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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.