The Enlightenment is still winning

By James A. Haught | 17 June 2020
Freethought Now

Reading of Voltaire’s tragedy, Orphan of China, in the salon of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin in 1755, by Lemonnier, c. 1812. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

If you study history, you’ll observe episodes that have changed civilization.

A landmark transformation occurred, for instance, around three centuries ago when major thinkers began advocating democracy, human rights and personal freedoms. This period became known as the Enlightenment. It launched the long-running conflict still driving much of politics.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote that life can be “nasty, brutish and short” unless people bind themselves into a “social contract” under a government that protects them. He implied that kings don’t rule by divine right, and that ultimate authority lies with the citizenry. Bishops tried to have Hobbes executed as an atheist, but Hobbes burned his papers and sometimes hid in exile.

John Locke (1632-1704) denied that kings are chosen by God and recommended the separation of church and state to prevent faith-based wars and massacres. An early advocate of democracy, Locke argued that government must rest on the consent of the governed.

Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) proposed a democratic republic with powers split among executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Voltaire (1694-1778) was thrown in prison for mocking a regent — then emerged to become a lifelong crusader against abuses by ruling nobles and clerics.

America’s Founders — such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin — were brilliant radicals who absorbed Enlightenment ideas and incorporated many of them into the first modern democracy. A lesser-known Founder, George Mason, insisted on a Bill of Rights to protect each person from government and the tyranny of the majority.

The Enlightenment’s premise that every individual deserves personal freedoms also spawned the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in France, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, and other moral codes.

The Enlightenment not only produced modern democracy, it also laid the foundation of liberal political values still winning victories today. For three centuries, by fits and starts, Western progress has been mostly a chronicle of progressives defeating conservative resistance. Reformers repeatedly toppled old privileges, hierarchies and establishments. Look at the historical record:

  • Conservatives tried to retain slavery, but they lost.
  • They tried to sustain racial segregation, but they lost.
  • They banned mixed-race marriage, but they lost.
  • They tried to block voting by women, but they lost.
  • They tried to halt the sexual revolution, but they lost.
  • They tried to prevent couples from using birth control, but they lost.
  • They sought to jail women and doctors who end pregnancies, but they lost.
  • They tried to continue throwing gays in prison, but they lost.
  • They tried to halt same-sex marriage, but they lost.
  • They tried to obstruct Social Security pensions for oldsters, but they lost.
  • They tried to outlaw labor unions, but they lost.
  • They tried to prevent unemployment compensation for the jobless, but they lost.
  • They tried to defeat Medicare and Medicaid, but they lost.
  • They tried to keep stores closed on the Sabbath, but they lost.
  • They banned alcohol during Prohibition, but they eventually lost.
  • They supported government-mandated prayer in school, but they lost.
  • They opposed food stamps for the poor, but they lost.
  • They forbade teaching of evolution in schools, but they lost.
  • They tried to prevent expansion of health care through the Affordable Care Act, but they lost.

On and on, through recurring cultural battles, progressive principles that began in the Enlightenment have prevailed.

What will be the next front in the culture war? Whatever comes, it’s probably safe to predict the eventual winner. Martin Luther King Jr. (paraphrasing Unitarian minister Theodore Parker) said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The transformation let loose by the Enlightenment is ongoing.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught died on 23 July 2023. He was editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and was a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He was also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book was Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns were distributed by national syndicates. He was in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century.

Holy Horrors
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 1573927783
ISBN-13: 978-1573927789

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