Can religious conservatives really embrace the Enlightenment?

A few years back I had a long-running argument with an American friend. Freshly shocked by what I perceived to be the weak and compliant media coverage of the Iraq invasion, I was adamant that the popular American news media was a long way right of centre. My conservative friend shoved Dan Rather in my face, hissing that I had it all wrong.

The one thing upon which we did agree, however, was that we both wanted to see a liberal media in the Middle East. What Islam needed was an al-Mother Jones, with overt liberal bias the imagined panacea for the excesses and idiocies of conservative (/extremist) Islam. The liberal media in the US may be anti-American (sic), but their (non-existent) cousins in the Middle East would bring about Every Good Thing if only we could wish them into existence. Conservatism, in other words, was noble so long as the thing being conserved was good, whereas liberalism was universally good for them (because their conservatism is bad).

A comment over at Times and Seasons took me back to all of this. David Clark believes that Islam needs “to rewind the tape to Avicenna.” Avicenna was a 10th century Muslim intellectual, a paragon, one imagines, of what is “good” in Islam, the bygone totem of an Islam which has been replaced by less enlightened souls. Taking Avicenna as a new starting point, Islam (according to David) needs to have its own “Enlightenment.” This is a view one hears quite often and I broadly share it.

Not so fast. For 18th century Enlightenists, “reason” was the route to Elysium, with the enemies of reason being tradition, superstition, tyranny, and dogmatism. It is not hard to see how these follies poison and disgrace a decent proportion of the Islamic religion and its adherents. If the Enlightenment can overcome such goonishness, bring it on. But what I want to know is this: how far are Mormon (or Christian and other Western) religionists comfortable with applying the Enlightenment to their religion.

My interest is genuine (i.e. not some rhetorical trap). I just spent a few days riding the Tube catching up with the BYU Studies Magic Flute issue. Many of the authors see Mormon theology in the Masonic/Enlightenment values espoused in the Schikaneder/Mozart opera and I certainly see much in Mormonism that offers a liberal and enlightened view of God and man. On the other hand, Mormonism has its fair share of superstition and dogma. Would the Enlightenment see Mormons as part of the pre-modern “sacred circle” (and thus part of the problem), and would it shake its head at the irony of Mormons hoping to see enlightenment in others (but not in themselves)? Or would we be invited to the table of Osiris, compass in hand, reason in mind?


  1. truebluethru'n'thru says:

    Froms antiquity to the post-modern west: I once read maybe the first fifth of an exhaustive survey of European historical works covering well-before the Bede to well-into the Renaissance. What I picked up from it is that western “historians” showing the earliest Renaissance inklings (where I stopped reading the dusty book) were folks’ studying condemned Pagan literature (brought to the West by Muslim copyists) and buying into its Pagan worldview, including believing its mythology. However, Socrates’ death sentence at the hands of more conventionally devout Pagans was justified (wink)…because, with the advent of education for Western sons (those not destined for the priesthood) in the Liberal Arts, the Ancients’ myths came to be cordoned off as myth while an evolving philosophy of God instead came to be thought of as true theology.

    Then from Avicenna to the now-so-nationalistically-“tribal” middle east: Wikipedia says Avicenna memorized the Qur’an by the time he was seven: wow. In any case, a book (by Fethullah Gulen) lent me by Turkish friends mentions that in the East there instead came to be a backlash against earlier Ottoman learning, grounded as it had been within various syntheses of Classical thought with Qur’anic revelation (and then critiques of these syntheses), and so there had come to be instead a vast revival of the study of exacting requirements of religious laws or Shariae alongside the caliph’s expansion of the madrasa system (where the Qur’an is memorized) at the expense of what had perhaps been fewer but more liberal of schools.
    I say: Ah diversity; so the world has a Saudi kingdom (and the Mormon church and BYU) and it has more secular of liberal Universities! (
    In syntheses of human beliefs with reason, too much of a concern with some ideal consistency is but an Emersonian hobgoblin of small minds?)

