’t throw babies out with the postmodern bathwater. Instead, we should aspire more to a critical realist approach (because what alternative is there, in actual fact?) – there is such a thing as objective reality; there is such a thing as knowing; it’s just that my knowledge of the reality out there is flawed – always. And my hunch is that actually, it is (ironically enough) the Christian worldview/metanarrative that does justice to both. For as the apostle Paul wrote (albeit in a slightly different context):
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12
If you want some more on this, check out the Hitchhikers’ Guide to Postmodernism on iTunes.