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Astonishing Fruits Of The Enlightenment

Andrew Sullivan has another one of his tiresome “Vive La Resistance” posts, this time (indirectly) citing Ms. Mac Donald’s interview with Razib when she is at her most petulant.  For her part, like Sullivan, Ms. Mac Donald sometimes likes to target a faceless “them” who manage to embody every flaw that she perceives in religious conservatives.  First, here’s Mac Donald:

In the American Conservative piece I wanted to offer some resistance to the assumption of conservative religious unanimity. I tried to point out that conservatism has no necessary relation to religious belief, and that rational thought, not revelation, is all that is required to arrive at the fundamental conservative principles of personal responsibility and the rule of law. I find it depressing that every organ of conservative opinion reflexively cheers on creationism and intelligent design, while delivering snide pot shots at the Enlightenment. Which of the astounding fruits of empiricism would these Enlightenment-bashers dispense with: the conquest of cholera and other infectious diseases, emergency room medicine, jet travel, or the internet, to name just a handful of the millions of human triumphs that we take for granted?

But no one assumes “conservative religious unanimity.”  Just as Sullivan fabricates his enemy, the “fundamentalists,” to match his preoccupations, Ms. Mac Donald imagines that there is such a thing as an “assumption of conservative religious unanimity,” which helps her defend the position that she is defending “reason and realism” against superstitious yobs.  In a spirit similar to that Sullivan’s own incensed attack on “fundamentalism” and his claim that this mythical “fundamentalism” is taking over and displacing American conservatism (which is far more ludicrous than Ms. Mac Donald’s more modest critiques), Ms. Mac Donald gives the impression that she is doggedly fighting against the overwhelming religiosity of modern conservatism.  As I have argued earlier today, this overwhelming religiosity is not nearly as great as she makes it out to be. 

I should say that if conservatism were governed by the truths of Christianity and leavened by the wisdom of the Fathers, I think it would generally be all to the benefit of conservatism.  The alternatives have always been an acquiescence in false Enlightenment liberal understandings of human nature and society or an acceptance of the Christian understanding that man is fallen (but capable of virtue) and in need of good order and the conservative wisdom that social organisation arises from inherited customs and structures and not from contract or consent.  When conservatives belittle the Enlightenment, it is normally the social and political theories of the more radical French thinkers that they are targeting, but they are in any case objecting for the most part to false understandings of the origin of society, how polities arise and function and what the rightful sources of legitimacy and authority are.  They object to a distorted understanding of the human person and a tendency of many Enlightenment thinkers to be hostile to rooted, traditional society and its numerous institutions and customs.  They do not reject scientific method, nor do they even necessarily hold an empiricist epistemology in low esteem.  The suggestion that they reject “empiricism” entirely, and the implication that most conservatives form a mass of hidebound ignoramuses who would abandon all scientific advances are both false.  

The strangest part of this charge is the connection between the Enlightenment and, for example, “the conquest of cholera,” since the major thinkers of the Enlightenment did not cure cholera and were not even close to understanding vaccination or many of the principles of public sanitation and hygiene that helped contain outbreaks.  There were still cholera epidemics in the 19th century, many of them in the filthy, overcrowded cities of the industrial era brought to us by technological progress.  In any case, what good, one might ask, did Voltaire’s contempt for Christianity do for people dying of cholera?  That is the part of the Enlightenment that we take pots shot at most of the time, so perhaps it is no wonder that Ms. Mac Donald defends it, but what does that have to do the advance of medical and technological sciences?  Is there a new psychosomatic cure for disease achieved not through prayer, but through mocking God?  Ms. Mac Donald refers to “empiricism,” whence come all these astounding fruits.  Now suppose that we find Leibniz’s “innate ideas” more compelling and more consistent with modern neuroscience than Locke’s tabula rasa?  Do we at least get credit for not rejecting Leibniz’s differential calculus?   

Ms. Mac Donald says that she finds it “depressing” that “every organ of conservative opinion reflexively cheers on creationism and intelligent design while delivering snide pot shots at the Enlightenment.”  But this is simply untrue.  No major conservative magazine “cheers on creationism” as such, much less do they do so “reflexively.”  I have yet to encounter a serious conservative writer or scholar who accepts the Young Earth thesis.  These people do not exist.  There are conservative people writing online who believe this, and there are even academics who believe it, but those aren’t the people Ms. Mac Donald was referring to. 

On ID, National Review has no formal position, and they certainly don’t “cheer” on creationism.  With respect to ID, they have entertained arguments from both sides, but that is hardly “cheering” anything on.  At least one of their more prominent contributors in John Derbyshire has made it his business to basically single-handedly crush Intelligent Design’s pretensions to being science.  It was not a difficult task, and he succeeded quite well.  I am as much of a Counter-Enlightenment man today as you are likely to find under the age of 30, and I have ridiculed ID’s claims to being science on several occasions.  That’s because it isn’t science.  Amusingly, two of the main proponents of this intellectual swindle are none other than the grand old man of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, and the grand dame Gertrude Himmelfarb, as Derbyshire noted last year.  As Derbyshire observed, their boosting of ID as science is entirely cynical and aimed at placating some religious conservatives.  That is hardly evidence of galloping religiosity in “every organ of conservative opinion.”  

I should note that I do not ridicule the possibility of understanding some of the claims of ID as a legitimate philosophical view on the orderliness of the universe and the implications this has for the existence of God, but that is not what ID proponents want when they push for recognition of their “theory.”  ID advocates are people who accept everything about the theory of evolution except the mythology woven around it; in place of that mythology, they would like to posit a different story, equally unproven and unproveable, for perhaps well-intentioned reasons that end up being nonetheless rather silly.  But Ms. Mac Donald might have more in common with ID proponents than she thinks, though, since they, too, enjoy playing the wounded, oppressed victim fighting against a hostile and arrogant establishment. 

As for taking pot shots at the Enlightenment, there isn’t that much of that going around these days.  More’s the pity.  I am fairly sure that I have made myself obnoxious to many movement conservatives because I go out of my way to disparage and ridicule certain assumptions of Locke and some of the more high-flown claims of the Declaration of Independence.  I take snide pot shots at the Enlightenment, but I never cheer on creationism and ID.  I wouldn’t know where to begin.  Do I start by pretending that carbon dating doesn’t exist, or do I start by pretending that saying, “God did it” serves as an acceptable hypothesis?  Neither does my blog constitute much of an “organ of conservative opinion,” though I suppose it is a small one of sorts.  

Anyway, lately it has not been the case that conservatives have been too hard on the Enlightenment–many have rather become its latter-day cheerleaders as a sort of cultural one-upsmanship vis-a-vis Islam.  The Weekly Standard has not, to my knowledge, ever made a snide remark about the Enlightenment.  If they have, it would have to have been rare or fairly mildWhat about American Spectator?  We could inquire, but I am fairly confident that the only place where you might conceivably find respectful consideration of creation science is in a publication like World, and I’m probably not being fair to them when I say that.  Did American Conservative have a big “Yes, The Earth Is Only 4,004 Years Old” editorial and I missed it?  Of course not. 

This is because it is entirely possible to accept that God created everything without having to insist upon the absolute literal interpretation of every number (many of which are clearly symbolic in any case) in the Bible.  It is also possible to accept that God created all living things while also acknowledging that evolution is a plausible explanation for how living beings change over time.  It is possible to despise Voltaire as an impious fool and loathe Locke as a treacherous stockjobbing mountebank and to view their ideas with disdain without insisting that we live in caves and eat raw meat while dying of the plague.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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