The Myth of Enlightenment

The current ‘woke’ philosophy, embraced by the BLM and LGBTQI movements among others, refers to the perceived endemic nature of inequality, racism and social injustice and the desire to do something about it. In the process of righting these perceived wrongs, the woke movement tends to regard religion as bigoted and oppressive – the perpetrator of much of society’s racism and sexism.
It is not well known, however, that the woke movement is essentially a modern incarnation of the enlightenment movement of the 18th century. This movement, which dominated Europe for over a century, was essentially a form of humanism which upheld enlightened reason as its highest value. In its desire to promote ideals such as liberty, tolerance and liberal morality it also regarded the church as oppressive and anachronistic, and had as one of its primary aims the complete separation of church and state. The enlightenment movement eventually gave rise to the permissive liberal movement of the 20th century and, finally, its modern love-child, the woke movement.

It was interesting, therefore, to watch news reports of BLM protestors defacing the statue of David Hume in Edinburgh because of his published racist views. Humes was an 18th century Enlightenment philosopher who campaigned and wrote in defence of many of the same liberal ideals that the woke movement currently espouses. He was opposed to religion and he valued enlightened and liberal morality. But he did have some racist views. For example, he wrote, “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites.”
What many current day woke protestors fail to realise is that many of the historical figures whom they now want to censure and ‘cancel’ were, in fact, the founding fathers (and mothers) of their own movement. Other examples come to mind:
Voltaire was a French Enlightenment philosopher, a champion of liberated reason, atheism, and free speech, yet he categorised the “Caffres, the Hottentots, the Topinambous” as “children” and ranked the “Negroes” as occupying a middle position between Europeans and apes!
Similarly, Immanuel Kant, an Enlightenment leader who promoted liberal values and freedom from religion, also expressed the opinion that full perfection of humanity was reserved for “the white race”; next came the “yellow Indians,” following by “the Negroes” and finally “the American natives” who were lazy and ineducable.
John Lock, widely regarded as the “father of liberalism” and one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers, also supported the slave trade. He had a large shareholding in the Royal Africa Company, which was responsible for transporting tens of thousands of slaves, and he also was instrumental in passing legislation in support of the slave trade.
In recent days, these and other historical figures have come under fire from the woke movement for their racism, but most woke campaigners would not be aware that these people are the founders of their own movement.
I want to make two points here. Firstly, it seems to me that the current woke movement has an underlying presupposition that racism and other forms of social bigotry have their origin in the Judeo-Christian values foistered upon society by the oppressive church. Yet a study of the history of the Enlightenment period reveals a different story.
Secondly, the question has to be asked, were the racist views of the Enlightenment leaders merely incidental to their liberal philosophy or integral to it? In other words, was their racism just the unthinking adoption of society’s background views or did it flow from (or at least, was it enhanced by) their liberal ideology. There is an argument for the latter.
The liberal philosophy of the Enlightenment era valued human reasoning and knowledge above all else. As a corollary, the movement despised religion and superstitious mythology. The perceived entrenchment of “natives” in superstitious mythology and their perceived inability to be educated naturally led Enlightenment proponents to regard them as “savages” and lesser human beings. In other words, 18th century racism was perpetuated and even exacerbated by the Enlightenment movement.
So, what am I saying? Just this: We should be wary of calls to cast off the shackles of religion and oppressive moral constraint and solely embrace the wisdom of human reasoning and science, because these attitudes have, in the past, led society to uphold racist values that we now see as deplorable.
Furthermore, if we rightly understand the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, the Christian faith is the most ardent upholder of human rights and equality. John Newton, the 18th notorious century slave trader, was eventually converted to Christianity and, as a result, renounced his slave trading and became an ardent abolitionist. He wrote the wonderful hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’ and spent his life fighting for the abolition of slavery and slave trading. It was Christianity that instilled these values into him, not Enlightened thinking. We should beware of casting off that which has, for centuries, been the biggest defender of the dignity and value of all people.

Kevin Simington