The Threat to Reason

Most people, merely reading the title of this book, might conclude (not unreasonably) that it is yet another attack on religious fundamentalism. They would be wrong. Dan Hind’s achievement in this slim and spirited volume is to turn the tables on the lazy assumptions of those who put their faith in reason alone and to point out the irrational forces that fuel their beliefs. Hind, a publisher who is currently editorial director of Bodley Head, is not seeking so much to champion religious belief but to critically examine the claims of its avowed enemy, the Enlightenment.
Briefly sketching the background to the Enlightenment, Hind suggests that its supporters trustfully believe it established a blueprint for "a humane and ordered civilization". No longer were men in the power of priests or religious superstitions; they were to be governed by policies that resulted from "disinterested reason and scientific enquiry". This, the author believes, has resulted in the transfer of power to the state and the corporation which are every bit as likely to abuse it as the forces of unreason which they overthrew.
This is a brave position to hold today, in the face of the belligerent rationalists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who command a great deal of media attention. But Hind is that rare person, a stubbornly independent thinker who refuses to be blinkered by the propaganda of his own side. Like the little boy in the story of the Emperor who wore no clothes, he keeps asking the unwelcome question: is the enemy of the Enlightenment really religious fanaticism, fundamentalism and New Age mysticism or is it something much more sinister, a debased and corrupted Enlightenment that hides behind a rhetorical commitment to open debate and free enquiry?
This very question is likely to earn the scorn of those, like Polly Toynbee, an influential journalist on The Guardian, who uncritically contrasts the values of the Enlightenment with the "demented killers lining up to murder in the name of God." (This intemperate rhetoric has been pointed out recently by Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, with reference to Richard Dawkins. It is not that Dawkins challenges religious belief to give an account of itself – a proper and worthy stance in Sacks’ view – but his angry and contemptuous dismissal of every viewpoint but his own which is at fault.) Hind is wary of those who would blackmail their opponents, saying, in effect, "either you are for us, or you are against reason and progress." Citing the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, that "reason is the slave of the passions", the author states that an Enlightenment purged of the non-rational is a "chimera".
He is scathing about the "War on Terror", arguing that it has become an irrational response to an irrational threat – the "new national religion now that Communism is over". No element of the rhetoric surrounding the War on Terror can survive careful, enlightened enquiry, he concludes, making the gloomy but largely accurate point that America’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq has created humanitarian disasters in both countries while ignoring the real problems of extremist violence and criminal activity in the world. I sense a somewhat anti-American bias to Hind’s argument but his point is reasonable.
Having pointed out the flaws to "the state", the author turns his attention to "the corporation". The pursuit of scientific truth is not as pure as some, who deride alternative medicines for instance, would have us believe. It is not news that the medicines people receive and the pharmaceutical companies that research and manufacture them, have a somewhat ambivalent relationship. Since the advent of new drugs to combat depression there has been a significant increase in the number of depressed people – a point also made recently by the doctor and journalist, Theodore Dalrymple. Furthermore, cancer charities – which command vast sums of money – do not pursue unprofitable lines of research, even if these may be of value. Like faith, Hind concludes, Enlightenment policies can "all too easily degenerate into a swindle".
He has a healthy disrespect for the self-conscious elitism of intellectuals, reminding the reader that Oliver Wendell Holmes, George Bernard Shaw and John Maynard Keynes all gave their support to the discredited "science" of eugenics. He also has some sympathy for those religious leaders, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who "inform and substantiate hope for peaceful progress" and approves a recent speech by Cardinal Schönborn of Austria on the co-existence of science and religion.
Where he is weak is in his suggested solutions to the ever-present problem of state and corporate misuse of power. These are too sketchy and vague. He wishes us to "become the authors of our own Enlightenment", believing that "the state and the corporation fall under our power to the extent that we are able to stand outside them". We, the public, are the only possible defenders of "enlightened progress in the long term."
But who will guard these guardians, one might ask this latter-day tribune of the people. Who will define what "enlightened progress" means? Will it include biotechnological experiments on human/animal embryos, for example? Will it endorse same-sex unions? Hind remarks that "when the Catholic Church campaigns against the use of condoms to control the spread of AIDS, we must surely resist it in the name of humanity and reasoned understanding". This sounds uncomfortably like the patronising views of those very people the author has taught us to be suspicious about. How much inhumanity has been done "in the name of humanity".
Hind’s book has merit insofar as it provides a reasoned critique of the secularist establishment. One can also sympathise with his plea that "only a world more fully understood can be transformed." Yet this beguiling statement begs for further linguistic definition. Behind his thesis lies an ancient and more haunting question: Sir Francis Bacon’s "What is truth? said jesting Pilate and did not stay for an answer." Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.  


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