Students of the religious history of Western civilization are well-acquainted with the effect that the so-called “Enlightenment” had upon the religious life in Europe and America. The winds of skepticism, doubt, rationalism, and progress were sweeping the West, causing many to question and reject the traditional religions of their forefathers. To many, this was and is a cause for lamentation. For others, a cause for celebration. Blown in by these winds of change was a revival of the philosophy of materialism – the view that this world is all there is, there are no supernatural powers or gods, the sum total of existence is contained in the material universe around us that we can see, measure, quantitate, and control.
The natural corollary to philosophical materialism was atheism – to reject supernatural underpinnings to existence practically necessitates the rejection of the supernatural, period – with Deism merely being an ungainly compromise. As philosophical materialism began to take hold of the hearts and minds of the upper and educated classes, empiricism became the accepted rule for epistemology. In the 19th century, Huxley, Lamarck, Darwin, and others contributed to the “scienticizing” of materialism – the attempt to give the worldview a more solid basis than merely philosophical arguments by attaching it to “science”, the growing body of knowledge about the world around us gathered by empirical observation and rational experimentation. It seemed natural and obvious that science – based upon empiricism – should fit like a glove on a hand to materialism, which presumed that empirically-derived sensory evidences were all that existed.
The natural effect that this had upon traditional religion was corrosion. After all, the new philosophy was based upon the self-conceit of “rationality” and “free thinking”, while “religion” represented just the opposite, or so the story goes. Granted, much of what passed for Christianity during the period of the Enlightenment – what with its religious wars, appeals to the authority of hierarchy, dogmatic refusal to even entertain the arguments of its antagonists, and so forth – lent itself to a falling away. The sclerotic state-religion edifices built up by centuries of complacent ascendancy came crashing down, and the old assumptions about reality began to pass away. Frankly, a good many people were disillusioned by the failings of organized religion. Materialism, atheism, and evolutionism filled the void left by the collapse of the old worldview.
Yet, the materialists failed to remember that nothing lasts forever.
Religion refused to die. Theism refused to go quietly into the night. The worldview which accepts the supernatural would not yield to that which rejected it and sought to extirpate it from the minds and hearts of men. And thus, today, we see a mightily disconcerted set of atheistic and evolutionary materialists who have fallen into the same traps that religionists did during the Enlightenment, who are being faced by a challenge as gravely serious to their worldview, as materialism was to religion and tradition when it first rose against them.
This re-emergence of a religious perspective and worldview is especially strong in the United States, though it is not confined there. One of the most conspicuous aspects of this challenge is that of the rejection of evolutionism – the rejection of the application of materialistic scientism (a philosophical underpinning that is not to be confused with actual “science”) by those who advocate for creation and intelligent design. However, this is certainly not the only outlet for the growing rejection of materialism. In the schools of philosophy, theism is making a resurgence. In politics, religion continues to strengthen as a factor, despite the proclamations of the “death” of the “religious right” that are issued every so often. Within religion itself, the trend is towards theological conservatism and polarization, as Americans either leave dead, theologically-liberal bodies and join themselves to conservative groups, or else wash themselves of religion altogether (the trends go in both directions, in what seems like but is not a paradox). While we commonly think that American society is increasingly secular and godless, we should note that this godlessness is generating a backlash that has not been without effect, though it sometimes seems to us to be long in coming.
It is perhaps not surprising that the United States is where this happened. Post-revolutionary America was built upon a foundation of liberty in conscience, and never had the hardened encrustation of state-religionism. Since its independence, it has had a freedom of religion that allowed religious dissent to be channeled into other outlets besides the European dichotomy of either submission to the state religion or rejection of religion altogether. In America, the soil was ripe both for religious novelty, but also for the growth and spread of truly Bible-based, primitive Christianity, for the Baptists and the evangelicals and others who had previously existed as small and despised “out-groups” in the European religious framework. This outward-looking and vigorous Christianity provided many influences in American society that helped to hinder the taking root of materialism as fully as it did in Europe and other Western regions, and has helped in the efforts at pushing it back to a greater degree than seen elsewhere.
