Paul Kurtz


The term Enlightenment refers to a unique set of ideas and ideals that came to fruition in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It began with Bacon, Descartes, Locke, and other philosophers who sought a universal method for establishing knowledge. They looked to science as the model for knowledge and debated whether reason or experience was most important (actually, both are equally important). No doubt they took impetus from the remarkable discoveries of Newton and Galileo in mathematics, physics, and astronomy. The Enlightenment culminated with the French philosophes, Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet and d'Holbach, who popularized its ideas in Parisian salons, pamphlets, and books, enabling those ideas to spread to a wider educated public.

The philosophes criticized the ancien regime of religious superstition and dogmatism, hidebound social traditions, and repressive morality. They wished to use science and reason to understand nature and solve social problems. They were optimistic that in this way human progress could be advanced. In politics, they developed social contract theories, defended the secular state and the rights of man, and advocated economic liberty. The American Revolution was influenced by their ideals (through Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Paine). They influenced the French Revolution also, though many of them were opposed to its excesses. They wished to reform the penal code and end cruel punishments. They were anticlerical, castigating the corruption and hypocrisy of the churches, especially Roman Catholicism (“Écrasez l'infáme,” cried Voltaire). Most were deists; some were atheists. The Enlightenment defended a humanist outlook that drew its values from the Renaissance and Greco-Roman Hellenic culture, which had also extolled the role of reason.

In his influential essay "What Is Enlightenment?" (1785) Immanuel Kant, a key figure of the Enlightenment, sought to define Enlightenment as follows:

Enlightenment is the emancipation of man from a state of self-imposed tutelage. This state is due to his incapacity to use his own intelligence without external guidance. . . . Dare to use your own intelligence! This is the battle-cry of the Enlightenment.1

According to Karl Popper, "It was this idea of self-liberation through knowledge that was central to the Enlightenment. "Dare to be free," added Kant, "and respect the freedom and autonomy of others. . . ." For Kant, the dignity of human beings lay in their freedom, and in their respect for other people's autonomous and responsible beliefs. However, it is only through the growth of knowledge that a person can be liberated "from enslavement by prejudices, idols, and avoidable errors."2

The Enlightenment's quest for knowledge inspired numerous scientists, philosophers, and poets, including Goethe, Bentham, Mill, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Crick, and Watson. It has continued to inspire research on the frontiers of scientific knowledge, such as the development of chemistry and biology in the nineteenth century and the emergence of the social and behavioral sciences in the twentieth. The application of the methods of science heralded new breakthroughs in science and technology that contributed to the betterment of humankind. These included the industrial revolution (with the subsequent capacity to expand production); impressive gains in medicine (such as surgery, anesthesia, and antibiotics, which extended life spans); a swelling bounty of consumer goods (which can be used and enjoyed by everyone); a reduction of drudgery and labor (which has shortened the work week and has afforded more leisure time to ordinary people); vastly improved transportation and communication technologies; the green revolution (increased agricultural production); the information revolution (computers, the Internet); biogenetic engineering (we are on the threshold of new powers for humankind to reduce genetic diseases); and the space age (with its vast potential for exploration of the solar system and outer space beyond).

Scientific knowledge has extended our understanding of the universe. It has altered our interpretation of the place of the human species within nature, as the theory of evolution has replaced theories of creation. It has aroused awe and astonishment, following Hubble, at the sheer size of the expanding universe. New planetary star systems and galaxies are being discovered almost daily. Scientific naturalism has thus dislodged theological supernaturalism as the cosmological outlook of the contemporary intellectual world. The promise of further exciting discoveries in science and technology, with their consequent benefits to humankind, is truly enormous.

Unfortunately, there has been a massive retreat from Enlightenment ideals in recent years, a return to pre-modern mythologies. There has been a resurgence of fundamentalist religions worldwide—Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodox Judaism. Added to this are occult-paranormal claims, which allegedly transcend the existing scientific paradigm.

