Radical & Moderate Enlightenments: Revolution & Reaction, Science & Religion

Biblical historicism and anthropogenic global warming, these are two of the most important issues. They clearly portray the two sides of religion and science, belief vs fact.

I don’t want to get complicated with this post as it would be easy to do so, or at least I don’t want to waste the space explaining the detailed background (something I’ve done many times already). Trying to explain the history, demographics, and psychology behind it all is complex. For my present purposes, I simply want to use these examples to show a trend.

* * * *

I’ve observed many trends in recent years. The trends in biblical studies and climatology interest me because they are so symbolic. Their symbolism allows for a deeper trend to be seen, a trend that I perceive as including or causally related to these many diverse trends.

Over the years, I’ve become aware of how the general public has become increasingly supportive of liberal views, especially what in the past had been considered liberal or even radically leftwing: drug legalization or decriminalization, health care reform with public option or single payer, better government regulation, decreasing inequality, etc.  Oddly, the majority of Americans support these liberal positions even as they label themselves as ‘conservatives’.

So, liberalism has become the new conservatism, by which I mean it is the new public opinion status quo and it is the conservative inclination to defend the status quo. As the old guard of reactionary conservatives dies off and as the younger moderate conservatives come to defend the former liberalism (specifically 20th century liberalism), this will free up the liberal-minded to take on new liberal positions which will be partly defined by the direction in which the leftwing leads.

Nonetheless, the shift isn’t clear. It’s not about liberals defeating conservatives. What is going on is more profound. The very notions of liberalism and conservatism are shifting.

No one can know where to the shift will ultimately lead. If anything, the shift is best understood in terms of something like Spiral Dynamics. Liberals defend science and conservatives defend religion, but not necessarily for intrinsic reasons. Rather, it’s the historical circumstance that puts these two political movements in defense of these two social institutions.

* * * *

Two events got me thinking. First, I was having one of my standard debates about climatology science with a conservative. Second, I was looking at biblical studies books from these past few years. The first is irrelevant other than giving my thinking context for the second.

The book that really got me thinking is a book I haven’t even read, but I did read several very in-depth Amazon.com reviews and the author is someone I’m very familiar with through his other work. The book in question is Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth and the author is Bart D. Ehrman. Even some of the reviewers who agreed with the author’s conclusion didn’t agree with his way of defending it, instead some even thought he had fallen into the traps of apologetics that Ehrman had previously criticized.

Most interestingly, some reviewers noted that it seemed Ehrman was on the defense. This is a new event in biblical studies. Belief in a historical Jesus has been the academic consensus, given that most biblical studies academics are believers and those who aren’t believers are typically former believers. Biblical studies is the only academic field that is so dependent on belief, as both a starting and ending point. The field itself and many if not most academics in it began with apologetics, Ehrman included.

Another academic that began with apologetics is Robert M. Price. Like Ehrman, Price went from believing apologist to non-believing scholar, the apologetics having led to the academic study which in turn led to doubt. The difference between Ehrman and Price is that the former couldn’t let go of the last remnant of biblical literalism (i.e., belief in a historical Jesus) and the latter could let it go. Price, although often a fence-sitter holding no allegiance to a single theory, has gone even further in recent years. He once held to the historical position until he looked at the mythicist position in detail, but Ehrman apparently has refused to look at it in detail and prefers to protect his beliefs by dismissing out of hand anything that would challenge it. The irony in this is immense considering Ehrman is one of the most well known enemies of apologetics.

Anyway, none of that is my concern here. All that interested me is how it has become clear that the table has turned. Mythicists are no longer on the defense and instead historicists are. The arguments and criticisms presented by mythicists has become an insurmountable challenge, as demonstrated by the increasing number of mythicist scholars – besides Robert M. Price, there is: G.A. Wells, Alvar Ellegard, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, D.M. Murdock, etc. Add to this the Gnosticism scholars and the disagreement with academic consensus keeps growing.

* * * *

Consensus is an interesting thing in academia.

As I pointed out, biblical studies is the only academic field so fully dominated by believers. The contrast with climatology is immense. Conservatives agree with the biblical studies consensus despite the lack of evidence and conservatives disagree with the climatology consensus despite the surplus of evidence. Their criticisms of science are inconsistent and self-serving. They aren’t being anti-intellectual out of principle (as Richard Hofstadter pointed out, no one is ever anti-intellectual about all issues). Conservatives simply realize that in certain cases the facts contradict their beliefs and so they pragmatically prioritize the latter, even as giving lip-service to the former.

Belief and fact are two very different worldviews. We have lived in a world, despite all the changes, that has remained held in check by ancient beliefs. However, we are finally coming to a point when those ancient beliefs are being challenged.

This is tremendous. Even many non-believers have been unwilling or undesirous of challenging the belief in a historical Jesus. Almost everyone wants a historical Jesus, just as long as it is their preferred version – for example: God born in human form to save mankind, travelling philosopher, enlightened wisdom teacher, failed apocalyptic preacher, political revolutionary, etc. To challenge this belief is to challenge a core assumption of all western civilization.

