Thursday 14 January 2016

Nick Cohen and the atheist enlightenment

Nick Cohen, I think it would be fair to say, has a 'thing' about religion and more specifically Catholicism. Well, fair enough: we all should have a hobby. But his latest jeremiad anent the papacy is worth looking at in more detail as it typifies the sloganizing of much New Atheism as well as a more general problem in modern public debate.

Cohen attacks the pope (or more recently the Osservatore Romano) for daring to criticize Charlie Hebdo.

They were bawling at the Parisian dead before their graves were dug and the loudest bawls came from Pope Francis. Far too few people can see that he is now at the centre of two malign forms of western self-deception. Liberals reveal their absence of principle by treating him as His Progressive Holiness. Equally smug conservatives use him to justify the unearned notion of western religious superiority over other faiths.
 the true Judaeo-Christian tradition was the 1,600-year tradition of Christians murdering Jews. What civilisation Judaism and Christianity possess came from the outside. They did not reform themselves, which is why calls for a Muslim reformation so spectacularly miss the point. Civilisation came from the battering that religion took from the Enlightenment, from sceptics, scientists, mockers and philosophers, who destroyed their myths and exposed the immorality of their taboos.

Now I actually agree with him in criticizing, 'Cultural conservatives [who] do not want to be reminded that there is no Islamist crime so great the Judaeo-Christian tradition did not once authorise it.' Most of the criticisms of Islam as in some way obviously worse than all forms of Christianity or Judaism strike me as generally misplaced. Islam may not be the religion of peace, but then neither (in straightforward ways) are Christianity or Judaism. Equally, the bloody legacy of the Enlightenment in the French Revolution and Napoleon, let alone in more recent butchery such as Marxism shouldn't be overlooked. Humanity is the problem.

The pope, on any reasonable assessment, is simply reflecting on how people with different views can live together in peace. He's probably right in thinking that brutally caricaturing others' beliefs isn't going to be helpful. (And if he's not, then he might be forgiven for making a plausible mistake.) But Cohen seems to believe that the papacy is at the heart of the problem and rests his case on Kant's essay, 'What is Enlightenment?' (English translation here.)

Unfortunately, Cohen doesn't seem to have actually read the essay or perhaps read it very well. It is not, first of all, a simplistic plea for absolute freedom of speech, let alone absolute freedom of drawing crass caricatures.

We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one's reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.
On the other hand, the private use of reason may frequently be narrowly restricted without especially hindering the progress of enlightenment. By "public use of one's reason" I mean that use which a man, as scholar, makes of it before the reading public. I call "private use" that use which a man makes of his reason in a civic post that has been entrusted to him.

To sum up: Kant is concerned not with attack cartoons, but with scholars using reason before a reading public. Moreover, the use of reason outwith this narrowly defined range 'may frequently be narrowly restricted'. In addition, the essay is a plea for an enlightened despot:

But only the man who is himself enlightened, who is not afraid of shadows, and who commands at the same time a well disciplined and numerous army as guarantor of public peace--only he can say what [the sovereign of] a free state cannot dare to say: "Argue as much as you like, and about what you like, but obey!" Thus we observe here as elsewhere in human affairs, in which almost everything is paradoxical, a surprising and unexpected course of events: a large degree of civic freedom appears to be of advantage to the intellectual freedom of the people, yet at the same time it establishes insurmountable barriers. A lesser degree of civic freedom, however, creates room to let that free spirit expand to the limits of its capacity.

Cohen of course notes none of this, not even questioning the oddity of taking but one document as summing up all of the rich variety of that complex cultural event, the Enlightenment. It's worth noting the marginality of the essay and its context. David Hume had completed publishing the Treatise of Human Nature some forty four years before and was eight years in the grave. As noted by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Only late in the development of the German Enlightenment, when the Enlightenment was near its end, does the movement become self-reflective; the question of “What is Enlightenment?” is debated in pamphlets and journals.

Nevertheless, the essay, despite its late date and its German provincialism is taken as a symbol of the Enlightenment. And thus a mere contribution to a debate is turned into an essence; an essay rich in nuance and problematic detail into a slogan.

It's also not all clear what the pope has done wrong, even if we take Kant at Cohen's word. He has not called so far as I can see for an legal restriction: he seems simply lamented a lack of prudence in the exercise of a right. If free debate is an 'Enlightenment Value', is the pope wrong to exercise that right to criticize? Moreover, Catholicism might well be argued to have made its peace with the central Enlightenment value of freedom of thought at Vatican II and especially in Dignitatis humanae . No one has to listen to the pope. No one (not even Catholics) is going to be burned at the stake for thinking him wrong headed. Nothing he says seems to regret the passing of the days when this was possible. (I assume that Cohen on the other hand is still all in favour of the guillotine and the crushing of the Vendee. No? Why not?)

It's an oddity that those who proclaim most loudly their adherence to reason in the modern world are sometimes some of the most irrational. Instead of engaging with the thought of great minds to ascertain how balance can be struck between competing values, they substitute slogans. Instead of treating this or that figure or view as admirable, but imperfect, they turn writers and their writings into emblems to be paraded around rather than critically read. Instead of dealing with what people actually say and think, they parrot prejudices. Or as Kant puts it:

That shows how pernicious it is to implant prejudices: they will eventually revenge themselves upon their authors or their authors' descendants. Therefore, a public can achieve enlightenment only slowly. A revolution may bring about the end of a personal despotism or of avaricious tyrannical oppression, but never a true reform of modes of thought. New prejudices will serve, in place of the old, as guide lines for the unthinking multitude.

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