Enlightenment and the Enlightenment

Enlightenment and the Enlightenment October 18, 2007

I have just finished reading Philip Kitcher’s book Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (for an earlier post inspired by the first half of the book, click here). I feel a bit like someone who has just watched a movie where the ending came completely out of the blue, an attempt to introduce a final twist and wow the viewer which in fact leaves one feeling that the ending of the wrong movie has been displayed. I am still sitting, staring at the screen, as the credits roll, wondering what happened and how to respond.

I did not dislike the ending of Kitcher’s book. That wasn’t the problem. It was just the sudden turn from science and biology into a consideration of the Enlightenment worldview in general came abruptly, and showered the reader with a spray of results from Biblical criticism and historical investigation that were startling, given the slow, steady, methodical treatment of evolution.

Personally I think the “Enlightenment case”, as Kitcher calls it, needs to be taken seriously. Focus on Darwin is an attempt by some religious believers to pretend that, if this one opponent can be overcome, their own brand of fundamentalist religion will have emerged victorious and will then be able to go back to business as usual. Kitcher rightly points out that this sort of fundamentalism has been shown to be bankrupt not merely in terms of its view of biology and the age of the earth, but by history and many other fields of inquiry that all derive from the Enlightenment approach.

Indeed, one concern I have with some religious believers who embrace postmodernism is that they see it as a way of bypassing or ignoring the issues raised by the Enlightenment. But if there is to be any sort of healthy postmodernism, it cannot represent a pure naivite: it must be (as Ricoeur put it) a second naivite. It must represent the mature attitude that comes after adolescent questioning and rebellion, and not an attempt to remain with old comforts in a state of perpetual immaturity.

As I reflected on Kitcher’s points about the Enlightenment, I found my thoughts turning to the importance of that key term Enlightenment in the very different context of the Buddhist tradition. Clearly what it means to be “enlightened” may depend on a more fundamental value judgment. Yet the two are certainly less at odds than are the Enlightenment and fundamentalist Christianity (not surprisingly, since the latter exists only as a response to and attempt to negate the former, all the while working in ironic fashion within the Enlightenment paradigm). Buddhism emphasizes rightly perceiving the world, and a right perception will lead one to realize that there is only one ultimate reality, that one’s sense of self and of the separateness of things is an illusion, and that it is our clinging to these impermanent and illusory things that causes our suffering. Many of Buddhism’s insights have been confirmed in striking ways by physics. Although I do not think this justifies the New Age combinations of the two, as though Buddhism is simply physics or vice versa, nevertheless the convergence tells us something extremely important. It shows that meditation and contemplation can grant us surprisingly accurate insights into the nature of reality.

Buddhism’s approach is much easier to integrate with science in some respects, because although it is a deeply spiritual tradition, this does not mean that it is fundamentally supernaturalist in the way that C. S. Lewis defined the term and the Enlightenment critiqued. This struck me recently as I was reading the book The Buddha in the Robot by Masahiro Mori. He defined the essence of religion, from a Buddhist perspective, as good brain function (p.8). I doubt many Christians could conceive of religion in these terms.

Nevertheless, there is a movement within Christianity to interpret its tradition in a way that takes the Enlightenment critique and scientific data completely seriously. Kitcher often speaks about “spiritual religion” as a form of retreat by religion in the face of advancing encroachments by knowledge in general and science in particular. This is, however, something of a caricature, since within all the religious traditions with which I am familiar, the emphases of “spiritual religion” on the inner life and transcendence rather than historical and scientific claims are central to at least some branches that are very ancient. Indeed, some have claimed, in both ancient and modern times, that such inner experience is the heart of religion in general as well as of religions in their specific concrete expressions. Thus, while Kitcher might regard a move in this direction as a retreat, others might equally regard is as a return to a neglected core, one that mystics in the various traditions have often seen as something that united them across boundaries of dogma and denomination.

The most important question Kitcher asks, in my opinion, is what, if anything, religion understood in these terms can offer that cannot be found in secular humanism. I wish to offer an answer not because I am certain it is the right one or the only one, but because it reflects my own perception of the matter. My answer is not intended to be definitive even for myself, much less for others. Nonetheless, I hope that by laying my cards on the table a discussion may be started that will aid myself and others in thinking about this important question.

My own answer is that religion encourages us to let go where a purely secular approach might lead us to cling and seek to control – not in a malicious sense, but merely as part of a program aimed at understanding nature and allowing it to be subjugated both intellectually and practically.

In order for such letting go to be conceivable, there must also be a conviction that, in some ultimate sense, we inhabit a reality that is benevolent and that we can therefore surrender. This ultimate context, this ultimate reality, is affirmed to exist in spite of the world as we perceive it often being anything but benevolent. Beyond that which we perceive directly with our senses and the sufferings that assail us, religion perceives ultimate goodness. Religion, then, if one takes this approach, is about affirming that there is a reality to the goodness that we perceive mystically, and the practical outworking of religion is the attempt to live in light of this perception of the ultimate.