* * * *

There is one historical detail I will add as my concluding thought. I add it partly for the simple reason that it comes from another book I’m reading: Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan Israel. As I said, I want to avoid the complexity to the extent I can, but I feel compelled to give a brief view of it.

There was no single Enlightenment (the reason for why there is no single classical liberalism, i.e., liberalism prior to the 20th century; also, why there still is no single liberalism; and, furthermore, why there is no single conservatism). Radical Enlightenment, according to Israel, began in the 17th century with Spinoza; and the proponents of the Radical Enlightenment (such as Paine) led to the reformist progressive liberals and paved the way for socialism. The moderate Enlightenment was a reaction to the radical Enlightenment and led to what Corey Robin calls ‘reactionary conservatism’.

I bring this up to clarify a point. We all are children of the Enlightenment, liberals and conservatives alike. This relates to Hofstadter’s observation that no one is absolutely and consistently anti-intellectual, at least not any modern post-Enlightenment person. The point that is clarified by Israel’s book is that the moderate Enlightenment proponents were wary of reason even as they respected it. They wanted the positive results of reason, but they also wanted to make sure reason was subjugated to religious belief, to hierarchical authority, and to social order. They didn’t want to destroy the aristocracy, just re-create it so that it would be less oppressive and more meritocratic. Both sides argued for reason, although one side argued more radically.

As such, we are still fighting the battle between the radial Enlightenment and the moderate Enlightenment. Should faith be subjugated to reason? Or should reason be subjugated to faith? Should we follow reason as far as it will go? Or should we withhold reason when it gets too close to what we deem fundamental?

For the first time in American history, the radical Enlightenment may be getting a foothold in public opinion and hence in mainstream society. Religion has never been weaker and science has never been stronger.

* * * *

If my observations are correct, this will be an earth-shaking shift and American society will never be the same again. Most people don’t notice the changes, not even most experts in their respective fields. That is the nature of such changes. They go below the radar for they can’t be understood within the present context. It’s a paradigm shift. The ideas planted centuries ago may be finally coming to fruition or at least experiencing a major growth spurt.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the proposed shift will make those on the left happy. It’s not to say that it will make anyone happy. We will all be challenged by it. The precise results can’t be predicted.

14 thoughts on “Radical & Moderate Enlightenments: Revolution & Reaction, Science & Religion

  1. I recently wrote something on almost the exact same topic with the exact same conclusion, liberalism is shifting and those who remain coherent will change into something unrecognizable.

    • I went over to your blog. I read the recent post you refer to. Interesting to read it after writing my own thoughts on the matter.

      The shift interests me partly because something is beginning to take clear shape as it emerges from the depths. This means that it will become increasingly difficult to ignore even by the most belligerent and clueless.

      As I see it, we are essentially still in the Enlightenment Era. The conflict of past centuries is only now fully coming to a head. The challenge to ancient beliefs has been slow going. Younger Americans right now are the first generation to have a majority of non-believers; non-religious, agnostic, and atheist. I realize that this aspect of the shift has already happened in some Western countries, but it is particularly important that it is happening in America which is a bastion of conservative Christianity.

      The problem with liberalism up until now is that it has been forced to continually fight old battles that refused to go away. However, once those battles begin to fade from the public mind, it will make room for something entirely new. That excites me. The moderate Enlightenment thinkers, the counter-Enlightenment movement, and the reactionary conservatives have been dragging western civilization into pointless battles for all of modern history and even before that.

      There will, of course, be new kinds of pointless battles to be fought. But at least they will be new and different. Or so I hope.

    • When I was writing this, I did have in mind the earlier post I wrote about the Enlightenment. We disagreed a bit, as I recall.

      In that earlier post, I was defending the radical Enlightenment and not the moderate Enlightenment. I was rethinking my views. I can see many reasons to criticize the Enlightenment, but I also see many reasons to criticize the conflation of the radicals and the moderates of the Englightenement.

      The two sides were often at cross-purposes, no more similar or aligned than liberals and conservatives. In fact, there differences are the foundation of the liberal/conservative conflict and the moderate Enlightenment thinkers are the first reactionary conservatives, particularly those reacting to the French Revolution but also all those reacting to the earlier radicals.

      However, even taking the radical Enlightenment thinkers on their own terms, I could imagine there are many reasonable criticisms that could still be made. I just feel like we are so far from even coming close to what they proposed. Imperfect as it may be, their radical visions are still radical even now and would entirely transform our society if ever implemented. Any problems that would occur with such implementation would be problems I’d gladly welcome for at least they would be new problems instead of repeating the same problems from the past.

      I was wondering what a paradigm shift means in light of all this. The Enlightenment project isn’t a past paradigm. It’s not even an established paradigm, at least not in any full sense. It seems to me we are still in the middle of the Enlightenment paradigm shift. It takes a long time from when an idea is originated and presented to when it comes to fruition. I’d love to see a new paradigm come along, but I suspect that isn’t possible until we come to terms with the radical Enlightenment thinkers.