In the United States—the preeminent scientific-technological-military superpower in the world—significant numbers of Americans have embraced primitive forms of biblical religion. These focus on salvation, the Rapture, and the Second Coming of Jesus. Evangelical Protestant Christians have made alliances with conservative Roman Catholics and neo-conservative Jews, and they have captured political power—power they have used to oppose secular humanism and naturalism. Incredibly, the Bush administration has rejected therapeutic stem-cell research based on the questionable theological-moral doctrine of "ensoulment": even discarded cells that have begun to divide are held to have "souls." Part and parcel with this is "evangelical capitalism," also allied with a triumphalist imperial foreign policy convinced that "God blesses" America in military adventures embarked upon abroad. As a result, many people are troubled by the present administration now in control of this country, and they have focused on the upcoming national elections of 2004—as they no doubt should.

But certain irreconcilable underlying cultural conflicts are larger than even a very important election. These conflicts must not be overlooked, for we are confronted by powerful forces eager to overthrow the basic premises of the Enlightenment. I submit that we need to awaken re-enchantment with the Enlightenment; there is indeed a pressing need for a New Enlightenment, not only for America but for the global community.

Regrettably, post-World War II Parisian savants spawned a vulgar post-modernist cacophony of Heideggerian-Derridian mush. Incoherent as some of their rhetoric may be, it has been influential in its rejection of the Enlightenment, the ethics of humanism, scientific objectivity, and democratic values. This literary-philosophical movement had made great inroads in the academy, especially within humanities faculties (though, fortunately, it is already being discredited in France itself). But it has taken a terrible toll, undermining confidence in any progressive agendas of emancipation. In part such thinking is an understandable response to the two grotesque twentieth-century ideologies—fascism and Stalinism—that dominated the imagination of so many supporters in Europe and betrayed human dignity on the butcher block of repression and genocide. "After Auschwitz," wrote Theodor Adorno, we cannot praise "the grandeur of man." Surely the world has recovered from that historical period of aberrant bestiality. However, many intellectuals are still disillusioned because of the failure of Marxism to deliver on the perceived promises of socialism, in which they had invested such faith. Whatever the causes of pessimism, we cannot abandon our efforts at reform or at spreading knowledge and enlightenment. We cannot give in to nihilism or self-defeating subjectivism. Although science has often been co-opted by various military-technological powers for anti-humanistic purposes, it also can help fulfill ennobling humanitarian goals.

When I say that we critically need a New Enlightenment, I mean a radical reorientation of the religious-moral outlook that now pervades so much of contemporary society. This involves a cultural reformation, the restructuring of first principles, beliefs, and values. Essential for this to occur is some confidence in the capacity of human beings to advance human knowledge, to contribute to scientific discovery, and to engage in rational inquiry. Many problems may seem intractable or hopeless. But there are no viable alternatives to using the method of intelligence. It is not faith or revelation, authority or custom, mysticism or spirituality that will save us but diligent work and some measure of goodwill. The theist believes that only God will save us, to which I respond that "No deity will save us, we must save ourselves!"3

What are the distinctive characteristics of the New Enlightenment? I can only sketch some of them:

First, it is incumbent upon us to extend the methods of science and reason to all areas of human interest. This form of methodological naturalism is grounded in the recognition that the methods of science serve us as powerful tools in unlocking the secrets of nature and solving human problems. Scientific principles should be considered as hypotheses, tested by their experimental effects and predictive power, integrated into theories, and validated by their comprehensive character and mathematical elegance. They are always open to change in the light of new discoveries or more powerful theories; hence, science is fallible and self-correcting, though its methods have some degree of objectivity. Since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, science has expanded rapidly, entering into fields never before imagined possible, such as understanding consciousness, the brain, the biological world and the genome, and the micro- and macro-dimensions of the universe. Using powerful instruments of observation, it has probed aspects of nature thought to be beyond reach. We should be prepared in the future to extend the methods of scientific inquiry still further to all areas of human interest. How and in what sense we can do this depends on the subject matter under consideration. In many areas, the best term to describe this process is critical thinking, which provides a normative model for appraising claims to truth.
Second, we need to respond to the besetting existential question, "What is the meaning of life?" Many theists believe that, without belief in a supernatural deity, life would be meaningless. People are unable to face death, they say, only belief in life beyond the grave will console them. Science has disabused us of such primitive concepts of God and immortality, though such skepticism has not always penetrated to a wider public. We can no longer accept the ancient metaphysical-theological interpretations of reality in the light of naturalistic accounts of cosmology. Moreover, scientific and scholarly criticisms of biblical and Qur'anic texts have shown the specious character of historic claims of so-called revelations from on high. They lack confirmation or corroboration by any reliable empirical evidence.

