The New Enlightenment

To imagine a world that was poor, nasty, brutish, and short (a world Thomas Hobbes imagined) we modern Westerners, might turn to fiction. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror all have their dystopias which serve as a dark inspiration for a world like the one described by Hobbes. We could also look in history books and see the oppressive regimes of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia and literally hundreds of other examples. We could also crack open a newspaper and read about the many troubles in the developing world. Fortunately for westerners, these dystopias are removed by reality, distance, and history.

It might be hard to believe, but prior to the Enlightenment – life in the west was indeed poor, nasty, brutish and short. I would hazard that even some of the most dystopian of regimes of the last few decades didn’t seem as dim. The human forays into fascism and imperialism, horrible as they were, at least didn’t last. But in the European middle ages, it was a long trudge through the muck of misery. However, around the 1650′s a new way of thinking began to emerge in Europe. Propelled by the writing of John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Isaac Newton and others, a philosophy of exploring, understanding and interacting with the world based on reason emerged.

An early Skeptics in the Pub

I bring this up for a reason, the Enlightenment saved our species. It saved us from exactly what Hobbes described, a short brutish life full of recurring cycles of violence and misery. But it also saved us in many other subtle ways. The Enlightenment put the first real dent into the previously impregnable armour of religious privilege.

Humanism as a philosophy was already present in western Europe, having emerged during the Renaissance a few centuries before. But given the new fertile ground the Enlightenment was providing, Humanism began to flourish. Tolerance, compassion and aversion to violence was the message that humanism seemed to take up.

The impact of such thinking had profound implications for life. As I mentioned, imagining a crueler world than recent memory allows is not as difficult when looking back at pre-Enlightenment Europe. Consider the act of cat burning. This was where a cat was placed in a metal cage and lowered into a fire; for the purpose of entertainment. Nowadays you could face criminal charges for leaving a pet in a car on a hot day.

Whether you consider yourself a skeptic, an atheist, or a humanist; the cultural legacy that you are in fact carrying on was set in motion during the Enlightenment. It’s not a stretch to see the modern free-thought movement as the modern day incarnation of the Enlightenment.

I was recently watching a video from TAM 2012 with Jamy Ian Swiss talking about the issues with skepticism overlapping with atheism. He also makes a point of bringing up the goals of skepticism. He posits that they include 1) building community for like-minded thinkers and 2) consumer protection. To compare, what were the goals of the Enlightenment?

That’s a difficult question, the Enlightenment wasn’t really an organized movement with different groups and mandates. But I suspect if you asked the major players in the Enlightenment what they hoped for, they might have told you they want to reform society.

Sometimes I take issue with the stated goals of the skeptical organizations. If those goals are “to encourage critical thinking and scientific understanding…” or “to promote skeptical inquiry and secular values…” To me, that’s more like a description of what organized skeptics do. It’s like saying the goals of government is to meet at a predetermined location and discuss matters of import. On the one hand, it’s okay to a have a broad goal; but with recognition that your success in achieving your goal might be hard to see or quantify.

Consumer protection is a more concrete goal, perhaps even more easily obtained, at least in the short term. Nevertheless, consumer protection is not the only goal I have with organized skepticism. What is my goal? To reform society.

Where did the Enlightenment succeed and fail? It succeeded in bringing science out of the demon haunted world of superstition and into the clear of day. It eroded the power of superstition and divinely induced privilege. More importantly, it succeeded in changing the zeitgeist of a society.

It is a simple question now, as to whether or not human dignity outweighs the need to destroy, to humiliate or torture. Most of us would recoil at that thought of inflicting intense human suffering. Prior to the Enlightenment, that was not the case. In our modern age this can be clearly seen, even in the obviously violent act of when the state executes a criminal. When this happens (using America as an example) there is often a national debate ignited over the legitimacy of execution, long legal battles over appeals and convictions, intense inquiry into the nature of evidence and the execution; when carried out, is done with few witnesses, by relatively painless methods.

