Rationalist naivete

One of my great disappointments this year has been reading JB Bury’s History of Freedom of Thought. Bury was the editor of my much-beloved Cambridge Medieval History series, which is excellent, and so I was looking forward to reading his thoughts on a matter that is of more than a little interest to me.

But while the book is as erudite and well-sourced as one would expect, it is little more than a one-sided anti-Christian rationalist polemic, with little insight and absolutely no foresight whatsoever. It’s High Church Atheist in a manner that is about as proto-“I Fucking Love Science” as it is possible for a book published in 1913 to be.

One wishes one could bring Bury forward in time to see what passes for reason hath wrought; a thought police more authoritarian, more delusional, and more in conflict with reality than any of the religious opponents of the freedom of thought ever were. Bury’s unjustified faith in the power of reason is a fascinating precursor to the complete inability of the modern irreligious to grasp the connection between Christianity and many of the aspects of Western civilization that they value, as well as their willingness to blithely saw off the branches of the tree on which they are sitting.

The struggle of reason against authority has ended in what appears now to be a decisive and permanent victory for liberty. In the most civilized and progressive countries, freedom of discussion is recognized as a fundamental principle. In fact, we may say it is accepted as a test of enlightenment, and the man in the street is forward in acknowledging that countries like Russia and Spain, where opinion is more or less fettered, must on that account be considered less civilized than their neighbours. All intellectual people who count take it for granted that there is no subject in heaven or earth which ought not to be investigated without any deference or reference to theological assumptions. No man of science has any fear of publishing his researches, whatever consequences they may involve for current beliefs. Criticism of religious doctrines and of political and social institutions is free. Hopeful people may feel confident that the victory is permanent; that intellectual freedom is now assured to mankind as a possession for ever; that the future will see the collapse of those forces which still work against it and its gradual diffusion in the more backward parts of the earth. Yet history may suggest that this prospect is not assured. Can we be certain that there may not come a great set-back? For freedom of discussion and speculation was, as we saw, fully realized in the Greek and Roman world, and then an unforeseen force, in the shape of Christianity, came in and laid chains upon the human mind and suppressed freedom and imposed upon man a weary struggle to recover the freedom which he had lost. Is it not conceivable that something of the same kind may occur again? that some new force, emerging from the unknown, may surprise the world and cause a similar set-back?

The possibility cannot be denied, but there are some considerations which render it improbable (apart from a catastrophe sweeping away European culture). There are certain radical differences between the intellectual situation now and in antiquity. The facts known to the Greeks about the nature of the physical universe were few. Much that was taught was not proved. Compare what they knew and what we know about astronomy and geography—to take the two branches in which (besides mathematics) they made most progress. When there were so few demonstrated facts to work upon, there was the widest room for speculation. Now to suppress a number of rival theories in favour of one is a very different thing from suppressing whole systems of established facts. If one school of astronomers holds that the earth goes round the sun, another that the sun goes round the earth, but neither is able to demonstrate its proposition, it is easy for an authority, which has coercive power, to suppress one of them successfully. But once it is agreed by all astronomers that the earth goes round the sun, it is a hopeless task for any authority to compel men to accept a false view. In short, because she is in possession of a vast mass of ascertained facts about the nature of the universe, reason holds a much stronger position now than at the time when Christian theology led her captive.

All these facts are her fortifications. Again, it is difficult to see what can arrest the continuous progress of knowledge in the future. In ancient times this progress depended on a few; nowadays, many nations take part in the work. A general conviction of the importance of science prevails to-day, which did not prevail in Greece. And the circumstance that the advance of material civilization depends on science is perhaps a practical guarantee that scientific research will not come to an abrupt halt. In fact science is now a social institution, as much as religion.

I wonder if Bury would revise his conclusions in light of the “social construct” school of denial, which has produced everything from the “science” of anthropogenic global warming to multiplying sexes. Considering how ready the SJWs are to deny that a man is, in fact, a man, it is not at all hard to imagine that they would be every bit as willing to compel men to accept a false view of the sun rotating around the earth.

SJWism is the revival of the blasphemy concept, but it is far more dangerous than the religious laws ever were because it lacks a textual anchor. At least with religion, you always knew what blasphemy was and could readily avoid committing it. With the current thought police, they will inform you of your offenses after you have committed them, and neither ignorance of the law nor its previous nonexistence will provide you with any defense.