      I agree with your statement that the problems seem a lot less abstract. I think that is because the radical Enlightenment ideas are coming back into public awareness which is forcing the problems to the surface. For centuries, those early radicals were mostly forgotten about, but we are past the point of being able to deny what we’ve inherited from them.

  2. Interestingly, I just now noticed the following recent video and article. This is further evidence of the shift I was discussing.


    According to a recent Gallup poll, the number of Americans who have faith in organized religion is at an all-time low.

    Only 44 percent of Americans today have a lot of confidence in organized religion, compared to 66 percent in 1973 when organized religion or church was the highest rated institution in Gallup’s “confidence in institutions measure.”

    Organized religion and the Church “continued to rank first in most years through 1985, outranking the military and the U.S. Supreme Court, among others,” as reported by the Gallup study.

    Assuming the trend continues: The confidence in organized religion will be at 22% around the middle of this century. And in single digits by the end of the century.

    Trends, however, are almost impossible to accurately predict that far into the future. Even so, it is unlikely that the confidence in organized religion is going to rebound. If I were a betting man, I’d say that America will go the way of Europe and become increasingly secular.

  3. I was thinking I should link to some previous posts that form the background to this post. There is the earlier post about the Enlightenment:


    In that post, I discussed another issue about the conservative style of thinking which I analyzed previously:



    The issue of liberal-mindedness vs conservative-mindedness throws a monkey wrench into the works. Paradigms may shift, but human nature is less prone to shifting.

    That isn’t to say, however, that human nature can’t shift. Research shows that growing up in a multicultural environment predisposes kids toward becoming socially liberal adults. So, if a paradigm shift included factors such as real world experience of multiculturalism, then human nature itself will shift along with the paradigm. There is a fair amount of plasticity in human nature, given the right factors.

    That said, any new paradigm will still require the ability to deal with the diversity in human nature. Environment-caused predispositions can’t displace genetic-caused predipositions.

    This brings certain doubts to my mind and also certain hopes.

    The doubts involve how puzzling I find conservative-mindedness, specifically the tendency toward unsientific belief-oriented or axiom-oriented thinking. Even with religion on the decline, conservative-mindedness has proven itself perfectly capable of functioning in secular contexts. Rand’s and Rothbard’s rightwing axioms aren’t really any different in form or function than religious beliefs, the shared attribute being a desire for self-evident truths not reliant on collectively verified facts..

    This style of thinking seems problematic in so many ways. It has its uses, but it makes progress a challenge. Self-proclaimed self-evident truths aren’t easily made open to change and improvement.

    The hopes involve the conservative tendency to defend the status quo, often even when their rhetoric seems to say the opposite. Complain as they love to do, conservatives fear change more than they love their espoused principles.

    This can be used to the advantage of liberalism for today’s liberalism is tomorrow’s conservatism. If the ideas and ideals of radical Enlightenment thinking can get a foothold somewhere within the mainstream, it will slowly become apart of the status quo and conservatives will defend it to the death. At that point, those on the left can start pushing for the next big paradigm shift.

    Just some thoughts.

  4. Mr. Steele,

    I find your article interesting and thought provoking, but I offer you the prediction that the shift you so long for may bring about a demise you are not prepared for. Look to Rome for your answer to this shift. I believe you used the words “earth-shaking shift” in your article. I think you may be right, but perhaps not what you might expect.


    • I explained my view in the post, but I’ll repeat my conclusion again. The end results of the changes aren’t predictable. For this reason, we can’t say who will or won’t be happy by those as yet unknowable end results. Time will tell.

  5. What you call the “Radical Enlightenment” brought Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Nazism, and Progressivism.

    What you call the “Moderate Enlightenment” brought the United States; the most tolerant nation on earth; a society of Liberty and Prosperity.

    • I understand your argument. I’ve heard that kind of rhetoric my entire life. It’s a conventional mainstream view from the political right. But it is revisionist history. It’s not even exactly false and simply just misinformed, demonstrating the profound failure of education and media. The Enlightenment was a lot more complex than such simplistic rhetoric

      The earliest thinking along the lines of socialism and communism actually first appeared in the English Civil War, more than a century before the early modern revolutionary era. That was at a time when traditional feudal communities were being destroyed. The peasants evicted from the commons and defending their communal way of life saw themselves not as radicals but as traditionalists. Such sociopolitical changes created the conditions for the Enlightenment, although class-based war began centuries earlier with the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt.

      By the way, Thomas Paine was the most radical founder in the American Revolution and yet, in the French Revolution where, he sat with the ‘moderates’ on the right side of the National Assembly. But in both cases he found himself in that position because he was always the most vocal defender of democracy, something he spoke about openly. He also was the most vocal critic of organized religion, especially Christianity. Even worse still, he proposed what we now call a basic income, as compensation for the commons stolen from the peasants, something stolen not just from one generation but every generation following.

      The radical and moderate Enlightenments were always part of the Anglo-American tradition. Both strains can be traced back to the colonial era and were present at the origins of the United States. But radicalism in particular, has always defined America, such as the abolitionist and feminist movements that were gaining support before the American Revolution, but also look to how class-based and race-based rebellions continued in the century following. We Americans are a rebellious people.


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