Attacks on Religion: Result of Lost Faith in Enlightenment

So argues Richard A. Shweder of the University of Chicago:

The Enlightenment story has its own version of Genesis, and the themes are well known: The world woke up from the slumber of the “dark ages,” finally got in touch with the truth and became good about 300 years ago in Northern and Western Europe.

As people opened their eyes, religion (equated with ignorance and superstition) gave way to science (equated with fact and reason). Parochialism and tribal allegiances gave way to ecumenism, cosmopolitanism and individualism. Top-down command systems gave way to the separation of church from state, of politics from science. The story provides a blueprint for how to remake and better the world in the image and interests of the West’s secular elites.

Unfortunately, as a theory of history, that story has had a predictive utility of approximately zero. At the turn of the millennium it was pretty hard not to notice that the 20th century was probably the worst one yet, and that the big causes of all the death and destruction had rather little to do with religion. Much to everyone’s surprise, that great dance on the Berlin Wall back in 1989 turned out not to be the apotheosis of the Enlightenment.

The editorial is too simplistic and void of evidence, but an interesting speculation.


  1. Jim says

    The difficulty with science and its logical corollory, atheism, is that it requires inquiry. Few people are willing or even have the capability of holding only tentative opinions, subject to revision on further evidence. It is so much easier to hold fast to our ancestors’ gods.

  2. Bob says

    No one wants to admit they’ve been wrong their whole life, even when you have to sound like an idiot in the face of extraordinary. Witness the 50% or so of people in the US who believe the world is 10,000 years old or less. That belief is just plain moronic, but people cling to it.

  3. Grog says

    I personally thought that Shweder has confused several issues.

    First, he assumes that to follow the rational thought and inquiry path that science postulates, one must be an atheist. This is clearly false, many scientists have no difficulty whatsoever with the distinction between their religion and their professional work.

    Second, he describes things in terms of “attack upon religion”, instead of recognizing that science no more “attacks” religion than it does anything else. Where the real clash appears to happen is when science runs up against religious literalism. (e.g. the Creation/ID vs Evolution debate)

    By inflating a disagreement in how two perspectives on the world see things into an “attack”, he has simply validated the “poor persecuted Christian” meme that has been bubbling around for several years, and utterly missed the fact that the two sides are in fact speaking different languages. (even if they use the same words)