The Atheist Re-Enlightenment
August 18, 2010 § 12 Comments
I have often wondered why it is that we are seeing an uprising of voices in the world of skeptical inquiry and atheism in the mainstreams of the world. And I wonder why it is that I am so heavily entrenched in this to feel it is important in my life to put so much effort into this blog at this point in time. Maybe I’m a little slow on the uptake, but it seems to me that now, more than ever in my lifetime, is the appropriate time to stand up for reason and rationality in the face of bad information and outdated dogma.
There is now, in any bookstore, a religion section which not only contains some bibles and stories about Mary MacKillop and her ilk, but a large array of books which question the very fabric of religion itself. Authors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, A.C. Grayling et al. are touted as attacking the thinking of the religious, or criticising the religions and their dogma. In addition to this there are many authors whose books may be found outside of the “Religion” section who tackle other pertinent topics which have ramifications for religious people and their beliefs, (Steven Pinker, Peter Singer and Micheal Shermer just to name a few).
Scientific discoveries in cosmology, neuroscience, medicine, physics and biology are speeding forward at an unprecedented rate, and the advent of very powerful social-media tools like Twitter and FaceBook have allowed for the propagation of information in a way never seen before. We can watch things as they happen! Earlier this year I watched as a space shuttle took-off from the USA in real-time (with some delay, my internet connection is not great at home). And millions in Australia are now Tweeting about the current election campaign as the debates take place on our TVs.
So there is an upsurge, and the information can spread fast, but why is this movement happening now?
On August 14 The Australian Online published this article titled “Reason on the offensive” written by Luke Slattery. He compares the changes happening in mainstream society to The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and America, where academics of the time fought against dogma and doctrine in favour of reason, rationality and free-inquiry. The article uses this quote from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of the book and film Nomad:
“The intellectual tradition of the European enlightenment, which began in the 17th century and produced its greatest works in the 18th, is based on critical reasoning,” she writes.
“It employs facts instead of faith, evidence instead of tradition. Morality in this world view is determined by human beings, not by an outside force.”
Indeed, and this is what I strive for now. But the article goes on to suggest that we are now in a similar situation to those that led up to the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment. It suggests that one of the reasons that this “re-enlightenment” is occurring now is because of the Post-Modernist movement of the 1980’s, which was a rejection of the Modernist ideals of globalisation and objective truths among humans. Other reasons for it to be occurring now, according to the article, is the lack of people challenging the ideals of faith, and the political agendas which are at the forefront of western societies interactions with the rest of the world.
The article states that the current push, I’ll call it the “Re-Enlightenment” push, comes in part from:
“… fear that the enlightenment’s contemporary enemies have grown more powerful, in part because they have gone unchallenged, and that the virtues of rationality, liberty, free inquiry and free speech — of democracy itself — need to be re-invigorated. But the challenge is multifold. Grayling, for example, believes that the gravest threat to civil liberties in the West stems from the policy responses of British and American governments to the threat of terrorism.”
Now that is an interesting thought indeed. I’m not a political expert by any means, nor have I ever pretended to be one, but it definitely does seem that somewhere in the political agendas of the American, Australian and some European governmental policies is an intentional leveraging on the fear of possible terrorism from Islam. And by leveraging on this fear, we see suspicions rise, fingers pointed and people becoming more insular in their communities and their beliefs, and more vocal about how they need their rights protected. People are more fanatical about their special-interests in the west than I have ever seen. And it seems in reaction to the terrorist attacks on “friendly soil” that people have become more fundamental in their beliefs. And very vocal.
Yes, we need to protect the rights of the individual, but not at the expense of the masses. Much of the rhetoric we see screamed out by these people who claim they are discriminated against is actually coming from a fundamentalist viewpoint. Be it Christian or Islam, the loudest words are possibly some of the scariest ideas, ones which aim to impose religious dogma on all. Some even cry for death to the non-believer, a positively bronze-age idea at best.
But I’m not writing to decry the fundamentalist ravings of the minority of religious believers, as most people who call themselves “believers” are good people, and who moderate their ideas with some empathy of others. But what I am saying is that these loud voices from those who see their religious ideals as being threatened by spurious interpretations of their holy books, and those who claim that their “way of life” is threatened by what people do in their bedrooms or in their homes, it is these loud voices that have been a catalyst to the uprising of the atheist voice and the voice of reason, rationality and free inquiry.
From the article, with regards to the obstacles faced by reason and rational thought:
“The traditional adversaries of the enlightenment — obscurantism, arbitrary authority and fanaticism — are like the heads of the Hydra that keep growing back as they are cut,” Todorov writes. “This is because they draw their strength from characteristics of human beings and societies that are as ineradicable as the desire for autonomy and dialogue. People need security and comfort no less than freedom and truth: they would rather defend the members of their group than subscribe to universal values; and the desire for power, which leads to the use of violence, is no less characteristic of the human species than rational argumentation.”
Todorov in this quote suggests that the desire for power over others, including violence, is as natural in the human being as the quest for rationality and reason. So is it hopeless?
I don’t think so. Every day I am greeted with a friend request on FaceBook from yet another atheist or skeptic, every day I get pro-choice activists following me on Twitter. Every other day I read a news piece, like this one in The Australian, which lightens my spirits a bit and makes me realise that I am not alone in this quest for rationality and reason to prevail. And in fact, I have some of the smartest people on the planet in my corner.
So I welcome, with open arms, a New Re-Enlightened human society, a place where every man and woman is equal, where religious dogma is the exception to the rule, where politics don’t play on the baseless fears of the masses. The Re-Enlightened society knows there’s no “Reds” in the closet, no bogeyman under the bed, and no terrorist on the train. Or at least, we don’t go into a panic the possible threat of other threats.
And while there are real threats to our safety and happiness in this world, the important issues should lie in how we as a whole species will overcome these challenges, not whether my god is the true god, not whether I’m in “your” land, not whether I have more rights than you do to be here, or to be alive, or to be happy. We need to look to the culture and how it affects our expectations as human beings. We need to look at humanity to see how to fix it, not to look skyward and pray for intervention, or worse, the end of days. And I really do think we can do this; we have the knowledge, we have the means, let’s make this thing work for all of us.