God has conferred upon and added to man a distinctive power — the faculty of intellectual investigation into the secrets of creation, the acquisition of higher knowledge — the greatest virtue of which is scientific enlightenment.
May 13, 2013. Six months ago, I started on a journey of discovery — a journey of learning — a journey of trying to understand where I came from — a journey of learning about the sources of modern thinking and western values. Six months ago, I started writing the blog you are reading on the European Enlightenment.
What I found was an incredible story – a story of small groups of 17th century Europeans sickened and disheartened by a century and half of warfare, persecution, intolerance, fanatical hatred, and base political manipulation conducted in the name of religion. Individually and working together, members of these groups looked to philosophy, to reason, to the study of nature, to tolerance, and to ancient and distant cultures to try to find ways to stitch together what had been broken when western Europe erupted in a fury of violence — violence directed both internally and externally — against those who religious beliefs failed to agree with the desires of the powerful and the power-hungry among the many groups of political and ecclesiastical leaders.
What those groups discovered was science – they were the people who took the discoveries of Copernicus, Brahe, Galileo, and Kepler and turned them into the modern sciences of today. And they built great system of thought — those of Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton being the most influential — that united science and religion for generations of the foremost thinkers of the foremost countries of Europe. And they discovered democracy, modern government, and almost every other modern discipline of study or investigation, be it archeology and study of ancient cultures, or be it natural theology and the natural origins of the religious impulse.
They laid the foundations — scientific, economic, and cultural – of our modern world. And it was all based on the search for the unity of science and religion, of reason and belief — at least it was at first.
A Task Unfinished
But the task that these few, enlightened, and brave individuals started centuries ago remains unfinished. The wounds that tore apart Europe remain — in the main — unhealed. Indeed, in a number of ways the Enlightenment made it worse by creating new sectarians who hated all religion with unbridled fanaticism — and frequently found ways to exercise their hatreds in ways whose effectiveness was technologically enhanced.
And science — this extraordinarily wonderful tool of learning that undermines prejudice and superstition — was twisted into new and invidious forms of prejudice and hatred in the guise of “scientific” racism, social Darwinism, eugenics, and the like. These prejudices have delayed — and continue to delay — the advent of racial equality in the United States and around the world to this very day.
The hatred of religion — and the distrust of divine revelation in favor of natural religion — eventually came to permeate later enlightenment thought to the extent that it blocked, and sometimes extinguished, the search for moral and ethical standards for conducting life, giving rise to materialistic philosophies which embraced force, pleasure, wealth, and power as the rewards to strive for and denied the age-old teachings of the need for spiritual growth. One result is a world stratified into the wealthy and the rest, to the great discontent of those who find themselves among the rest.
So, the great tasks of the enlightenment remains unfinished. We need to pick them up, make them or own, and advance them further.
Next week, we start a new series of blogs. I’m not sure what to call it – maybe something like “Finishing the Enlightenment.”
In these blogs, we will look at the great Enlightenment themes we discussed in the last 26 blogs, examining how they are addressed in modern society, by modern religious thought, and also by the teachings of the Baha’i Faith – teachings which directly and powerfully address most, if not all, of the major concerns of the enlightenment and the role of all the world’s religion in the further advancement of humanity.
This is the 26th in a series of blogs on the Enlightenment Vision of Science and Religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.