"Enlightened" Really?

From the same book, Arne Rasmusson (University of Umea-Sweden) writes regarding modern racism:

Modern racism, based upon “scientific naturalism”, actually arose among some Enlightenment thinkers. The liberal legal and political theorist Jeremy Waldron notes in his book about John Locke and the idea of human equality that it is very difficult to find actual arguments for equality in contemporary legal and political thought, it is just taken as an axiom. He claims that historically the idea of human equality “has been shaped and fashioned on the basis of religion”, and more specifically Christian theology…A common argument was that science (especially Darwinism) had emancipated us from dated and dangerous dogmas about human equality. This led to the dominance of racist views that were crucial for the legitimation of racism, colonialism, and the eugenic movement that in part supported the euthanasia movement. Such views lost much of their acceptance after 1945, because of the use of fascism and Nazism made of them. This history supports Waldron’s and Yoder’s claim that human equality is not something we can just take for granted.

Now, of course, someone will object: “But what about the ‘Christian’ American South that supported slavery and the other examples where the Bible has been used by some to support slavery?” To which, is the easy reply: They lost. The great majority of the Bible’s teaching, the Gospel, and the orthodox teaching of the Church over time were objects any pro-slavery Christian had to get around to make their case. Over time, they failed. The leaders of the movements in the West to abolish slavery were overwhelmingly Christian or those whose views were based upon some religious or metaphysical basis. Let’s be very clear: It was not the “enlightened” scientific naturalists or atheists who led any such movements. And, of course, why would they? Their worldview is what led to the very idea that we must not assume a universal human equality as such is completely unsustainable from a naturalistic point of view.

So when we hear about those wanting to “conserve” the “Enlightenment” we should be very suspicious. Do they want to go back to pre-1945 with the common (it’s science after all!) acceptance of racism, eugenics, euthanasia, colonialism, and the weeding out of the weak? No thanks.

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4 Responses to "Enlightened" Really?

  1. Burk Braun says:


    Let's think about actual causes and effects. When did racism begin? Oh, before the dawn of history, I'd say. Chimpanzees kill those in other tribes. Humans certainly have not needed any scientific observation of biological differences to see races and to be racist. There is plenty of grist at this wiki page. Or in relevant books.

    So what did science contribute to racism? Only various new ways to detect differences, whether head shape, IQ tests, etc., some of which have been variously discredited. The issue, of course, is not whether there are differences between groups, but what humanistic and political significance they are assigned. Not even heredity was new with the enlightenment. That racial and a multitude of other characters run in families and are heritable was known for eternity. So a “scientific” rationale is also not new or newly relevant for racism.

    Perhaps science and materialism also contributed a certain sense of responsibility, since if Darwin's theory of evolution was true, there is no man behind the curtain making sure that our biological future comes out OK. It is what we make of it, if we wish to take a hand in it. These ideas have certainly turned out to be true. The question then is whether we do wish to take a hand in it, and whether we have any serious criteria for making judgements that would be required. Well, we really don't, other than the same racial (or in-group) prejudice that we have displayed from time immemorial, so that is pretty much the end of it from a rational perspective.

    As for religion's role, you don't have to look far to find both highs and lows, as for secularists and atheists. You might be aware of Robert Ingersoll, famous atheist of the late 1800's, defender of Darwin, and also of negro rights. It turns out that religion is virtually powerless to make people good, as irreligion is to make them bad. They will be what they will be, though a bit of cultivation is certainly a good thing. But cultivation in an edifice of religious lies for the sake of an evanescent moral uplift and ongoing comfortable self-gratification is hardly the only way or the best way to take responsibility for the cultural future of humanity.

    In the end, perhaps that is the interesting question- if god is really up there making everything right, whether biologically or culturally, why worry about it? Why not leave to god the task of making of humanity what we should become, heart, DNA, and mind?


  2. Darrell says:


    The writer was specifically addressing “modern” racism. He wasn’t saying the modern invented racism nor was he addressing a history or the origins of racism. What we see with modern racism was its “scientific” basis. Of course to even acknowledge something like racism, why it is wrong or right, one would need some basis outside of nature to do so. Otherwise, it would simply be as you say, “Monkeys kill; humans kill; so what?” Exactly. You seem to agree that from a “rational” basis, inequality is inevitable and natural. Wow, do you think certain human groups/ethnicities are naturally superior to others?

    Further, what would it even mean for our biological future to come out “Ok”? From a naturalistic biological perspective, “Ok” would simply mean survival. From a purely naturalistic view, only the strong survive, which of course were the very arguments being made pre-1945. So, please tell us who the “strong” are and what you would we should do about the weak?

