Enlightenment – pure Reason displaces Christian doctrine

this 2100 word post constitutes the fifth section of seven for the Pamphlet, 21st Century Tract.

The Enlightenment is a period of history which marked a decisive intellectual shift away from Christian thinking. It provided intellectuals with a rational basis for distancing themselves away from the centrality of God in human affairs toward the centrality of humans themselves. It eschewed the framework of thinking associated with God, and turned instead to reason, to logic and to the empirically provable knowledge of the natural sciences. While there was certainly an intellectual reaction against the Enlightenment in Romanticism, the fundamental shift had occured and continued to influence philosophy, politics and economics as we shall see in the next two posts, Follow On and Going Forward – the final sections of this polemic titled “21st Century Tract”.

The essential intellectual and philosophical seed of the Enlightenment is evident in Rene Descartes assertion, Cogito ergo sum – Latin for “I think therefore I am”. As one leading academic has stated, this was the launchpad for modern epistemology. What is epistemology. Well it is a sub branch of metaphysics, and metaphysics is that domain of philosophy which the 2011 Concise Oxford dictionary defines as:

the branch of philosophy concerned with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being and knowing

Epistemology specifically is defined as:

the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity and scope

In other words, how do we know what we know; looking behind what we know to why and how we know it – at the mental modelling and perceptions we apply.

Christianity had taught that the Bible gave us guide book to the spiritual realities which underpin our existence. Christianity held that the teaching and example of Jesus Christ gave us the fundamental moral and philosophical reference points for law and culture.

But Christianity suffered from corruption in the official Church – its manifest worldliness and sinfulness. In other words, Christians were hypocrites who did not live what they espoused. The Reformation provided an antidote by asserting

  • the fundamental importance of the Bible, not the Church
  • individual interpretation, not official Church interpretation
  • the necessity for individual faith, not just collective ecclesiastical ritual

That had a critical impact in preparing the scene for the Enlightenment because it challenged authoritarian Orthodoxy. The Roman Catholic Church was no longer necessarily considered to be the final arbiter of Christian thought and practice. Final authority lay with the original teaching of Christ and the apostles – and its understanding belonged to the individual believer.

This doctrinal divide also caused a social and political fracture between the Roman Church and Protestantism which resulted in ideological, indeed literal warfare. Christianity was again exposed as hypocritical, and a threat to civilisation.

In this context, Rene Descartes asserted a different reference point for human knowledge and understanding. “I think, therefore I am”. From there, it was a short step to the Enlightenment’s rejection of a God who claims to be active and involved in this world.

Many leading figures of the Enlightenment did not reject a general, vague idea of God. They saw themselves as deists. They rejected all the known religions of men, and resorted to the essential notion of a Creator who made the world, but then left it to carry on working without God’s intervention. That made sense in a world where human beings continued to kill each other in the name of religion. But it stripped God of the essential “I AM” meaning. God must be ever present, all powerful and all knowing. God by definition cannot be divorced from creation and the affairs of human beings. That would deny God’s nature and God’s concern for human beings, a concern epitomised in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Deism was the position espoused by the Enlightenment apostle, Thomas Paine. He therefore denied the validity of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In his Age of Reason, Paine rejected those religions outright. In reality he rejected God, and his defence of the French Revolution in his Rights of Man reveals not just Thomas Paine’s mindset and mentality, but that of the Enlightenment:  uncompromisingly committed to Social Justice, whatever the cost.

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man resounds down the years. It has informed the most fundamental assumptions and morals of today’s western intellectuals. To read it, is to understand the liberal Left, “politically correct” mindset ruling the institutions of modern society – from the highest judicial authorities in the English speaking world through to the western Universities.

Enlightenment thinking has triumphed and so Christianity is derided and disdained. Any one articulating a Christian stance today is treated as strange, if not indeed as a threat to society. Supposedly conservative politicians in the west today actually serve the new agenda; they have lost all respect for the Christian moral tradition and for any theistic conception of our universe.

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man is now treated as Gospel truth; it has displaced and replaced the Bible in the moral assumptions and mental models of the western intelligentsia.

1. What does it say ?

2. What does it not say ?

3. What does it reveal to us of the zeitgeist of the western intelligentsia in this third decade of the 21st century ?

1. What does it say ?

Thomas Paine condemned the existing Order of his day, root and branch. He condemns monarchy, aristocracy, church and the immoral indifference to the material welfare of the poor. He does not mince his words. He speaks plainly, pertinently and radically. He mocks the patent shortcomings of the existing Order, but he is not just negative. He has a very postive and constructive agenda in mind. It is according to this agenda that he makes his criticisms.

Paine sets up the radically new presumptions and paradigm of the Rights of Man. For example, he cites verbatim the French Declaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen.

Paine establishes the need of the new Ideal by diagnosing the fundamental failings of the existing Order. Monarchy figures prominently and we need only reflect on his treatment of that issue to make a critical and telling observation.