Prior to the Enlightenment, execution was a public display of barbarity and entertainment. The prisoner, if they were lucky enough to have gotten a trial, would not get an appeal. There would be no national debate or intense moralizing. And the execution would reach levels of violent depravity found only in horror movies. The prisoner might be broken on the wheel, where they were tied to large wagon wheel and beaten with clubs. They might have limbs pulled from their body while still alive, or be burned or stretched or tortured with boiling oil. Many times the execution was a long drawn out process, much to the delight of the audience. The stark differences between then and now can be so dramatic that it’s hard to actually believe such things even happened. That sense of disbelief, courtesy the Enlightenment.

Where the Enlightenment failed was the extent of its reach. While there were some (for its time) radical views expressed on slavery, racism, misogyny and class, there weren’t a lot of tangible results. The seed of abolitionism did take hold but it would be decades (in some cases longer) before major breakthroughs happened. It would take an additional century after abolition (in the case of America) before the ideals of the Enlightenment began to be applied to African Americans.

The methods used to spread Enlightenment thinking were also fairly flawed. European imperialism, which in some cases exported new ideas, in most cases simply demonstrated the cognitive blind spots that prevented enlightened European kings and emperors from seeing foreign subjects as human.

But there are reasons for the failure of the Enlightenment in some of these cases. For one, it was resisted. The Counter-Enlightenment was a movement of anti-intellectual, anti-reason and pseudo – spiritualists. Sound familiar?

The Counter-Enlightenment represented the alternative view point, that the world cannot be understood by science or reason, that intellectual pursuits were not beneficial, and that if there were problems in the world, they were not caused by the current institutions like the Church or Monarchies. The Counter-Enlightenment also had the backing of those same powerful institutions.

What I’m suggesting is that goals and success rates are not necessarily tied to scope. Rather, they are tied to a confounding mess of factors: location, institutions, resistance, resources, and reach. There are some who favour a more focused, tactical strategy; rather than winning the hearts and minds of people, they focus on achievable objectives, maybe changing legislation or consumer protection. Others take a slower approach and focus on those hearts and minds of the people, try to win them over either one at a time or with the slow burn of education. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages and both have seen success.

What we know of human beings should alarm us. We know that a small group of dedicated sycophants can turn a nation of ambivalent people into perpetrators of genocide. Everything we’ve learned from psychology has taught us that human beings can change and that we can change rapidly. Sadly, our changes to becoming more egalitarian seem to take longer, but there’s no reason to assume we can’t speed it up.

There can’t be much doubt that the Enlightenment’s greatest victory was in changing hearts and minds, of building a huge cultural shift that allowed the modern age to come into being. If we as skeptics, humanists, or Atheists Plus see ourselves as continuing the Enlightenment (and I profoundly hope we do) we need to continue to build that cultural shift, protect it, advance it, and encourage it.

And I’m not saying that we don’t need the strategic victories and careful planning. You can’t sustain progress without tangible results. But you also can’t achieve results without progress. Imagine trying to elect a politician who’s going to enact secular legislation in a riding that collectively thinks atheists eat babies. Or imagine trying to get a vaccination program approved for a school system when the population thinks vaccines cause autism. Likewise, what’s the point of convincing the majority of the population that vaccines are safe when four of the seven school board members are anti-vax?

Whether our goal is to reform society or do consumer protection, we need success in both to achieve lasting change. And if our wider free thought movement is indeed a movement, we need to start utilizing its advantages.

If the Enlightenment had been focused on one small area of reform, science, politics or architecture for example, it may have achieved a measure of success in one of those areas. Yet the movement was far more broad and far more diverse than one or two small arenas. The results were sweeping changes.

This is also true of our modern movement. We are made of atheist activists, science promoters, skeptics, secularists, humanists, social justice proponents and a gamut of those in-between. Yet instead of treating this as our greatest strength, we shake our fists at each other and howl “splitter!” at those who don’t toe the company line. We allow ourselves to be bogged down blogging about who “the real skeptics are” and drawing lines in the sand that shan’t be crossed.

Don’t want to be an Atheist Plus? Fine, no one is forcing you to be. Don’t want to call yourself a skeptic? Sure, call yourself a humanist. Hate humanism? Have you tried Pastafarianism?