This has not been without its effect on the fortunes of philosophical materialism. Majorities of Americans – more now than fifty years ago – reject evolutionism as an explanation for the world we see around us, and this trend even seems to be starting to take hold in Europe, as well. More and more people reject the assumptions that are made, but not rationally supported, by atheists and materialists and evolutionists. Indeed, we almost seem to be seeing the emergence of the “Second Religiousness” predicted by Oswald Spengler based upon his observations about the histories of other civilizations that have experienced the rejection of their traditional religious and philosophical bases by the people, only to later see an “Indian summer” return to some sort of religiosity (though not always the traditional old religion) after the society has matured and moved beyond its interlude of skepticism and doubt. That the resurgence of the power and force of religion in the public square is taking place in America first is not surprising – despite the common assumption that America is a “young, frontier” society, there is a good argument to be made that America is actually very old, because America is the culmination of the history, experiences, and trends in the Western world that began in Europe, but were transplanted and perfected on this continent.
The increasingly muscular counter-attacks against atheism, materialism, and evolutionism are proving to be effective in the public square. This is because philosophical materialism, after a century of perceived ascendancy, began to form the same sort of impenetrable, crustose layer on society that state-religionism had imposed centuries earlier. Indeed, we see that the hard core of materialist atheists and evolutionists come off seeming not unlike the hidebound, “anti-reason” bishops and vicars who defended the old regime in Europe. We see the crystallization of an evolutionist “orthodoxy” about which no dissent or discussion is allowed. There is the same refusal on the part of materialists and evolutionists to even consider alternatives to their philosophical worldview. There is the same out-of-hand condemnation of dissent as not merely wrong, but evil and indicative of moral or intellectual failure on the part of the one who does not accept materialistic evolution. Prominent evolutionary scientists form much the same sort of orthodox hierarchy as the cardinals of old, people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett serving the role of archbishops of “reason” whose purpose is not to rationally defend, but instead to denigrate and disparage. Finally, there is the same inability, or perhaps purposeful refusal, to acknowledge that the criticisms made against the system are legitimate and perhaps even right. Instead, ever-intricate epicycles are introduced to defend evolutionary materialism from the refutation of the system by empirical, scientific evidences. Yet, it has been to no avail, and the influence and propagation of reasoned and reasonable alternatives to humanistic, materialistic evolution – themselves relying upon appeal to science and rationality - have increased in almost direct proportion to the virulence and desperation of the defenders of materialism.
In other words, atheistic materialism is suffering from an Enlightenment of its own, and is falling before it. Atheistic materialism is seeing the undermining of its moral and philosophical authority as an arbiter of truth and wisdom. What is happening to it is the same thing that it did to religionism in previous centuries. People are questioning the system, skeptical of its claims, disobedient to its authority, and unsure that it really is as “rational” and “scientific” as it has claimed for itself. As questions are asked that materialistic evolution will not, or cannot, answer, the assurances that the system is right “because we said so” grow increasingly hollow.
This Enlightenment ought to be encouraged, and indeed, will be in a free and open society – the type of society, unfortunately, that the defenders of materialism, atheism, and evolutionism seem to want to do away with. How can we have free discussion when, for instance, people like Dawkins say that bringing children up in religion is “child abuse” and that they should be taken away from their parents? You can't. All that can be done is to continue to chip away at the system, no matter how hard the defenders of materialist orthodoxy cling to the disintegrating fragments of their worldview's edifice. We need to continue to encourage the doubting of atheism and evolutionism. People need to be presented with the questions that challenge this worldview, and encouraged to ask these questions of themselves. As a mature and thoughtful society, we can no longer take, for instance, the evolutionists' word for it that evolution is “obviously” right. Because it is not. Indeed, there are a number of serious obstacles – both scientific and philosophical – that call evolution into doubt, despite the raving, wild-eyed attempts by its defenders to silence dissent and criticism. People need to see that the “evidences” that evolutionism adduces for itself are based upon circular reasoning and the selective interpretation of the data by filtering it a priori through the lens of the assumed truth of materialism. If the materialists want to make their case, then they need to prove it, not assume it and expect us to do the same. Atheistic materialism needs to learn that the forces of Enlightenment cut both ways. If our society does anything less, we will end up less “enlightened,” more inflexible, and less able to deal with the intellectual winds of the 21st century.