  2. I see little discomfort in applying Enlightenment principles to Mormonism as long as *my* definitions are used — who would support superstition, tyranny, and dogmatism having place in Mormonism? (Tradition is okay, as long as we recognize it for what it is — there would seem to be little harm in my wearing a sunbonnet on July 24 if I want to, as long as I don’t prescribe it as mandatory for others.)

    But I could be very uncomfortable if somebody else’s definitions were used — if sustaining the prophet were defined as tyranny, or the atonment as superstition, or tobacco abstinence as dogmatism.

  3. > “Can religious conservatives really embrace the Enlightenment?”

    No. But for no “good” reason other than their own close-mindedness. And it’s their loss, since the Enlightenment shares so much with the gospel. When they reject (most) Enlightenment ideas and ideals, they are also rejecting some (of the best parts of) the gospel.

  4. Ronan, you need to re-read your Burke again. Conservatism is a creature of the Enlightenment just as much as liberalism.

    There is nothing conservative about Pat Robertson or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ultra religious people are utopians. Nothing could be less conservative than utopians.

  5. Brad Kramer says:

    Well put, Hellmut.
    Scriptural literalism is a child of and not a reaction against the Enlightenment. Even those literalists who believe their creationism to be a rejection of modern science have no idea how dependent their reading of creation texts is on a distinctly modernist framework. Their’s is a reading only possible within the discursive context of a post-Cartesian episteme.

  6. Of course, religious fundamentalists can embrace the enlightenment. They would just cease to be fundamentalists.

    Initially, fundamentalist Protestants such as the Pietists were closely aligned with the enlightenment because they shared the notion that mass education would bring people closer to the Truth.

    Only when it turned out that biblical literalism would not hold up to rational enquiry, did Pietists break ranks with the enlightenment and reject “worldly” education as “the arm of flesh.”

    The same themes are still reverberating throughout contemporary fundamentalism including our own religion.

    The biography of Jung Stilling is probably a model case for the tensions that can emerge between an enlightenment and fundamentalist attitude.

  7. Thanks, Brad. I think it is telling that fundamentalists are so upset with Charles Darwin even though his theory validates the fallen condition mankind. It is probably no accident that both Darwin and Thomas Malthus were trained Anglican theologians.

    The religious populists of their age were much closer to Rousseau’s ideas than traditional Christianity. They believed fervently in progress through education, which would in turn bring about better compliance with the Bible.

    In Edmund Burke’s sense, Charles Darwin and Thomas Malthus with their appreciation for human limitations are actually the real conservatives.

    Today, of course, those who advance Darwin’s and Malthus’s ideas are considered godless tree huggers by the religious right. It is probably no accident that the spokespeople of the religious right are rarely theologians.

    They tend to be lawyers and journalists and I doubt that the few preachers among the ranks of their national spokespeople would be able to read Biblical texts in the original language.

    I have not read enough bin Laden but it seems to me that Islamic fundamentalism shares with Protestant fundamentalism the commitment to political utopianism and the absence of skepticism about human nature (when it comes to members of their own movements).

    In the USA, the Enlightenment religious movements led a relatively sheltered live, especially in the agrarian sectors of the country, the South and the Midwest. In Europe that was impossible because the fierce competition among powerful states required the rapid social and technological innovation.

    That’s why Pietists are marginalized in Europe but Baptists and others can be a power in the United States. It’s not that there are not opponents of evolution and sex education in Europe. They just are not allowed to influence policy because in the past such behavior would have undermined national security.

    With respect to Islam, the problem stems entirely from the weakness of the Arab states. If Arab states could provide public goods such as the rule of law, an educated population, national security and markets then people would be in a position to individually benefit from the fruits of enlightenment.

    Until then, it makes sense that people organize around religion in pursuit of their self-interest because religion is one of the few domains that their incompetent, corrupt, and overbearing governments cannot subdue.

