The Anti-Enlightenment

07-09-2023Pastor's LetterFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

When the Enlightenment Period came along the Church found itself on its heels trying to defend the compatibility of faith with reason. And over the centuries that followed some outstanding intellectuals were able to do just that. Theologians to apologists to a few good Popes helped give faith a solid foundation that demonstrated that faith is compatible with reason. Perhaps the apex was Pope John Paul II (his landmark encyclical letter “Fides et Ratio”) and Benedict XVI, who both articulated a complete synthesis of faith and reason. Pope Benedict warned that there are “pathologies of faith and of reason”. Faith unhinged from reason becomes superstition and reason divorced from faith devolves into ideology. The unity of faith and reason give the most complete picture of humanity and the reality around us. (Though I admit we may have become too focused on reason and rationality at the expense of mystery and mysticism. Discussion for another day.) By the end of the Twentieth century, not even the “new atheists” like Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, were not able to mount a serious challenge to this synthesis.

But we now find ourselves in uncharted territory. You could even think of it as the “anti-Enlightenment”. Reason has been abandoned. The old comity that allowed you to debate an issue, raise point and counterpoint and sift through an argument is no longer permitted. This poses a real challenge to those of us who still insist on the primacy of reason and the reasonableness of propositions which in turn become the ideas that shape our lives and our culture.

How often were we told “follow the science”? But if you attempt to do just that, and say that the science of biology, based on empirical data, demonstrates the truth that humans are either male or female, binary, and that every cell in our body is stamped with either male or female, (there are some born with genetic abnormalities but they don’t disprove the rule) you will be told or rather shouted at, that you are a bigot, hateful and a threat to democracy. Once you detach from reason, the persuasiveness of your arguments means little, in fact they are viewed as an attempt to uphold the “patriarchy” and white supremacy and heteronormativity. Which means that without reason, arguments or disagreements are reduced to emotional appeals and the only way to move those appeals forward is through the use of power.

As a result, the ideas that are being foisted upon us by those who control the levers of power, academia, media, entertainment, large corporations, government, judiciary etc. are not ideas that have survived the sunlight of rigorous debate or scrutiny or even an authentic liberal debate of ideas that have achieved consensus. And that sets not only the Church but reason and science as well on our heels. Yet we are still using the rules of the Enlightenment to press our position not realizing not only the rules have changed but the game itself is changed. And the live and let live arrangement in our liberal democracy, well that ship has sailed as well.

This also brings with it the death of the meritocracy. One of the pillars of the meritocracy has been that the competent move forward and therefore help society develop and flourish. No more. Competency is being replaced by “diversity, equity and inclusion”. Your skill level matters not but your color, your sense of identity or your degree of marginalization are the only qualifications needed. This has tremendous consequences for the safe operating of society. Just look at what is happening in S. Africa. What happens when that person, whose DEI resume is outstanding but has no ability to run the electric grid, the Nuclear Power Plant or understand why Pi is important?

Without the ability to debate, propose an argument, or reason as to which ideas are true and lead to human flourishing, what’s left? I admit it is frustrating and bewildering to live in such a moment. What’s left is resistance. Resistance to ideas that undermine reason, don’t comport with reason and science, or reduce humans to an emotional trainwreck. Perhaps saying no, not pretending to buy the lie will eventually let the truth in all its splendor resonate again.

“There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” George Orwell 1984

Good advice, George.


Fr. John B.