Diversity of opinion is not the enemy of our movement. It is its strength. By taking the least charitable context of a statement or argument of someone in our movement who doesn’t agree with you, you are cutting off the nose to spite the face. For a group of supposedly rational people, I’ve seen some over the top reactionary thinking.* If you want to focus on debunking homeopathy and faith healers, a group of atheists talking about social justice are not a threat to you. I have already written about why I think the Atheism Plus idea is great, so I won’t dive into the specific reasons.

As was the case in the Enlightenment, what made it successful was the draw of people who joined its ranks. And as Ron Lindsay pointed out, we need people. By casting a huge net, the way the free thought movement does, spanning skepticism, science, humanism, atheism and social justice, we catch the attention of way more people than just one alone would. When I show up to a Skeptics in the Pub in Vancouver, I’m always excited to meet someone there for the first time, and I ask, what brought you here? Sometimes it’s the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, sometimes word of mouth. Other times they say one of the following: “I’m an atheist/humanist/bright/feminist…and I thought ‘skeptics’ would be the kind of people I want to hang out with.” We should cheer every time we hear that. Give me a person who thinks critically about something and I can guide them to thinking critically about everything.

When people talk about schisms forming, I try to remind them, we aren’t a religion. Would you describe the different parts of the Enlightenment that focused on emancipation and science a schism? I should hope not. Am I suggesting that we can just leave our movement on autopilot and rest will sort itself out? No, we can’t do that. As in the case with the past, there are forces in the world which resist our movement. Modern anti-intellectual movements that constantly seek to roll back the clock on our advancements. Skepticism, like math, will never be finished.

And there are other reasons to never cease being introspective. Recently our movement has seen the worst of itself. Hateful, violent, misogynistic rhetoric lobbed at female activists in our community. There have been death threats against skeptics attending skeptic conferences. Death threats.  Not from fanatical anti-vaccination proponents, not from fundamentalist religious people, but from other skeptics because they can’t stand it when someone talks about feminism.

How could something as uncontroversial as conferences and groups adopting anti-harassment policies warrant such vitriol? Our introspection is badly needed, now more than ever.

Look at how far we have come. Just think about how much more good we could do.



*As will undoubtedly come up, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t call out our fellow skeptics who endorse harmful or damaging beliefs and opinions. When someone is being blatantly sexist, homophobic, racists or otherwise we should not hold back in confronting them.

Additionally, we should also be willing to engage, disagree with, and even argue with our fellow skeptics over finer points of interests.

15 Responses to “The New Enlightenment”

  1. Marion says:

    Thank you Ethan, I couldn’t agree more.

  2. DV82XL says:

    A New Enlightenment will not occur until the reasons the old one was stopped in its tracks are eliminated. The short reason that happened is because those in power do not want a proletariat that is well-educated and able to reason as this would represent a threat to their status.

  3. locklin says:

    Wow. Bookmarking this one. Well done.

  4. Thomas Doubts says:


  5. Vicente says:

    Thank you Ethan. This is really inspiring. As locklin said, I’m bookmarking this.

  6. Excellent, Ethan, between you and Chris Steadman, I have seen the future of our movement today.

  7. Jeff Humphreys says:

    Typical assumptions wrapped in an excellent essay. The Enlightened thinkers were a reflection of their times, as must be constantly repeated to any current day thinker. They railed against slavery, because of the horrid conditions and a bad case of empathy, and yet none of us would be where we are without helots in our back pocket. “Oh, that’s ancient history! We can have a yummy Democracy and nobody has to break a sweat.” They railed against wars because they were constantly up to their necks in them. Would they have argued so vehemently against our current push-button, distant shore wars? They might not have even noticed. Their idea of torture and inhumanity was significantly different from our ideas about water boarding and naughty pictures.

    We must rethink and rethink, for every snapshot in history is biased by a perspective we cannot ever share. It’s easy just to copy-paste the words from the past – war, justice, freedom – into the current political rhetoric and pretend like you and Spinoza are in lock-step.

