Friday, August 29, 2014

The Cult of Reason: A Cautionary Tale

"From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step." - Denis Diderot

Last week, decent people around the world were horrified by the videotaped beheading of the American journalist James Foley, at the hands of the fanatical and barbaric organization known as ISIS, or the Islamic State. Though most religious people were just as shocked as anyone else, at times like this many secular types are tempted to dismiss all religion as irretrievably superstitious and violent. For example, it was the September 11 terrorist attacks that led to the rise of the outspoken anti-religious movement known as New Atheism. As one of the movement's apostles, Richard Dawkins, said:
“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that.”
I'm not an atheist, and I know its unfair to paint all religion with the same brush this way, but I admit I can understand the sentiment. There are few things more infuriating to me than seeing violence done in the name of unproven religious dogmas, and Islam is not the only guilty party. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and countless pogroms against Jews were perpetrated by Christians, while Judaism has committed its own atrocities, beginning with the ones matter-of-factly chronicled in the Old Testament. Hinduism spawned the murderous Thuggee cult, and it was a Hindu extremist who killed Gandhi. Even Buddhists--usually given a pass by western atheists--have had their violent movements.

So, there's no doubt that religion can drive atrocities--history is replete with examples. But secularists like me should be careful about generalizing from those examples, and concluding that all religion is bad, or even that all ISIS-style horrors are religiously-motivated. That's because a closer look at history shows that some really awful deeds have been done in the name of reason. 

Consider the French Revolution. Like the American Revolution a few years earlier, the French Revolution began as an attempt to create a new kind of society based on Enlightenment principles like liberty, reason, and government by the people. But in France, things spiraled out of control, and those Enlightenment principles turned into murderous caricatures of themselves. Before it was all over, the leaders of the revolution there had pretty much flipped their powdered wigs.

The revolutionaries saw--correctly--that the Church and the nobility were both corrupt and oppressive; partners in maintaining the old social order. The Church was also incredibly rich, and the revolutionaries soon began annexing its lands and money. As revolutionary fervor increasingly turned against all things considered anti-revolutionary, a campaign of "de-Christianization" was launched across France. Crosses and other religious icons were removed from churches and cemeteries. Towns and streets named for saints were renamed. Priests were required to swear an oath to the principles of the revolution, and many of those who refused were executed. Other priests were defrocked, and even forced to marry. The Christian calendar was replaced, as part of the same reforms that introduced the metric system. Months were given new names, and weeks were ten days long. Sunday was abolished. 

Revolutionary-era inscription on a church in France (click for credits)
On November 10, 1793 (20 Brumaire, Year II, according to the French Revolutionary Calendar) a great Festival of Reason was held across France. Churches across the country were re-christened (or rather, de-christened) as Temples of Reason. At Notre Dame cathedral, the altar was demolished, and an alter to Liberty--represented as a "Goddess of Reason" was put in its place.

The Festival of Reason wasn't an official observance by the revolutionary government, which was by then under the firm control of the increasingly paranoid and murderous Robespierre. It was part of an even more radical atheist movement, led by people who had overseen massacres of priests, nuns, and other "enemies of the revolution". Robespierre himself was more of a Deist, and a rather puritanical one. He didn't approve of the atheists, and before long he had them sent to the guillotine--the National Razor, it was called. But Robespierre liked the idea of a revolutionary religion, so he dreamed up his own, which he called The Cult of the Supreme Being. Its principles included a belief in a supreme deity, the immortality of the soul, and the cultivation of a fanatical sort of "civic virtue", enforced if necessary by terror and the National Razor. 

On 20 Prairial Year II (8 June 1794), Robespierre oversaw the Festival of the Supreme Being, a grand affair meant to inaugurate his new national religion. When he appeared at the top of an artificial mountain created for the occasion and began leading new religious ceremonies as a sort of self-proclaimed prophet of the gods of reason, that's when many of his followers realized he had gone full-on bonkers. A few weeks later, he too lost his head to the National Razor, and the Reign of Terror he had presided over was done. Less radical forces came to power, while a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte began his rise.

The French Revolution showed that religion has no monopoly on the kind of atrocities that can arise from fanaticism. Atheists declaring their allegiance to reason and liberty can commit them too. In the twentieth century, of course, radical Marxist atheists like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot would preside over some of the worst horrors the world has ever seen. Anyone proclaiming atheism as a cure for ideological violence needs to pick up some history books.

Of course, one could argue that the Cult of Reason and Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being (as well as the fanatical and dogmatic Marxism of Stalin and Mao) actually were religions, even if they didn't see themselves that way. That may be, but it's probably beside the point. What matters is that it's not religion per se that causes atrocities so much as fanaticism and unquestioning devotion to an ideology. Some movements that fit that description are unquestionably religious, but others are atheistic and may even proclaim themselves anti-religious. We could debate whether or not they are religious, but it's clear that they are fanatical and dogmatic.

It's amazing to me that the leaders of the so-called Cult of Reason couldn't see the irony--the sheer absurdity--of the name of their movement. You can't have a cult of reason. If its a cult, it's not reasonable, and if it's reasonable, it's not a cult. Of course, the word "cult" didn't have the same sinister connotations in French as it does in English, but the point is that reason isn't something you can turn into a dogma, because as soon as you do, you can know longer honestly call it reason. True reason is an open-minded search for the truth. If you already knew the truth, you wouldn't need to reason. The whole point of reasoning is to arrive at truths you didn't know when you started. . 

Real reason entails a degree of intellectual humility, and that's why it's antithetical to fanaticism and dogma. The fanatics of the French Revolution liked to talk about reason and liberty, but it was just talk--it wasn't real reason, or real liberty. Just as you can't promote liberty by forcing people to think a certain way, you can't promote reason by being dogmatic. A real commitment to Enlightenment principles like liberty and reason requires a degree of tolerance for other lifestyles and points of view, because it may be that our own will turn out not to be that reasonable. 

That's what members of every fanatical ideology seem to miss. Again and again, they justify their actions by saying it's for the greater good; that the brave new world they are bringing into being will make all the bloodshed worthwhile. As Stephen Pinker puts it:
with an ideology, the end is idealistic: a conception of the greater good.
Yet for all that idealism, it’s ideology that drove many of the worst things that people have ever done to each other. They include the Crusades, the European Wars of Religion, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Russian and Chinese civil wars, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the genocides of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. An ideology can be dangerous for several reasons. The infinite good it promises prevents its true believers from cutting a deal. It allows any number of eggs to be broken to make the utopian omelet. And it renders opponents of the ideology infinitely evil and hence deserving of infinite punishment.
It also shows that the ideologues are entirely too sure of themselves. What makes them so certain they are right, and things will turn out the way they think? In order to be reasonable, you have to remember that you might be wrong. To kill in the name of ideology is to show a level of confidence in human understanding that no human should have. Whether our cause is religious or secular, none of us are smart enough to be that sure of ourselves.