Were The 20th Century Wars A Rebuke To Reason?

City of God argues that the New Atheists need to learn from history that reason is no guide to world-improvement

If religion had motivated people to die for God and King, surely reason and science had made the dying that much nastier through the innovations of gas, flame-throwers, bomber aircraft, bigger artillery and the like. I would submit that WWI offered an equal rebuke to European notions of religion and science, indeed a rebuke to all myths of Europe as someone superior to the rest of humanity.

The utopian promises held out by the New Atheists that the world can be greatly improved through the abandonment of religion and the taking up of reason and science sounds as enticing as any utopia. But like other earthly attempts at utopia, the historical record has not been pleasant. I can’t believe in the utopia of the New Atheists. Why? To borrow Bertrand Russell’s famous reply to God, not enough evidence!

WWI and WWII weren’t started, as far as I know, because we were being too rational and too committed to Enlightenment ideals of human dignity and inquiry.  And science was in no way “rebuked” simply because technology can be used for good or for evil purposes.  Science, in terms of scientific methods for attaining to truth were quite vindicated when we learned to do things like split the atom.   Science did not corrupt human hearts.  And the fact that science did not transform people into angels is irrelevant.  That’s not what science was ever meant to do.  The real question is whether critical moral philosophy and moral psychology are a better route to human education in virtues than religious authoritarianism.

By evidence of the humane influence of Enlightenment ideals of democracy and tolerance compared with the authoritarian political structures of the Middle Ages or the bloody carnage over nonsense questions of the religious wars of the Reformation, I put my money on the Enlightenment as the ideal to strive for—regardless of how badly the West has failed to embody those ideals at various points in the last century.  The Enlightenment should still be the guiding ideal and has been the source of whatever moral progress the West has known in the last 400 years.

And the New Atheists are not promising a utopia.  They are just demanding more rationality and that everyone have to give reasons for their beliefs.  They are claiming that rejecting authoritarian approaches to belief that give assent to authorities who do not provide evidence or reasons is the path towards a more enlightened investigation of the world and the key to liberty.  As long as someone can manipulate your emotions or demand your agreement without providing adequate reasons, they can send you off into unjust wars and make you do evil things with available technologies.

Will opposing this one source of human corruption magically remove all the others?  No, it won’t of course.  But since when does opposing one set of vices (authoritarian habits of thought, superstitious thinking, anti-scientific inferences, fallacies, deference to traditions for their own sake) become impermissible just because removing those vices won’t magically end all human vice?  And I’d love to hear the exact explanation as to how becoming less rational, demanding less scientific evidence and rational moral argumentation from those who try to control what we think is a better route to a better world.  I won’t even set the bar as high as “achieving a utopia” for anyone who wants to explain this to me.  I will settle for an improved state of affairs over the opposite alternative of more rationality, scientific evidence, and demands for moral justification (since all the New Atheists are claiming is that more of these things will make things better, however still imperfect, than their alternatives can).

Reason has limitations which should be respected but not exploited.  Reason itself should never be “rebuked” and its limitations are not a license for unfounded claims beyond what we can know.  The limitations of our reason are the limitations of our right to believe.  Only tyrants and religions are threatened by the demands of reason and demands for reasons.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Andrew

    Dan was referring to “reason” in the sense of the kind of thought expressed by the modern myth of progress. It is that myth which, by any reasonable account, was indeed dealt a serious blow by the most violent century in recent history.

    Simply rejecting authoritarianism does not necessarily lead to peaceful harmony. It can just as easily lead to masses of sociopaths who care only about the authority of their own desires.

  • Leon

    An older conservative tradition sees the rebuke to Enlightenment values lying within the Enlightenment itself. Example: Edmund Burke and the French revolution/terror.


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