Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Religion of Modernism

Book Review: Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason by Russell Shorto (Doubleday, 2009)

The "skeleton" of this book is a historical narrative about the remains of the French philosopher Rene Descartes who died in Stockholm in 1650, an exile from his native country. Descartes is sometimes regarded as the "father of the modern world," a world which some believe came into birth in 1637 with the publication of his Discourse on Method. How might a single (relatively brief) philosophical treatise create something like the "modern world"? For Shorto it did so by proposing a radically new method of establishing knowledge and discovering truth. Descartes sought to found knowledge not upon received (Aristotelian) principles but upon radical and systematic doubt, doubt that would call all received notions into question. Now, knowledge no longer rested on a foundation of biblical religion and Aristotelian philosophy but upon the individual knower and the mind of this knower. Of course, Descartes himself was no skeptic but a believing Catholic who wanted to guarantee God a place in both philosophy and science. Shorto's thesis is that Descartes gave birth to both the moderate and the radical Enlightenment, the moderate form wanting to preserve the place of religion in a secular society and the radical from wanting to eliminate religion entirely and replace it with "reason, enlightenment and progress".
When Descartes died he was buried in an obscure cemetery outside of Stockholm. However, in 1666 his remains were dug up so as to be brought to Louis XIV's France and entombed in the Church of St. Genevieve in Paris. At this point, Descartes was hailed as the light in the Enlightenment by those seeking to create a purely materialist physics and by those who wanted to apply his method of making a racial break with tradition to the realm of politics. But, as Shorto makes clear, things were not a simply as we might think. For example, some of Descartes' most devoted followers were Catholic priests and some of those seeking a materialistic physics regarded Descartes' remains the way the Middle Ages regarded the relics of the saints. In short, this was not a simple case of irrational "religion" being challenged by rational "science". Religion has its own form of rationality and science had its religious dimensions.
In 1793, during the French Revolution, the Church of St. Genevieve was in danger of being torn down (as were many church structures) and some leading revolutionary figures wanted Descartes' remains removed and placed in a location where the Great Man could be honored. Temporarily, the remains were placed in an Egyptian sarcophagus and placed in the newly created Museum of French Monuments (which housed treasured rescued from looted buildings). Descartes was seen as the person who had prepared the way for the destruction of the old regime and ushered in the rule of reason, a rule which banished both Church and monarchy. As the French Revolution gave way to the Reign of Terror, it appeared that enlightened reason had its fanatical side: "As an organizing principle or battle cry, reason doesn't necessarily lead to peace and order but can just as well spawn inhuman violence on a epic scale" (p. 91).
In 1819, after the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the French monarchy, Descartes remains were removed from the Museum of French Monuments and placed in the Church of St.-Germain-des-Pres in Paris, once again out of a desire to honor him. This event coincided with the (pre-Darwin) debate over evolution between the French scientists Lamark (for) and Cuvier (against). It also coincided with the birth of the new discipline of anthropology, a discipline which sought to throw off the shackles of philosophy and theology and to offer an "objective" account of human nature and behavior. But the objectivity of the new discipline was not complete and the first fruit of it was the theory of racial types with, of course, the European race being the highest. Of these anthropologists Shorto says "They weren't out to prove that whites were superior for the simple reason that they assumed it from the start. It was so obvious to them that it didn't need proving" (p. 185). The effort to understand human beings "scientifically" had some very unscientific results and the whole superstition of "races" would be very slow to die and would have disastrous effects.
One can take away from this book a number of messages. The message that I take away is that the whole "faith versus reason" (like the "faith versus science") pattern of thinking is so simplistic that it has little real value. As the narrative of Descartes' bones makes clear, the "modern world" is not one in which a pure, objective and scientific reason has demolished all the "absurdities" of religion and given us light and room to think. The "modern world" is very much a mixed bag. As Shorto says "scientific stupidities proliferating majestically alongside real advances...makes plain that trying to follow reason is not the same thing as being right" (p. 245). While Shorto is critical of Pope Benedict XVI (who has made the faith and reason issue one of his key themes) his own view is close to the pope's: "In the interest of pursuing its own brand of certainty, radical secularism takes a too narrow construction of reality. It puts on blinders" (p. 245).
How one sorts through the faith and reason question will depend on how one understands each term and whether one recognizes that the two never exist by themselves. In the Christan tradition, reason has always been a dimension of faith and in the "religion of modernism" reason has become a religion.

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