    Unfortunately, modernization does not make much sense for Arab states. For starters, they can rely on oil revenues rather than taxing their populations. Second, whatever they do in pursuit of national security can be undone by the United States.

    Therefore, state leaders lack any incentive to improve the capacity of their states, which radicalizes their people because their needs remain unsatisfied.

  8. Brad Kramer says:

    Unfortunately, modernization does not make much sense for Arab states. For starters, they can rely on oil revenues rather than taxing their populations.

    Bingo. Taxation is fundamental to the modernization of nation-states, and “no taxation without representation” (as the Anglo-American Enlightenment well taught us) is no less critical than “no representation without taxation.”

  9. Can religious conservatives embrace the enlightenment? To answer that you would have to be more specific about the “religion” being considered for conserving or enlightening.

    But what I want to know is this: how far are Mormon (or Christian and other Western) religionists comfortable with applying the Enlightenment to their religion.

    Ardis replied as I would, but for discussion purposes, it might be helpful if you could clarify the extent or intent of how you would want religionists to “apply” it.

    Would the enlightenment see Mormons as part of the sacred circle?

    Joseph Smith said “…that the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day Saints…are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.”

    In my understanding, Mormonism as a religion doesn’t fall within the criteria of sacred circleness.

    While I’m sure that some Mormons may be fairly un-enlightened, I don’t think it is fair or accurate to portray them all that way any more than it would be to say that all who practice Islam are extremists.

    Dogma isn’t necessarily a nasty word because every religion is founded upon some form of core doctrine(s). The gospel of Jesus Christ and its principles and doctrine are eternal and unchanging even though mankind has historically NOT been able to “conserve” or observe it entirely. Lucky for us He was well aware that would be the case :)

  10. I’m with Ardis on this one. And I think there have been times when dogmatism has been more prominent in Mormonism than is now the case.

  11. “The one thing upon which we did agree, however, was that we both wanted to see a liberal media in the Middle East. What Islam needed was an al-Mother Jones, with overt liberal bias the imagined panacea for the excesses and idiocies of conservative (/extremist) Islam. The liberal media in the US may be anti-American (sic), but their (non-existent) cousins in the Middle East would bring about Every Good Thing if only we could wish them into existence.”

    Ummm…sorry to burst your bubble, but this kind of media already exists in the Middle East. Al-Akhbar in Lebanon, al-Masry al-Youm in Egypt, and yes, Al-Jazeera in Qatar (though the current diplomatic rapproachment between Qatar and Saudi Arabia may well be stifling Jazeera recently). These and others represent genuine independent voices that seek to root out corruption and promote values of open discussion and examination of domestic, regional, and foreign challenges. Of course, that means they end up getting castigated because their line on the US and Israel is inevitably (and correctly) that they are major problems and impediments to further development, what with their tendency to bomb countries to smithereens (usually in mutual connivance) and to support dictators. Those dictators by the way have lots of “liberal” media too, just look to the state owned papers like al-Ahram for example of ossified “liberalism”. In contrast, a “conservative” paper like the now defunct al-Dastour (also in Egypt) for all its low-brow tabloid-like language managed to do far more to open up the public space to discussions of genuine problems than anything the standard Arabic “liberal” fare that gets feted by US columnists ever did.

  12. Sorry, I meant “al-Shaab” — organ of the also defunct Labor Party (Islamist) — not al-Dastour on that last point.

  13. Not too comfortable, Ronan. But of course, everyone at BCC could have easily guessed that.

  14. truebluethru'n'thru says:

    Sure, sometimes there’s warfare of peoples or else of ideas resulting in a survival their fittest. Yet isn’t such a thing sort of fallen in its intrinsic nature, and isn’t it rather mere skirmishes that instead end in compromise or a truce that provides the best value to society and culture: that is, a dialectic?