    Finally, Judeo/Christianity has never posited that the Biblical God would have us sit back while that God makes everything better. Such a question is just another good example of not knowing even the most basic teachings of Judeo/Christianity. One need only peruse the Sermon on the Mount to understand how far your question is from anything in the Judeo/Christian faith. The better question is why, from a purely naturalistic biological basis, we should try and make anything “better” at all? After all, what is “better”? One would have to have some sort of criteria outside the “strong and better fit” simply prevail and survive worldview to even know what “better” might mean. Otherwise, only the strong surviving can be “better.” If such is your “better” then we are all in trouble.


  3. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Thanks for your temperate discussion. Your post finds the origins of racism in the enlightenment. Whether confined to “modern” or not, this is simply not true, as my reply outlined. And trying to separate modern racism from the garden variety is pointless anyway, since its origin is not modern at all, or scientific. Science has had some influence, both valid and invalid, but is far from being any origin. It would be like assigning the origin of cheating to the rise of standardized tests.

    I pointed out specifically that there is no rational criterion for having a better or worse biological future, so you are making up your own straw men by inferring strength and fitness and badness, etc as my criterion for “better”. Fitness defines what is better by Darwinian evolution, without our intervention, not with it.

    Lastly, I know many teachings. Yet the problem remains all the same, since if god is doing anything at all, other than blogging via the bible, koran, book of mormon, and other “inspired” prophets, it is guiding evolution, both cultural and biological (if you actually take intelligent design seriously, or just if you take a non-deistic god seriously). If god has any agency whatsoever, that is what it is doing, guiding the outcome of great battles, biology, etc., etc.

    Otherwise, you would be saying that god is deistic, with no hand in our affairs, leaving them entirely up to us, whether influenced by teachings or not. Why then have a god at all? The teachings clearly do not warrant great respect intrinsically- it was the signs and wonders of feedings, healings, resurrections, and the like that gave them credibility and influence. If those were not really true, and the teachings alone have to stand as god's only testament and sign, we are in sorry shape indeed, since they have been reinterpreted, edited, mangled, expurgated, re-envisioned, and haphazardly retransmitted continually.

    From what I understand, god also helps us along in prayer and other forms of discernment, though one has to wonder whether asking for such assistance has any role in getting it. Clearly god could give discernment to anyone at all, and none need it more than those who are not reading the “teachings” and not praying. Yet that does not seem to happen- we are all in the same boat of ignorance and causal closed-ness, faced with a rather “hidden” god.

    And of course, there are teachings from the Jewish and Muslim traditions, to name just two, that would lead, if followed faithfully, to totalitarian dominion over the entire world, which might not be quite what you wanted when you plump for theological “criteria”.


  4. Burk Braun says:

    To resume, let's ask about modern racism in particular, in its two greatest manifestations, antisemitism and anti-black racism and slavery. Slavery was initiated by Europeans colonizing the new world, learning from

    a. The Arab traders of Africa, who had been trading in slaves from the origin of the Muslim religion, and back into classical times.

    b. The Africans themselves, who sold each other into slavery, quite possibly under the original influence of northern slave traders and holders.

    c. The Catholic church, which had functionally enslaved native Americans throughout the new world, just as they did later in California. Whether this was preventative, with worse treatment coming from other colonizers, is a matter of interesting dispute.

    The prevalence of Christians in the abolition movement has to be measured against the prevalence of Christians at large, and in the pro-slavery movement. Which was of course neigh 100%, so its significance is quite questionable. The mark of Cain and other theological defenses/mitigations of slavery were devastatingly supportive of slavery before enlightenment values (liberté, égalité, fraternité), came around to shame Americans into abolition (not to mention modern industrial economics). Indeed, the mark of Cain was operative in the Mormon church till 1978(!), when they conveniently received a revelation that blacks could hold office in the church after all.

    So I think that a fair historical analysis would indicate that religion had far more to do with ideological racism against blacks than so-called scientific attitudes did. When Malcom X found his revolutionary consciousness, did he rail against Darwinism? No- he railed against Christianity, switching to Islam (of all things!), because Islam was marginally less racially prejudiced (despite its Arab chauvanism). Christianity was the “white man's religion”.

    Of course the case of antisemitism is even more clear-cut. It is almost embarrasing to make the case. While the Nazis tried to draw on pseudo-science as an occasional fig-leaf for their virulent antisemitism, its origin was without a doubt the centuries of antisemitic Christian preaching before and after the reformation. When combined with economic distress, feelings of inferiority, (since Jews were, whatever the insults invoked, the successful financiers, scientists, artists, etc.), Hitlerism was born. Scientific pretensions (transparently self-contradictory, if anyone thought about them) increased its appeal in a few circles, but had nothing like the basic motivating power that the underlying cultural hatred did, derived from long-standing religious ideology.

    The dominant flavor of bigotry in our own day is homophobia, and guess who leads the charge there? Yup, that's right!


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