The convenient myth that changed a set of ideas into western values

By Madeleine Bunting (THE GUARDIAN, 10/04/06):

Consider this: " The European Enlightenment was a unique event in human history in which all the founding principles of western secular democracies were forged. All our scientific developments, the importance of reason, religious tolerance, the rule of law, rationality, a secular state, progress in human rights and our atheism can be traced back to this momentous period of intellectual history. This is the legacy we must hold fast to, and assert unapologetically against the challenges it faces from Islamism."

Agree with all that? If so, you're on very shaky historical ground but you've got plenty of company. Increasingly, you can hear different potted versions of this trumpet call from all over the political spectrum. It was a prominent left-of-centre commentator taking up this line at an event a month ago that got me wondering why the Enlightenment had suddenly been dragged out of the obscurity of university philosophy departments into the glare of public debate and grand old men such as Hume, Voltaire and Locke recruited to the clash of civilisations.

What bothered me was not just the self-righteous certainty (always a satisfying emotion and unfortunately not the sole preserve of the religiously inclined) the Enlightenment was providing its new devotees, but the gobsmacking ignorance required to mount such an audacious intellectual land grab. Even a pretty cursory knowledge of Islam reveals a long history of scientific development, the importance of reason, religious tolerance, the rule of law. Why were people now claiming these hugely important and valuable ideas were copyrighted to a period of European history?

So with a naive faith in the power of blogging I launched my ponderings on the Guardian's Comment is Free site. I also added in the idea I had just heard from philosopher Jonathan Rée that the Enlightenment - as we understand it - was a 19th-century retrospective invention. I thought that might stir up one or two responses but didn't have a clue that it would prompt outrage for the ultimate of heresies.

My idea was that blogging could be like an intellectual form of Linux, the open-source software based on collaboration among volunteers. Everyone chips in with their own expertise and a global conversation evolves in which everyone benefits. Hmm. After more than 300 posts I've learned a lot, but I've also attracted more contempt than in my whole career as a journalist.

Trawling through the posts, there are several parallel conversations. The first is that there's nothing to discuss, Enlightenment values are obvious. The only question is how to defend them against a bunch of lily-livered relativists, notorious Islamist sympathisers and multiculturalists who hang out in unredeemed places like the Guardian.

The second debate is equally lurid and driven by Americans. It warns of the doom-laden scenario of an Islamised Europe by 2060 (there was some dispute about the exact date, demographics etc) in which our granddaughters will be forced to wear the veil and will quiver with fear under sharia. The argument here is that "western Enlightenment values" are at risk of going down the pan as America is swamped by Hispanics and Europe is annexed by the Muslim world.

The third debate was by far the most interesting and complex, and explored which aspects of the Enlightenment and its legacy were unique to Europe and whether they could be developed in Muslim countries. For example, "Howie" posted on the importance of subjecting religious scriptures to academic critical analysis - which has been the case with the Bible over the past couple of centuries, but not the Qur'an (bar a handful of brave exceptions, some of whom have paid heavily for their temerity).

What was clear was that for many of the protagonists in the first two debates the Enlightenment has become an important emotional prop. They are seriously spooked by bogeymen which are half their own irrational creation. They've picked the Enlightenment as a place on which to stand their ground and draw a grotesque caricature of the threat they face: imminent mob rule by a bunch of hand-chopping, adultress-stoning superstitious fanatics.

The problem is that "Enlightenment values" doesn't offer the kind of solid ground they believe it to be. For example, many Enlightenment thinkers would not have described themselves as rationalists. Jon Wilson, a historian at King's College, London, makes the case that the Enlightenment had far more to do with anti-rationalism - thinkers like David Hume or Adam Smith argued in favour of a much more empirical approach of observation to understand the messy, muddle of reality.

Another example, one of the most common misconceptions, is that the Enlightenment was about atheism, and drove an irreversible wedge between science and reason on one hand and religion on the other. In fact, none of the major Enlightenment thinkers were atheists. A major anti-clerical figure like Voltaire was probably a deist. His ire was directed not against religious belief but against the corrupt power of religious institutions - and this is, indeed, a big reason to celebrate the Enlightenment. In this respect, it was a chapter, albeit a very important one, in a much longer story about the appropriate relationship between religious belief and politics, a story in which many traditions have participated - not just Europeans.

There's a tortuous history of how disparate debates have been bundled together as "Enlightenment values", and another set (blatant racism and anti-semitism) have been quietly chopped from the record. Given that there were about four Enlightenments (France, Scotland, Italy and Germany) you can effectively argue almost any case.

But after doing the rounds on rationality, secularism, atheism, we're still no nearer understanding its current popularity. On this last point, I'm intrigued by Wilson's suggestion that our understanding of the Enlightenment as a distinctive European set of ideas was possibly cooked up in the 1930s and reheated in the 1950s in the battle against another very distinctive set of European values - fascism. Elevating the Enlightenment was a way to patch up Europe's tattered reputation after causing the two most destructive wars in human history.

That the clash of civilisations debate is being cast in the same mould as the struggle against fascism would explain how the Enlightenment has come back into play. It's being used to answer questions such as: what are we? What are our values? That's how it was used to rally an exhausted continent after fascism, but to invoke it now against Islam is a dangerous distortion of history. It draws the dividing line in the wrong place. Many traditions - not just the European Enlightenment - have a history of struggle against fanaticism and intolerance, and they (especially Europe) have fallen lamentably short of those ideals. We can value the Enlightenment without using it to feed an arrogant superiority which blinds us to our allies in other traditions.