Modern orthodoxy, modern heresy

Many pride themselves on their commitment to principles of the Enlightenment, but what would a modern Voltaire do?

    Modern orthodoxy, modern  heresy
    Western intellectuals who complained about religion cast themselves as the heirs of Voltaire [GALLO/GETTY]

    London, United Kingdom - The last decade or so has seen an upsurge in self-conscious and forthright scepticism. The word itself has come to have a quite particular meaning. It refers to intellectual combativeness of a very narrow sort. Self-declared sceptics rail against the power of organised religion to bewilder the unwary. They worry about our appetite for conspiracy theories, for wacky "alternative" medicine and for all manner of pseudo-mystical trickery and sleight-of-hand. The city of Enlightenment, they never tire of telling us, is besieged by a host of enemies.

    From How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World in 2004 to Counterknowledge in 2008 via The God Delusion and God is Not Great in 2006 and 2007 respectively, publishers found that noisy atheism and jeremiads about the decline and fall of reason were gratifyingly successful. Denunciations of popular delusions were perennially popular.

    The New Atheism reassured those who couldn't bring themselves to buy all that Bush administration moonshine about crusades, the Beast and Babylon.

    It is worth pausing for a moment to ask why that was. Sceptics love diagnosing others. Let's see how they like it. What we had in all this was an opportunity for people to enjoy the sensation of risk without danger. Western intellectuals who complained about the power of religion gave their audiences an opportunity to fall in love with them - and with themselves - as the heirs of Voltaire and Jefferson.

    But unlike the heroes of the late Enlightenment, their assault on the sacred brought with it little in the way of real danger. The church and its various modern competitors have little power to blight careers. The Pope is no longer in the habit of abducting and torturing his critics. If this was Enlightenment, it was a theme park Enlightenment.

    And there was more to it, of course. Educated atheism mapped neatly on to the blue half of the Liberal/Conservative split in the United States, a division of character types that far surpasses astrology in its power to mystify. And the outspoken critics of God were often on hand to cheer on American military adventures in the Middle East. If the Christian God was both non-existent and a brute, then how much more pernicious was Islamo-Fascism. The New Atheism reassured those who couldn't bring themselves to buy all that Bush administration moonshine about crusades, the Beast and Babylon.

    The genre began to lose something of its commercial appeal around 2008. Perhaps this was because there are only so many ways of saying that God doesn't exist, that people who obsess about the assassination of JFK are lonely and deluded, and that, you know, there's a word for alternative medicine that works, they call it medicine (copyright Tim Minchin and thousands of stand-ups looking to win over a roomful of graduates).

    A rational understanding of the world?

    But lazy repetition didn't seem to be much of a problem for several years. More likely, the collapse of the Western economy in 2007-8 and the Arab uprisings that began in December 2010 finally made some people realise that the assumptions of the sceptics were hopelessly muddled and their priorities were deranged. The faith-based thinking that mattered turned out to be in the heart of the economic and political establishments: Islam wasn't the problem in the Middle East. Western-backed tyranny was.

    If anyone had said in the years running up to the financial crisis that the mainstream of the economic profession had lost touch with reality you would have been gently escorted out of the building.

    But while the obsession with certain kinds of unreason has lost some of its charm, we are still some way from a thorough reckoning with the real threats to a rational understanding of the world. And the reasons for that are much more obvious. If one begins to investigate how the world operates you will soon discover things that have a disreputable aura, to put it mildly. Indeed, unbridled curiosity about things that matter can have career-ending consequences.

    Let's consider for a moment the News International affair here in Britain. On February 27 this year Sue Akers, the police officer in charge of investigating allegations of criminal wrong-doing by journalists and public officials, told Lord Leveson's inquiry that "the current assessment of the evidence is that it reveals a network of corrupted officials. There appears to have been a culture at the Sun of illegal payments, and systems have been created to facilitate such payments whilst hiding the identity of the officials receiving the money".

    Anyone hinting at such a thing a few years ago would have been dismissed as that modern day outcast, a conspiracy theorist. Conspiracies do not happen. When they do happen they are amateurish, ad hoc affairs. The culprits are swiftly discovered and brought to justice. Anyone who thinks otherwise is obviously a member of the tinfoil hat brigade. And this remains the case, even when it turns out that British public life was host to a longstanding, extensive and highly consequential criminal conspiracy.

    It is difficult to describe political reality adequately without attracting accusations of paranoia. And much the same is true of economics. If anyone had said in the years running up to the financial crisis that the mainstream of the economic profession had lost touch with reality you would have been gently escorted out of the building. Even now, if you set out to describe the monetary system in straightforwardly factual terms, you run the risk of being called a crank, or worse.

    There is a taboo around certain topics, a fear of pollution even. Much as Christian orthodoxy depended on periodic denunciations of heresy, the current order insists that certain kinds of belief are unacceptable, even when they are true. Influential figures are on hand to warn against the wrong kinds of curiosity. They do the work of the Inquisitor, often with the same infuriating equanimity.

    For the modern, secular world in the West has a system of heresy and orthodoxy that is both more sophisticated and more powerful than its religious prototype. Though it menaces intellectual freedom, only those who internalise it can expect to enjoy a reputation for robust good sense. Meanwhile, refusal to accept its dogmas can have serious professional and personal consequences. It is enlightened modernity as a figment of the Marquis de Sade's imagination.

    So let us repeat the dogmas of this orthodoxy. Curiosity should respect certain limits. Economics is a science. Experts and politicians can be trusted. Everything is more or less as it seems. Science exists in a realm beyond both politics and economics. The public are incapable of exercising sovereign power. These are the articles of our modern faith. If our commitment to the principles of the Enlightenment is to be something more than a ludicrous self-deception, they are our enemies, too.

    Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.

    Follow him on Twitter: @DanHind

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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