    If no particular form of religious practice is itself ultimately of transendence(????) but rather perhaps whatever is its underlying meaning…; and if such meaning is ultimately beyond human understanding; then such meaning makes up, by very definition, “the mysteries of God.”

    And, to the extent that those who are religious give respect to such belief in an individual manifestion within their culture of these transendent mysteries and then give a sincere critique of whatever arguments as call such belief into question, such a critique provides a useful societal function. All the same, human beings’ finest efforts toward some inkling of the meaning, and toward a determination of inherent gradiations, fine or coarse, of value therein, etc., can make for a facinating interplay and beautiful dance between these partners: faith-with-intellect?

  15. Hellmut
    I know my Burke, thanks. As the title suggests, this post intends to explore any irony inherent in, and the justification of, religious conservatives on our side wishing for greater religious liberalism on their side. Religious conservatism as opposed to Burke’s conservatism is the point. I know the first couple of paragraphs mix metaphors slightly, but I think the difference ought to be clear. If it still irks you, play around with the labels so you can best describe the situation.

    I’m delighted that the Middle East has an army of domestic liberal publications holding their rulers’ feet to the fire. That is good news.

  16. truebluethru'n'thru says:

    Many a western liberalizer prays (I know: a classical conservatives in tandem with an egalitarianism-motivated, paternalistic statist opponent): “May God help humanity establish equitable law and effect a balanced social order.”

    While a socially and economically “comfortable” religionist silently whispers, “God, soften hearts to help establish the social order according to your revealed commands.”

    (…And a likewise well-situated socialist softly petitions, “Idealized Socialism, help the subjugated classes throw off the yokes and opiates of the bourgeoisie.”)

    But, a survival-of-the-fittest of the hard right (either a socially subjugated nationalist/patriot or a fearful religionist in dire straits) according to long tradition, loudly intones, “Rain fire upon my enemies!” (And the hard-left/Stalinist, same diff!)

  17. 7: “That’s why Pietists are marginalized in Europe but Baptists and others can be a power in the United States. It’s not that there are not opponents of evolution and sex education in Europe. They just are not allowed to influence policy because in the past such behavior would have undermined national security.”

    I don’t really buy this. There were lots of awfully agrarian states in Europe that, after say 1700 or 1800 were little involved in security competition–like, say, Sweden (post Poltava). You understimate the degree to which piestism and fundamentalism are reactions against perceptions of self-interested elite authority and control, which make any religious experience seem inauthentic. (This is certainly evident as far back as 1639 and the Scottish National Covenant.) Due to state (or at least ‘establishment’) control over the churches, these movements were put down or otherwise hampered as challenges to elite power, rather than national security considerations. To a good extent, this also explains the strength of agnosticism and atheism in Europe–with the decline of respect for authority in general, the national and state churches declined. But the state churches earlier derogations of pietists and really at this point any ‘believer’ stuck.

  18. Sweden was actually among the most innovative states, TMD, probably outdone only by the Dutch Republic.

    Contrary to your impression, I am very much aware of the egalitarian impulse of religious movements during the eighteenth century, hence their emphasis on education.

    However, the commitment to reason and education had to take a back seat for fundamentalist movements when Biblical literalism was not rationally sustainable any longer.

    As for the state churches, they could have been more fundamentalist and literalist themselves.

    Instead rulers chose to shield the academy from religious intrusion. In an intensely competitive inter-state environment, it would have been disadvantageous to continue the religious supremacy over printing, teaching, and research.

    Remember that during the seventeenth century, printing presses in France and England were tightly controlled by the state churches. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century that became impossible, mostly because of acute and potential inter-state war.

    That is especially obvious in the British and the Prussian cases.