Kitcher quotes John Dewey, appropriately so, since he is John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. I went to John Dewey High School and am not as acquainted with Dewey as I ought to be. One quote Kitcher offered from Dewey struck me as similar to a point made by Tillich. Dewey wrote, “It is the claim of religions that they effect this generic and enduring change in attitude. I should like to turn the statement around and say that whenever this change takes place there is a definitely religious attitude. It is not a religion that brings it about, but when it occurs, from whatever cause and by whatever means, there is a religious outlook and function” (A Common Faith, p.17). Rather than competing over religious doctrines, I suspect that both Tillich and Dewey might agree that those who are united in this desire for such enduring change ought to make common cause. Yet I suspect that Tillich would affirm, as would I, that spirituality’s focus on self-transcendence is conducive to this in a way that makes its contribution invaluable.

Kitcher suggests merely creating more secular spaces for open, honest discussion, for grieving and being comforted, would eliminate the need for religion. He nonetheless recognizes that, since science does not offer comfort, hope, and meaning in the way religion does, it is not surprising that religious believers are unimpressed by what it has to offer. What “spiritual religion” can offer is an enthusiastic embracing of both science and knowledge on the one hand, and value and transcendence on the other. It offers, in one sense, a non-secular humanism. Might it not then plausibly be suggested that such religion does indeed continue to have something to offer?

Religion and science can work together in seeking to understand this not unintelligible but nevertheless perpetually mysterious universe we inhabit. This universe is our “matrix“, the womb that gives rise to us and remains our context as long as we exist. What, then, is the common goal of religion and science? Nothing other than exploring our matrix.

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  • Religion, then, if one takes this approach, is about affirming that there is a reality to the goodness that we perceive mystically.It seems that you and I agree on some of the fundamental choices that a modern believer must make.I have spent a fair bit of time defending Christianity against atheists, and I have come to the conclusion that our strongest argument is, in fact, the subjective (mystical) one. For example, people in great emotional distress often experience a Someone (a Person) outside of themselves grieving with them, comforting them, and giving them strength to endure a difficult passage.Virtually every believer has had this experience at one time or another. They may interpret it in different language (based on their religious or denominational background), but they are testifying to a common experience. Atheists can rationalize this all they want, but it constitutes a phenomenon that demands an explanation, even if it can’t be tested in a laboratory.• What, then, is the common goal of religion and science? Nothing other than exploring our matrix.In response to the above observation, I’d like to offer a second point. I believe there is great merit in the believer remaining rooted in the scriptures and traditions of his or her faith.Atheists tell me, “Everyone makes his or her own meaning”. That may be true — even inevitable — but it isn’t very helpful if someone is looking for a place to begin the process of “exploring our matrix”.One can follow Descartes, I suppose, and try to begin with step one — a blank slate. But I think postmodernism has pretty much put the lie to that naive, idealistic notion. Everyone begins somewhere, even if they kid themselves and say they don’t.The believer begins with scripture and tradition. Not uncritically — you and I are, again, agreed on that point. But scripture and tradition is our starting point, from which we enter into dialogue with other folks who begin from a different starting point.

  • Carlos

    I don’t know if this comes out in the book, but in a lecture Kitcher once claimed that Darwin draws fire from socially conservative Christians because he’s the only part of the Enlightenment legacy that is mandated in public schools. There are far more interesting and probing criticisms of traditional monotheism — Spinoza and Hume, to say the least! — but one can go one’s whole life without even hearing about them, much less knowing anything about them. Whereas that’s not the case for Darwin. I agree with you and with Stephen that the experience of transcendence, of surrendering to something other than oneself, plays and ought to play a central role in these discussions. Joel Kovel, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, defines “spirit” in his History and Spirit as “what happens when the boundaries of the self give way.” It’s experiential, or if you want to get fancy, phenomenological. Creationists and fundamentalists are reluctant to defend themselves on experiential grounds, it seems to me, for two reasons. The first is that they want to lay claim to the mantle of authority that comes with objectivity and so with science. The second is a worry that putting too much emphasis on experience simply opens the door to subjectivism and irrealism — i.e. the privatization and so trivialization of religion. I find it striking that the debate about the ethics of belief really hasn’t moved from the shape it took in the debate between W.K. Clifford and William James.

  • For some reason I’m reminded of what George Ellis, the Quaker cosmologist, said when awarded the Templeton Prize. It was something about overcoming the ‘calculus of rationality.’ Having struggled for a long time against the apartheid regime in South Africa, he felt there was nothing ‘rational’ about what ended up happening there. It would have been rational to give up in despair and expect a bloodbath, he said.I’m also reminded of my father, who lived through the Nazi regime and narrowly escaped the Red Army; he became a refugee and wasn’t able to revisit his homeland for about fifty years. For him, religious ideas like apocalypse, Exodus, Babylonian exile, and resurrection had a rock-solid reality. My sense is that Kitcher would say: spiritual or existential religion can speak of such things, but it mustn’t be allowed to believe in them literally and become supernatural religion. But how much does that distinction matter in the real lives of most real people?I guess what I’m trying to articulate is this: for a university professor living in a university town, putting together a tidily consistent and rational worldview which can be boiled down to a set of equations written on the back of an envelope would have a certain appeal. But I can’t imagine that project being very interesting to the majority of people on this planet. And I’m not sure how much use that rational worldview would be when the chips were down. (On this last point I may be too much influenced by Dr. Paul Farmer.)Anyways, I’m just rambling incoherently. H. Allen Orr’s review of Kitcher’s book is more interesting: http://www.powells.com/review/2007_08_20.htmlOrr's an evolutionary geneticist and an agnostic. Still, he seems to think Kitcher gets a bit muddled on religion.