The Threat to Reason

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Dan Hind, Verso, £14.99

The Enlightenment tradition is under attack - at least if a series of recent books are to be believed. The source is apparently a rising tide of irrationality, manifested by intellectual fashions such as postmodernism, but more seriously by the revival of religious belief. So, while earlier works dedicated to "defending the Enlightenment", like Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, attacked what they perceived to be irrationality in all its forms, the latest crop have focused almost exclusively on religion.

Although different in emphasis, books like Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, Sam Hall's Letter to a Christian Nation, and Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great are all loitering with intent on the same street corner, waiting to club passing believers insensible with the baseball bat of reason. It seems that two important Enlightenment virtues these authors have not absorbed are those of tolerance and respect for the views of others.

But, whatever other disagreements we may have with these authors, surely they are right to attack the obscurantism and irrationality of religious belief? In a commendably short and well argued book, Dan Hind argues that they are not. In fact, as Hind convincingly shows, they are either, at best, staging an unconscious diversion from the real threats to the Enlightenment tradition or, at worst, providing ideological cover for imperial politics. It is no accident that under the cover of attacks on religion in general the greatest bile is invariably reserved for Islam.

Hind is not primarily concerned with recounting the history of the Enlightenment. He discusses Bacon and Kant, but is mainly concerned to show that the historical Enlightenment is greatly misrepresented by its self-appointed defenders, who he describes as advocating a "Folk Enlightenment" in which every issue is reduced to a contest between rationality and irrationality. Against this Hind makes three points.

First, not all aspects of human life - Hind mentions love and morality, although we could probably add our response to works of art - are subject to "the dictates of reason". These things are not irrational, incidentally, but belong to a different realm of experience. In this respect, the notion of "sympathy", developed by arch Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith, is surely as relevant as "reason".

Second, religion itself is not the main issue. It is rather the way in which religious views are mobilised to defend secular agendas. Islam is no more intrinsically aggressive or genocidal than Christianity.

According to Hitchens et al, an atrocity like 9/11 is rooted in Osama's Islamism, but the invasion of Iraq is not, of course similarly rooted in Bush and Blair's Christianity.

Third, the real threat to Enlightenment values, particularly the value of free inquiry for the betterment of humanity, actually comes from the interface between the capitalist state and the giant corporations, who practise what Hind calls an "Occult Enlightenment", secret and dedicated to the expansion of power and the pursuit of profit.

Is it rational, he quite reasonably asks, for corporations to manufacture prescription drugs which they know will cause new and in some cases fatal illnesses in consumers? This takes us to the heart of the problem. What is rational for Big Pharma may not be for those who buy their products. There is, in other words, more than one form of rationality, distinguishable by the ends and values they are designed to serve.

If there is a problem with this extremely valuable book it is that, although Hind identifies the "folk" and "occult" Enlightenments with supporters of state and capitalist power, his alternative "Open Enlightenment" is presented in terms of a different attitude to truth, rather than one associated with opposed class or other social forces. But it is possible to complete the analysis. This is a powerful counterblast to the vulgar reductionism and mock radicalism of the pseudo-enlightened tomes which are currently cluttering our bookshops.

Christopher Hitchens' God is not Great is reviewed in this issue.