Conservatism, the Enlightenments, and Religion

The Enlightenment of the 18th Century was the birth of the movement to articulate a rational basis for society and the freedom of the individual.


The French Enlightenment (Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire, Robespierre)  was directed against the church, seeing religion as mankind’s primary oppressor.  And it took a strongly ideological form from the start, being largely ungrounded in experience of local institutions that actually grew a sense of individual freedom.

The British Enlightenment (Locke, Hume, Smith, Burke) saw its task as the creation of a theoretical framework for the balancing of individual freedom and community interests.  Based on common sense and actual experience of freedom, the British recognized the importance of tradition-buttressed community institutions as the only soil in which freedom can grow.


The common philosophical ground of both Enlightenments was the necessity of basing theory on natural philosophy untethered from religion.   And in this they succeeded, so that the modern western world has broadly accepted as self-evident truth the illegitimacy of any reference to religion in the public square.


The modern-day heirs of the French Enlightenment are on the left, the range of humanist liberals from Democrats to Communists.


The British Enlightenment flame is kept alive by the conservatives and neo-conservatives, from Republicans to …


Liberals and conservatives act and argue as if their principles were well founded.  But they generally avoid discussion that gets too close to core principles, for fear of being asked the inquisitive child’s questions: Why?  Why is every human life sacred?  Why do we each have a right to freedom?  Why shouldn’t I steal?  Who says I shouldn’t?


Push them too hard and they must confront the fact that much, perhaps all of our ethical framework is founded in the leftover remnants of our family and community religion.


The fundamental question is just how long civilized societies can survive when their morality is a shell of a house whose foundations eroded away long ago.


Meanwhile, locked away in an intellectual ghetto, Christians and Conservative Jews continue to argue from biblical principles.  Their house alone seems to be built on solid foundations.  Biblical principles may be mistaken, of course.  But they provide a basis.  What about the rest of us?

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