Theists are mistaken on another count: it is possible to live a full and meaningful life in a naturalistic universe, informed by scientific knowledge and devoid of supernatural illusions. Indeed, countless generations of people have experienced satisfying, creatively enriched, and morally significant lives without belief in God. A person's life in one sense is like a work of art, blending colors, tones, lines, and forms. It is what he or she chooses to do, the sum of his or her dreams and aspirations, plans and projects, ends and goals, tragedies and successes that define who and what a person is. Our ends and values are shared with others and conditioned by the societies in which we live. In open societies that respect freedom and autonomy, an individual's choices are plural and diverse and, though that person may be highly idiosyncratic, he or she is free to pursue them as long as no harm is done to others. Democratic societies afford a wider range of opportunities for free expression than do authoritarian ones. All human beings live out their lives in a universe of order and disorder, causality and contingency, regularity and chance. It is hoped that individuals can learn from experience and modify their choices in the light of consequences. They can develop common goals and values experienced with others. Thus they can find life intrinsically worthwhile and even immensely exciting—for its own sake.

Accordingly, life can be meaningful without the need of an external religious support. Ancient religious creeds were spun out of human imagination and fantasy during the infancy of the race. At a time when disease, deprivation, danger, and premature death were the norm, people were overwhelmed by fear and ignorance, and they supplicated hidden and mysterious forces that they could not comprehend. Science is able to dissipate many of these fears. It can discover the causes of natural events and fashion the best means for overcoming adversity. Such knowledge can help us to cope with challenges, it can bolster courage and help us to survive and indeed thrive. Human beings soon learn that cooperation and empathy with their fellow humans, love and shared experiences, can enhance life and help us to achieve significant lives that are bountiful, joyful, and even exuberant.

Third, and of central significance to the New Enlightenment, is the question of ethical values. Humanist ethics can provide the basis for a new morality. This is related to eupraxsophy, i.e., the understanding of good wisdom and conduct drawn from scientific inquiry and philosophical rationality. Principles and values should be tested by their consequences in practice. We learn that not all means should be used to realize ends, as some exceed the parameters of decency.

Eupraxsophy focuses on two main areas. First there are excellences intrinsic to the good life of the individual where freedom and autonomy, self-determination, and the right of privacy are respected, as well as the values of creativity, aesthetic appreciation, self-respect, self-control, and rationality. The ultimate goal is human happiness and joyful exuberance. Second are the principles of virtue and responsibility as they relate to other people in communities of transaction. These include thecommon moral decencies of integrity, trustworthiness, benevolence, and fairness. Humanist ethical values and principles cut across cultures. They are empirical in content and are relative to human interests and needs. They have evolved over a long period of human civilization. Objective rational criteria can be applied to the comparative evaluation of moral choices. The morally developed person learns that there are duties and obligations that emerge in the contexts of social interaction and need to be respected.

Fourth, perhaps the most important humanist aspect of the New Enlightenment in ethics today, is the realization that it is planetary in scope and that it entails a doctrine of universal human rights. This means that all individuals on the planet enjoy similar rights that should be protected by the world community. These are related to planetary ethics; that is, they are transcultural in reference. Unlike any movement before it, the New Enlightenment considers all members of the human family to be equal in dignity and value. Planetary ethics emphasize our mutual responsibility to protect our common habitat, the planet Earth, to guard against ecological damage and pollution. It also recognizes the need to support international laws and a world court to interpret and enforce them. This would transcend national, racial, religious, gender, and ethnic divisions, and it would encourage the growth of transnational democratic institutions. These would be charged with guaranteeing collective security and peace; ensuring universal education, cultural freedom, and open media of communication; raising the standards of living; and ensuring the prosperity of all parts of the new interdependent global society.

The New Enlightenment provides important directions for the future of humankind. It can inspire commitment from all sectors of the world. It is important that naturalists and secular humanists take the lead in pointing the way forward to the new planetary civilization that is emerging.


1. See Paul Kurtz and Tim Madigan, eds., for the Academy of Humanism, Challenges to the Enlightenment: In Defense of Reason and Science (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1994), pp. 58-59.

2. Ibid., p. 59.

3.Humanist Manifesto II, 1973.

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 3.

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and chair of the Center for Inquiry.

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