The great thinkers of the Enlightenment had grandiose dreams for the progress of human civilization. They envisioned a world in which all men were created equal, reason triumphed over superstition, and human beings in all their natural variability were free to pursue their own pursuits.
Are we there yet?
That forms only part of the question astrophysicist and former NASA staff scientist Stuart Jordan seeks to answer in The Enlightenment Vision: Science, Reason, and the Promise of a Better Future (Prometheus Books, 2013).
Even more compelling, Jordan delves into the likelihood that we will arrive at the Enlightenment’s promised utopia at some point in the future. Does the human race have a chance to transcend collective demons of mind like nationalism, superstition, and prejudiced thinking?
To answer that question, Jordan looks into the past, examining the stated goals of enlightenment thinkers and the extent to which those goals have been realized in twenty-first century Western society and, more broadly, on a global level. The results are mixed at best. While there have been a number of improvements, some of which might have surprised even the founders of Enlightenment thought — women are created equal too! Who knew? — the human race remains mired in problematic thought patterns about race, ethnicity, gender, population, ecology, economics, and the utility of violence. Jordan blames our human failure to fulfill the Enlightenment’s promise on astonishing levels of ignorance worldwide. How can we be rational without first understanding the roots of human irrationality?
Jordan goes on to project a positive outcome for the distant future, resting on the assumption that we will slowly continue to educate (and thereby liberate) individuals and societies with greater scientific knowledge, better communications technologies, and increased interpersonal empathy. Only education, he contends, can eradicate bigotry, authoritarian thinking, systemic injustice, and “the ‘one-size-fits-all’ notions of traditional morality” propagated by religious fundamentalists.
Jordan’s careful, even-handed approach to religion stands out as a feature of his prose. While he does not shy away from exploring the harm religion has done, he is careful to draw a distinction between religious fundamentalism and more liberal, tolerant forms of belief from which individual theists can draw support without demanding conformity from non-believers. He condemns failure to draw this distinction as its own form of fundamentalism and calls for nuanced thinking on the subject.
This call for nuance and respectful dialogue with non-fundamentalist theists grows out of a profound empathy for the historical subjects he investigates. “To say that religion is the opiate of the people,” he notes, “does not mean that many did not need a psychological boost to make their lives tolerable.” He acknowledges the irrationality of superstition, but also the tremendous social and emotional allure of supernatural beliefs, which makes them particularly tough to eradicate through appeals to logic.
How can we solve this puzzle? Science. By striving to understand the human brain using the latest technique in neuroscience, Jordan argues we can conquer our collective ignorance about the emotional and logical workings of our own minds, letting us think about our thinking in a constructive way and recognize the difference between beliefs supported by logic and those being propped up by emotion.
The only way to achieve this is universal education — not mere jobs training, but real in-depth learning about critical thinking and up-to-date science, free from the ideological messaging of Young-Earth Creationists and climate-science deniers. Ultimately, Jordan’s treatise on Enlightenment thinking becomes a plea for greater educational standards in a world where religion, while existing in individual spheres of influence, does not seek to impose itself on public policy.
Broad in scope, packed with interesting information and musings on the future from a reasonably global perspective, The Enlightenment Vision is no backwards-looking historical exposition. Rather, Jordan spends most of his time examining trends in the present through the lens of Enlightenment thinking, and uses those trends to predict what kind of world we’ll be leaving to our children’s children.
In spite of the abounding causes for concern, he manages to leave us with a reason to hope… but also a clearer sense of priority. For Stuart Jordan, scoffing at superstitious ideas is simply not enough. Only by championing widespread education can we become champions for an enlightened future.