Suburban Soliloquy103.

The End of the Enlightenment in the U.S.A.

"In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense; and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader, than that he will divest himself of prejudice and prepossession, and suffer his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves; that he will put on, or rather that he will not put off, the true character of a man, and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day."
Thomas Paine, Common Sense

The United States was a product of the Age of Enlightenment, the Enlightenment being a necessary precursor to the founding of this nation. Our nation's Founding Fathers read the books and letters written by the Enlightenment's thinkers and came to share the same confidence in reason and a faith that science would uncover the laws of nature, the laws of God. Our Founding Fathers shared the Enlightenment's criticism of myths and miracles, which they regarded as allegorical and not literally. In Europe the Enlightenment's philosophes had ridiculed religious superstitions, particularly those of the Roman Catholic Church. Freethinkers quarreled with the church's suppression of knowledge and science and they countered with a demand for the free exercise of human reason. While most did not abandon a belief in the existence of a God, many, like Francis Bacon and David Hume, elevated skepticism, objectivity, and experimentation.

In the British colonies that dotted the coastline of North America in the 18th Century, the Enlightenment took seed in a loose, fertile soil that was not available in old Europe. While Europe was still in the throes of religious strife and different Christian sects competed to gain or retain power, here the colonies eventually came together and crafted a constitution to provide a relative tolerance of religious differences, brought about by the desire of multitudinous sects wanting to be spared persecution from each other.

The Founding Fathers and the rising middle class of businessmen saw the value of tolerance as practiced by the Dutch colony that founded what was to become New York City, to this day the greatest center of tolerance, diversity, and business in the world. The ideas of the Enlightenment's political philosophers, particular John Locke, came to fruit in this nation, far from the lands oppressed by rich families, dogmatic prelates, and royalty; they who, in order to protect their positions, needed to restrain any government born of a meritocracy rather than a right of birth.

The Founding Fathers constructed a government based on a model that pre-dates Christianity, the Roman Republic, to which they added a more universal suffrage. Into this new government they built a separation between church and state as was not to be found in Europe. These eminent ideals are the foundation of this nation and should be the focus of every patriot's loyalty. In this country, in these times, those eminent ideals are in decay, the Enlightenment is dying. There is a group of politicians managing and directing the country who have turned their backs on ideas of rationality and scientific observations. The politicos in power have retreated from reason. Reason is once again being replaced by debasing superstitions.

Religious zealots came out in a massive voting block to support the Republican Party, to vote the Bush Administration into office. They were enough to make the difference. They have the President's ear and through him they have endeavored to advance their religious and political views to the detriment of common sense, justice, and science. Here are just some of the points of contention.

These zealots would have the teaching of evolution replaced by a preposterous myth of creation. They scorn our knowledge of astronomy, physics, and geology. They have used this Administration to pressure the National Park Service at the Grand Canyon to sell creationist literature at the Park Service bookstore. Alongside books of geology are books to tell visitors that the Grand Canyon was recently and suddenly gouged by the flood of Noah's time. It is a myth not even original to the Jews, but modeled on a Sumerian myth at least two thousand years older, a time when the world was thought flat.

These same zealots want to abolish abortion because of an absurd belief that at conception, when a determined little sperm nails the egg, at the same instant a supernatural power inserts a divine spirit. They want every human zygote endowed with the legal rights of an individual and abortion to be regarded as murder. To abolish abortion has as much validity as to abolish the eating of pork. To make laws against embryonic stem cell research has as much validity as to impose on the nation a ban of all medical procedures in accordance with the Christian Science Church. This United States must not allow any religious sect to impose their particular mythology on the diverse whole of its citizenry. The separation between church and state must be maintained.

Too many people in this country believe theirs is the one true religion. They lack the common sense to recognize there are diverse religious beliefs sharing the same confidence. The zealots in our country are unable to believe the epiphany they experience in their faith is no different than the epiphany experienced by other's of a different faith. We need to restore common sense and acknowledge that unless diversity is preserved and protected from the tyranny of any single sect, no one is entitled to freedom.

I am writing because I have grievances against the President. I am insulted by his speeches, the condescending way he speaks in uninformative platitudes. He is dismissive of his opponents, as if their point of view is unworthy of consideration. He stands before the collected body of the United Nations and lectures them as a would-be parent, instructing them in ethics and morality. He seems to believe in the exclusivity of his one true religion, that his God instructed him to make war in Iraq, that he can condone treatment approaching torture (if it isn't already torture). The President causes us to be less distinguishable from our enemies even as he distances us from the ideals of our forefathers.

The Bush Administration is trying to undo the Enlightenment, the very ideas and principles that stood at the foundation of our system of government. With fear mongering he attempts to enslave us to an obedience of superstitions. He asks us to trust him even while refusing to share information. But now elections are returning. It is a chance to restore the nation's former ideals, those principles hammered together by the brilliant minds who authored our Constitution. There is hope to see the present Administration hindered, even crippled, by eliminating the support they have had from the Legislature. Reason cannot be extinguished. The Bush Administration is only a setback.

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"