  19. Indeed, Sweden was innovative, but not for national security reasons. Certainly not after Poltava, when it gave up on trying to be a great power. Much the same can be said for the Netherlands–once their existence was fairly secure (so, by the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, at latest) they can’t be said to have been a state under constant threat in a way that would generate strong pressures to innovate in ways contrary to religion. So the cause must be found elsewhere. Also notably, the printing press is not terribly well regulated in England or Scotland after the Restoration–indeed, before that, it was only sporadically controlled by the crown. Printed matter from many sides played a great role in the emergence and evolution of the British civil wars 16639-1660, after all–starting with the National Covenant.

    In terms of protecting the academy from religion, really, I’m not at all sure how this would relate to the external security threats of the day. Remember that 18th Century Oxford and Cambridge and Edinburgh were little more than seminaries for the C of E, or finishing schools for gentlemen, who rarely attended their classes (indeed, only Edinburgh had a distinguished faculty, but its strength was really in philosophy and econ, things that at that time were far from a juncture of religion and national security)–and it’s hard to see direct relationships between research there and policy.

    I’m all for 2nd image-reversed explanations, but knowing the history of the time, your whole line of argument makes no sense.

  20. TMD, it is true that Sweden and the Dutch Republic experienced a transformation from dominant to minor powers during the eighteenth century. It does not follow, however, that these countries or anyone else in Europe did not experience profound security pressures.

    After Poltava, Sweden needed to defend its Pomeranian possessions, participated in the armed neutrality, and eventually joined Russia and the German powers in fighting Napoleon. Likewise, after the War of the Spanish Succession the Dutch Republic remained under threat from France and other powers. Eventually, it was taken over by the French Republic.

    If Europe was not at war then there was the threat of war.

    The possibility of war shapes states as profoundly as the presence of war. Small countries in Europe, like Sweden and the Dutch Republic, were constantly threatened by bigger neighbors and had to defend its colonial possessions against other European powers. Likewise, the big powers were in intense competition with one another.

    Although Sweden has not participated actively in a war since 1815, Sweden remains one of the best armed nations in the world. Only Sweden and Switzerland can actually shelter their entire population against weapon of mass destruction exposure.

    I also think that you are underestimating the importance of the academy. The crown depended on personnel educated at universities. Just because the state of education was not impressive by today’s standards that does not mean that it wasn’t a big deal back in the day.

    The princes certainly understood the importance of their universities in the context of their security and mercantilist policies. For purposes of illustration, you might want to read about the French philosopher and fortress engineer Vauban.

    For the theory, I recommend Robert Bates’s short little book Prosperity and Violence.

    The fact remains that European powers do not allow religious fundamentalists to poison public debate with irrational and literalist nonsense. The reason is not the church state. The church state has been the tool to marginalize the fundamentalists (in that sense Harris is entirely wrong about his accusation that religious moderates . The purpose is the welfare of the state.

  21. One problem is that so much in the west is thought of in terms of the Renaissance/Reformation and thus the Enlightenment. Not to disparage all those Utopians who think utopia in terms of the Enlightenment, but there were plenty of Utopians before them. I’d certainly agree that they way they tended to think of Utopia was different. But then arguably the myriad of Utopian schemes after the Enlightenment had far more diversity than analyzing them purely in terms of the Enlightenment suggests.

    I think the biggest problem of the Enlightenment is that it all too often leads to the hammer/nail problem. When all you have is a hammer everything appears a nail.

    Of course I’m not suggesting this is being done to an extreme level. (After all look at all the discussion of Islamic traditions in the thread – something I know little about and thus won’t comment on)

    In any case while it would be impossible to deny the role the Enlightenment (and the rise of hermeneutics as a formal discipline) plays in Biblical literalism, I think one should also realize that there is a definite non-Enlightenment aspect to this. I’d suggest that the key facets of fundamentalism are much more a throwback to pre-Enlightenment utopia schemes rather than schemes best understood in terms of the Enlightenment.

