According to several recent polls, 22 percent of Americans are certain that Jesus will return to earth sometime in the next fifty years. Another 22 percent believe that he will probably do so. This is likely the same 44 percent who go to church once a week or more, who believe that God literally promised the land of Israel to the Jews, and who want to stop teaching our children about the biological fact of evolution.
As the President is well aware, believers of this sort constitute the most cohesive and motivated segment of the American electorate. Consequently, their views and prejudices now influence almost every decision of national importance.
Political liberals seem to have drawn the wrong lesson from these developments and are now thumbing scripture, wondering how best to ingratiate themselves to the legions of men and women in our country who vote mainly on the basis of religious dogma.
More than 50 percent of Americans have a "negative" or "highly negative" view of people who do not believe in God; 70 percent think it important for presidential candidates to be "strongly religious." Because it is taboo to criticize a person's religious beliefs, political debate over questions of public policy (stem-cell research, the ethics of assisted suicide and euthanasia, obscenity and free speech, gay marriage, etc.) generally gets framed in terms appropriate to a theocracy. Unreason is now ascendant in the United States -- in our schools, in our courts, and in each branch of the federal government. Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution; 68 percent believe in Satan. Ignorance in this degree, concentrated in both the head and belly of a lumbering superpower, is now a problem for the entire world.
The article by Sam Harris emphasizes the 'debate' over Intelligent Design, the way that accomodations between science and religion have only strengthened religious dogmatism, and the need for what I'll call 'a new enlightenment' that will get us out of the trap of today's new dark ages.
As I've said, he doesn't use the term 'new Enlightenment,' and, actually, I'm extrapolating pretty loosely here in order to pose the question: in a time when appeals to faith seem to be triumphing over facts, reason, and evidence, might we find a way out through a new enlightenment? (I've just started Rebecca Goldstein's book on Godel, so I might change my mind a lot by next week--Godel was a Platonist and Goldstein argues that accounts of 20th century science that lump him in with Heisenberg and a kind of radical subjectivism are mightily misplaced.)
Anyway, a new enlightenment would have to provide some kind of ways of thinking (methods, premises) that would be generally acceptable. The old enlightenment (which is of course sloppy on my part given the differences between, say, the French, German, and Scottish enlightenments, but I'm going to proceed with these stereotypes, having in mind primarily Hobbes' attempt to provide a science of politics) relied on clear and certain foundations (Descartes). There was thought to be a kind of unity and objectivity of nature on which science was based. Is it possible for people to accept this kind of foundation anymore? And, even if it is epistemologically, is this the kind of foundation that could guide public policy, given widespread political disagreement?
Would a non-foundationalist enlightenment be possible? It might be one that emphasizes probabilities over certainities. On the one hand, this empowers the polling class and statiscians. On the other, it could incite practices congenial to understanding and reading statistics, to defending probabilities, to talking about risk. Although I think this could be appealing, it allies to easily for my taste with actuarial science and makes me think of the stupid color coding alert levels of the Bush administration.
At this point, then, I don't think a new enlightenment non-foundationalist enlightenment is possible. I think at best one can try to make an argument from as many different discursive bases as possible. And, then, at the end of the day, recognize that the incommensurability is rooted in a more fundamental antagonism (class/the relations of production) that will necessarily and rightly involve skepticism and suspicion.