At times, I cannot help feeling as if there were something quaint, something vaguely archaic, about the public debate over religion and science today. It is as though we were back in the Oxford of 1860 when Thomas Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, debated Bishop Wilberforce at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (and, by implication, the Retrenchment of Religion).
There is a myth that lies in the background of the debate. By ‘myth’ I do not mean fiction as opposed to fact (as when we say that it is a myth that everyone in England takes tea at four o’clock in the afternoon). I am using the word roughly in the sense in which the word mythos was used in ancient Greece: a foundational story, a story that is constitutive of a whole way of looking at things. In this sense of the word, the Enlightenment has become a contemporary myth. It gives us a story that defines modernity or a certain idea of what modernity consists in.
In this story, religion is antithetical to modernity. It is true that the Enlightenment, for the most part, was deist rather than atheist, maintaining that nature was created by a supernatural Mind. But deism was essentially God without religion. At any rate, it was God withoutrevealed, organized religion: God as a postulate of reason, not an article of faith. Moreover, having kick-started the world, God was largely seen as surplus to requirement. It is a small step from ‘not being at all needed’ to ‘not being at all’: from deism to atheism.
In the contemporary myth that the Enlightenment has become, the forces of reason and unreason do battle with each other. It is a battle fought on three fronts which, very roughly, are as follows: secularity versus religion, freedom versus censorship, science versus myth. (So, this is a myth that is incapable of recognizing itself as myth; for if it did it would contradict its own storyline.)
To an extent, as we learn from the historian Peter Gay, this was the Enlightenment’s own myth of itself:
The philosophes (thinkers who were exponents of Enlightenment ideas) liked to visualize themselves reenacting historic battles, to denounce religious fanaticism and popularize Newton wrapped in the toga of Cicero or Lucretius. This is how they gave their polemics the dignity of an age-old struggle between reason and unreason, a struggle that had been fought and lost in the ancient world and was now being fought again, this time with good prospect of success (The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, vol. 1, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966, p. 32).
However, the fit of myth to reality in the eighteenth century was better than in the twenty-first. Take the issue of freedom versus censorship. Naturally, the philosophes tended to align this issue with the opposition between the secular and the religious; or more precisely, the secular and the clerical. The hands of the church were all over the body of the state: power was wielded with a devout fist. Thephilosophes had no record, memory or experience of secular regimes. They were innocents. We, with Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mussolini’s Italy, Mao Tse Tung’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, etc., etc., in our past: we are not. We know better. We know that gloom can come from light; that the bliss of dawn can turn to darkness at noon. Time has spawned tyrants of a different stripe from the ones the philosophes knew, tyrants that many of them would have thought inconceivable.
And yet, the seeds of such tyranny were also sown at the time. Barely four years after the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the Reign of Terror, with its notorious guillotine, became the cutting edge of enlightenment.
Thus, the conjunction between two of the signature struggles of the Enlightenment – the secular versus the religious and freedom versus censorship – was coming apart at the seams from the outset. With the passage of time, they become what they are today: two separate issues that sometimes overlap, not two fronts (or sides) of the same conflict. (It is useful to recall that Index on Censorship was first published in 1972 as a response to the show trials of dissidents by the secular Kremlin – not by the Vatican or a theocratic regime.)
The difference made by time is even more profound on another front: the fight the philosophes waged against myth (belief, faith, superstition) in the name of science. This is not a fight that can simply be carried forward from their era to ours, if only because the very meaning of the terms over which they fought has been altered in the heat of intellectual battle.
Certain contemporary believers (known as Creationists) muddy the logical waters by treating the first chapter of Genesis as though it were a contribution to natural science. Certain non-believers, like Richard Dawkins, do likewise when they speak of ‘The God Hypothesis’ (chapter two of The God Delusion) or say: “So the most basic claims of religion are scientific. Religion is a scientific theory” (‘Lecture from “The Nullifidian”‘, December 1994). Such ‘modernists’ (if I may so call them) sit at the same table as the creationists – but on opposite sides. Both sides agree that Darwin and Moses are at loggerheads; it’s just that they disagree about who is right. From where I am standing, I would not weep if Moses were to visit a plague on both their houses.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the Oxford of 1860, let alone the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Today, it is not religion as such that is a threat to freedom of expression or the unfettered pursuit of truth, but any totalitarian system of thought, whether religious or secular, traditional or modern. There is no future for a public debate that is stuck in the rut of the past. Nor can today’s disagreements be resolved by fighting yesterday’s battles.