  22. (To give an example to fill out that comment – consider the various groups fleeing to the wilderness to escape the Babylon of popular culture in the centuries of late antiquity)

  23. Clark, wouldn’t you consider those groups adherents of Rousseau’s noble savage concept?

  24. I. Actually the examples of Vauban usefully emphasizes the unimportance of the univerity in relation to national security during the period. Vauban was not trained at, nor so far as I can tell, was he ever employed by, a university. Moreover, it seems unlikely that any of his work would inspire the ire of a fundamtentalist–fundamtentalists generally have little problem with technical or economic research. (Hence, even today, when fundamentalists of any stripe do seek higher education, they are most likely seek it in engineering, applied physics, and medicine. As evidence, look at the background of the leaders of most of the major Islamist groups.)

    II. I have strong doubts that states who adopt a largely defensive posture (SW, NL) and who encountered few wars over two centuries can usefully be considered national security states, wherein the pressures to emulate the most advanced states over-ride everything. This seems to be not more than the tired old neorealist rag. While its true that the armed neutrals have very good defenses, it also seems to be the case that they wear their defenses quite likely. In Switzerland, for example, they have never been able to force a change to a strong state model, or indeed even of a centralized state, unlike the rest of the continent. Surely we should expect government institutions to become more efficient and tailored to the situation before significant and often difficult cultural changes are made? (While the FRG is not centralized in the traditional sense, it is certainly a ‘strong state,’ thanks to its Prussian inheiritance.)

    III. Among the state churches, Sweden’s was among the most Pietistic, for the longest. The relatively closed and deeply moralistic society it promoted was, after all, what Ibsen was reacting against. It was only once unions and social democrats, who opposed the authority of the church (which had often opposed them), rose to power that the Swedish lutherans changed–in good part because the politicians used the states controls over the church to make changes in the church. (For instance, it was Parliament that in 1958 decreed that women would be employed as clergy in the church–which then led to their ordinations the next year.) In this sense, much of it’s character, and the resulting nature of religious discourse within the country, was decisively shaped by the domestic struggle for power–rather than an internationalized struggle for power. This is certainly true in the protestant states; and by the end of the 17th century, the catholic church’s hierarchy is already beyond a literalism that would have influenced the scientific research of the age.

  25. You continue to confuse war for offense and science or reason for the academy, TMD.

    It does not matter where Vauban studied, the fact remains that he did learn geometry, science, and mathematics and that his education provided him with the toolkit to reinvent siege warfare.

    Frankly, I find your fixation with the academy silly.

    It does not matter whether states expand or contract, attack or defend. It’s all war. In fact, Clausewitz argued that defense is the essence of war for the aggressor would like to take over our country entirely peacefully.

    As for Ibsen, he was not even born until after Sweden had been relegated to the periphery of Europe. Had Sweden still played a role in European power politics, he might not have had to content with a backwards church.

    Finally, Robert Bates is not a neo-realist. Nor are Weingast or Douglass North. In fact, it strikes me as odd to accuse a nobel price winner of being old and tired.

    You might be right, TMD, but you will have to come up with more than name calling to stick that label to people that are recognized worldwide as rationalists.

  26. Hellmut,

    I brought up the university/academy because you did…but regardless, no European of the period or after had any problem with any of the things you mentioned were relevant to Vauban’s career.

    The idea that systemic security pressures force states to emulate others or be eliminated is pure neorealism, evident in Waltz’s Theory of International Politics and, before that, in his ’62 Daedalus article. And it’s tired because, frankly, realism is all but dead as an academic theory–all the realists have become neo-classical realists, interested in domestic politics, and as such tacit liberal theorists. But let’s also be clear–North and Weingast are in fact not young or even middle-aged men, and I have no problem calling ideas from decades ago old, and perhaps even tired. Certainly I think a lot of W & N’s ideas about the emergence of domestic political institutions are bad history, if perhaps too-neat theory.

    Note that I mentioned Ibsen because he was a product of a culture which, even a hundred and fifty years after Sweden had quit the race for power, was _still_ deeply pietistic.

  27. should read ‘no european fundamentalist’