    • Ethan Clow says:

      @Jeff, in fact many in the Enlightenment did rail at distant shore wars. The colonization of the Americas was a topic of much discussion amongst the humanists of the day. See:

      Regardless, I’m not suggesting that the modern skeptical/freethought movement is in “lock-step” with Spinoza or any of the Enlightenment thinkers. Rather, the modern skeptical/freethought movement is an intellectual successor of the Enlightenment. We don’t share (all) their views but we occupy much the same role they did in society.

  8. John Greg says:

    Ethan, that is a good essay, however, aligning yourself with the Atheism+ movement might be a rather dangerous position to undertake. Atheism+ers have already shown themselves to be even more dogmatic, separatist, irrational, and holier-than-thou angry than is the majority of the FTB or Skepchick universes.

    Atheism+ is spending a great deal of time trying to determine who is not allowed in the pool, what words cannot ever be used (regardless on intent and context), what socio-lpolitical positions are not allowed, and so on and so forth, almost endlessly.

    The underlying concept of Atheism+ is also highly debtable. How on earth supporters of this movement can presume to align what might be called a non-belief system, and perhaps to some extent a method of thought, with political dogma and socio-political movements and expect it to be legitimate passes my understanding. Yes, yes, yes, I’ve read endless reams of bafflegab, polemic, and angry rhetoric about how critically important the concepts behind Atheism+ are, but its divisionary approach, holier-than-thou ethos, and general rabid and angry stalker-like attitude repels me. Cripes, there are even Atheism+ people, more than one, going around the Internet telling non-supporters to kill themselves, or die in burning houses. Do you really want to align yourself with that kind of message?

    Atheism is not, and should not be, a socio-political movement; it is a perspective; a system of non-belief.

    • Erik Davis says:

      I’m just amazed at how polarized this discussion has become, that you read this piece as Ethan aligning with A+. I don’t want to speak for him, but on my read all he was saying is that Skepticism is strong enough to support a big tent.

      It’s legitimate to have misgivings about A+, or any organization that defines itself based on moral positions. We can disagree on morals because evidence can only inform moral debates, not decide them. The skeptical community should be able to embrace people of differing morals as long as they all agree on the principles of skepticism.

    • Ethan Clow says:

      @John, fortunately for Atheism Plus, just because someone wrote something on the internet doesn’t mean it constitutes “official” scope or mandate talking points for an idea/movement literally only weeks old.

      But don’t listen to me. I’m a highly separatist divisive skeptic. After all, I go to *Vancouver* Skeptics in the Pub and work for CFI *Vancouver* I’m totally excluding skeptics who live in Burnaby, Surrey, North Van, Delta, Richmond, Langley and New West.

  9. The Devil's Towelboy says:

    Recently our movement has seen the worst of itself. Hateful, violent, misogynistic rhetoric lobbed at female activists in our community. There have been death threats against skeptics attending skeptic conferences. Death threats.

    Keep grinding the axe and all you’ll have left is a stick. “Death threats” are not a minor matter. Ever. Apparently, they are endemic. Why then are they not reported to police? People had no problem reporting Dave Mabus. Why aren’t these reported? Everyone, including the harshest critics, agree that death threats can and should be referred to police.

    Does the fact that they aren’t being reported perhaps have something to do with the fact that there isn’t actually any evidence to confirm that the threats originate within the community? In over a year of hysteria about this, not even one threat has had any credible evidence produced. And what are allegations without evidence? Hearsay

    This is BigLie engineering to slander the entire godless community by a tiny minority of people for grubby personal gain and publicity. Thanks for adding your non-information to the rumor mill.

    • Erik Davis says:

      “BigLie engineering”? You realize that’s the kind of conspiratorial bloviating we normally see from homeopaths and anti-wifi campaigners, right?

    • Ethan Clow says:

      “Does the fact that they aren’t being reported perhaps have something to do with the fact that there isn’t actually any evidence to confirm that the threats originate within the community?”

      Really? Have you tried using the internet? Because with just a little google’ing you might find lots of sources for death threats received by skeptics. In fact, there’s a whole series of blog posts by male leaders in the skeptical community who all seem to agree that its a real problem and needs to stop.


  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.