Paine makes very credible criticisms. Very rational and comprehensible criticisms. A person who becomes king or queen is unlikely to be suited to the task. It is a mere lottery of birth. Indeed, it is nonsense to have a child on the throne. And how did kings come by their power and authority in the first place ? They took it ! They therefore rule by fear not consent, and they maintain their rule by violence. The logic is then, that they must be deprived of their position and power by force, if necessary, in order to establish a socially just and equitable government. The immoral position of monarchs cannot be tolerated, and the right thing to do must be to replace them with a constitution enshrining rights for all, regardless of birth.

Today, constitutional government in accordance with democratic values is taken as normal and right. This writer agrees wholeheartedly with democracy. What I do not agree with is the dangerous and unrealistic mindset at work today, a mentality we owe to the likes of Thomas Paine and his Rights of Man.

Paine’s willingness to see kings toppled by violence because of social injustice is a dangerous mentality. Subsequent historical events have demonstrated this danger as real and dramatically destructive of human life, as will be outlined in the next in this series, number 6, “Follow On”.

Because of this mentality the French ended up killing a moderate and reforming monarch who had sought desperately to solve his country’s problems. The real meaning of Paine’s mentality was amply demonstrated in the subsequent murderous Terror followed by the emergence of the dictator and Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.

The psychology behind “the ends justify the means” mentality is demonstrably dangerous. What rational Reason may readily justify, the psychological realities of human nature reject as dangerous and impractical, indeed counter productive.

Such reliance on Reason and rational, logical thinking also flags up the limitations of Paine’s analysis. He goes back to the origins and grounds of Authority. He asserts that they are founded on no more than the success of the biggest bully baron of the day. The entire monarchical and indeed aristocratical edifice is based on the fundamentally immoral basis that Authority is held and exercised by people who are the descendants of the worst but most successful gangsters of their day.

Compelling stuff.

2. What does Paine not say?

But Paine overlooks the complete picture about the realities of power and its exercise. By going back to the origins, Paine simply rules out all consideration of what happened in the intervening centuries. Which is why his analysis leads to his simplistic and idealistic conclusion, and that in turn leads in the real world with real human beings to the opposite of what Paine is seeking to establish. So the French ended up with the Terror, and then with Napoleon, and subsequently with the restoration of monarchy – just as the English had done 150 years before.

The English experience of a Republic and then the Restoration of Monarchy should have been a warning to Paine about the nature of his analysis; but like all Idealists he refused to see the reality of human nature in the cumulative historical record of what people are really like.

The multitude of his disciples today do the same. Like Paine they are completely oblivious to the wrong which they perpetrate by their blind adherence to Principle and Logic alone.

Power was indeed taken violently. Power is indeed held by force. This is all true, which is what makes Paine so compelling. But it is not the whole truth, as the English learned from the Cromwellian Protectorate and Restoration of their Monarchy.

Edmund Burke endeavoured to point out the whole truth in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, but Thomas Paine refused to engage with what Burke wrote. Instead Paine dismissed Burke; trashed his reputation; and simply refused to engage with the very real issues which Burke had highlighted.

3. The same still happens today.

Major decisions with fundamental consequences are taken by politicians and lawyers on the basis of Thomas Paine’s erroneous thinking which trashes, ignores and indeed censors out of consideration the sort of practical thinking demonstrated by Edmund Burke.

The UK Supreme Court provides a good example in its handling of legal cases contesting Brexit. There were 3 major court cases, all argued by one of the most brilliant lawyers in Britain today, Lord David Pannick QC.

In each case, the Court ignored the existing, traditional understanding of the British/ English Constitution. Instead the thinking and the decision of the Supreme Court reflected the mentality and mindset of Thomas Paine. Paine regarded the accumulated experience of centuries as recorded in historical and legal annals as mere “musty records and mouldy parchments” which therefore have no relevance to a just and fair society today.

All 3 Supreme Court decisions contradicted not just the norms of the way in which the Constitution was always understood and applied; they also contradicted the democratic vote of the British people in the June 2016 Referendum on membership of the European Union.

In contradicting both the decision of the ballot box on the specific issue and contradicting the Constitution,  the Supreme Court threatened the very stability of the nation. All eleven Justices patently gave priority to their personal Ideological predisposition in favour of membership of the European Union.

That is typical of Thomas Paine’s thinking.

  1. it deletes all consideration of any thinking and facts which don’t accord with its thesis
  2. it is then left with whatever can be construed to endorse its predisposition
  3. the resulting unanimity of the duly selected evidence proves them right
  4. so having “all” the evidence on their side, they deem themselves justified in imposing on every one else what they believe, at whatever cost

In short, their Moral End always justifies the use of any immoral means to rid the world of Injustice and Inequality and thereby ensure the establishment of a fair and equal Order.

Thomas Paine refused point blank to consider the vast majority of the very real concerns raised by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Instead of engaging with reality; instead of engaging with the historical evidence cited by Burke and engaging with a realistic understanding of human nature, Paine smears Edmund Burke continually. Indeed,  Paine’s Rights of Man opens with a diatribe condemning Edmund Burke, and continues this smearing at intervals thereafter. In fact, Paine’s disciples have been doing the same to any one who disagrees with them ever since.