The thing I love about the Wall Street Journal is that it boldly wears it’s pro-business, anti-humanist credentials on the outside, making no apologies for the oligarch-fluffing, poor-people-be-damned bias of it’s editorial board (which is increasingly leaking over into it’s formerly objective news reporting these days). Now we can add “anti-Enlightenment” to their bill of particulars.
Recently the WSJ featured this review of a book titled “A Wicked Company” by Phillip Blom, which chronicles “the 18th-century thinkers of the Enlightenment’s ‘forgotten radicalism’…includ(ing) Diderot, Hume and Rousseau.” To the reviewer, Michael Burleigh, this “has faint ancestral resonances for the atheists, humanists and rationalists who, to popular amusement, recently threatened to arrest the pope on his visit to Britain.”
Yes, it was highly amusing that atheists like Richard Dawkins called for the arrest of Pope Ratzi “over his alleged cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic church.” I’m sure all of the victims of priestly pedophilia have been laughing their asses off over the churchly practice of moving priests from parish to parish after they were accused of diddling young boys and girls that were put into their care, in order to evade any kind of accountability or punishment. High-larious!
The Pope was embroiled in new controversy this weekend over a letter he signed arguing that the “good of the universal church” should be considered against the defrocking of an American priest who committed sex offences against two boys. It was dated 1985, when he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with sex abuse cases.
Amusing, indeed. Of course, the philosphes of the 18th century, given as they were to excessive eating, drinking of good wine, and sexual dalliances, were hardly exemplars of morality for Mr. Burleigh: “No wonder so many philosophes seem to have ended up gouty and spherical, despite the moral austerities they often enjoined on others.” Hardy-har-har! Philosophe, heal thyself! Burleigh can’t quite understand all the criticism directed by these unhealthy, overweight dilettantes at the Holy Mother Church:
Mr. Blom’s other strategy is the essentially romantic one of pitting his brave little band of free thinkers against a rather stereotypical “authority.” The Catholic Church (and the Calvinist fathers of Geneva) appear only as a reactionary presence, ever ready to symbolically burn books and persecute their authors, as part of an ancien régime whose complexities are not explored. That a parallel Catholic Enlightenment strove to reconcile reason with religion by jettisoning the more obviously ludicrous aspects of faith seems to have passed the author by.
Ahem. “Jettisoning the more obviously ludicrous aspects of faith?” Catholics still believe that the consecrated bread and wine of the communion are the literal body and blood of Christ, correct? And that Mother Mary conceived and bore the baby Jesus while still a virgin, amirite? Not to mention all that Jesus-dying-and-ascending-bodily-into-heaven stuff? Well, at least they did say “my bad” about that whole Galileo excommunication thing…400 years later.
Naturally, this leads Burleigh to inveigh against the entire Enlightenment as nothing more than a precursor to the mass murder and brutality of the 20th century:
Unfortunately, Rousseau’s instrumental view of “civic” religion would lead, directly, to the grotesqueries of the Jacobins’ Cult of Reason—personified by the fat actress Désirée Candéille prancing about half-naked as the “Goddess of Reason” in Notre Dame in 1793—and to the state’s systematic murder of those who rejected such secular cults, a prefigurement of the age of Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
Strangely enough for the author of a book titled “Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War,” Burleigh conveniently leaves out the history of the Church’s “systematic murder” of those who rejected the hegemony of it’s rule, from the Crusades, through the Inquisition, to the pogroms of Holy Mother Russia, and the ethnic cleansing in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia. As awful as the dictatorial regimes of 20th Century were (and to view them as the heirs to some kind of debased version of Enlightenment thinking is, to me, intellectually bankrupt), it is beyond ludicrous to compare a few decades’ worth of slaughter to century after century of religious terror and violence. The only reason that more people weren’t killed during the millenia of domination by religious institutions is that those same religious institutions prevented the higher learning necessary to create truly efficient weapons of mass destruction.
Burleigh ends with this brilliant bit of sophistry:
Mr. Blom seems to be celebrating the thinkers of the radical Enlightenment for positing “a world of ignorant necessity and without higher meaning, into which kindness and lust can inject a fleeting beauty.” That view of the world is certainly embraced by their intellectual descendants today. But judging by the crowds of people I recently saw mob Pope Benedict XVI on a grim London public-housing estate, it may take more than Mr. Blom’s book to make the radical Enlightenment broadly appealing, especially since the pope’s message combines faith, love and reason.
Did I say brilliant? No, the last part of that last sentence may be the most screamingly yet unintentionally funny defense of religion that I have ever set eyes upon. As far as I can tell, the pope’s message of faith relies on believing in the most ridiculous absurdities imaginable. His love relies on denying women the right to decide when, or whether or not to bear children, and on ignoring the rampant rape and abuse of the children given over to the care of the church. And his reason seems to consist of ignoring reality and blaming the excesses of humanity on everyone but the church. I’ll take “radical Enlightenment” over delusion, denial and obfuscation any day, thanks.