Whose Racism? Which Enlightenment?

By Kevin Currie-Knight


Like so much else, the Enlightenment seems to be a flash point in the contemporary culture wars. Some, like Douglas Murray and Stephen Pinker, suggest that we are moving too far away from “enlightenment values” like liberty, equality, and the idea of a universal human nature (to which they oppose the idea of identity politics). To others, like Domenico Losurdo and Gregory Elliott, or (philosopher) John Gray, whatever good there is to the enlightenment and the values it produced have probably been oversold, especially at the expense of its darker elements like racial taxonomies and colonialism, that these thinkers say are probably features more than bugs.

The Enlightenment, then, has a contested legacy, and while the contest has revved up in recent years, it isn’t new, going back many decades. Should we remember the Enlightenment primarily or exclusively as the movement that freed the West from dogmatic superstition, ushering in an age of science and individual liberty? Or should we instead (or additionally) remember it as an age where we found new ways to justify inequalities through scientific (-sounding) taxonomies and create the conditions for rampant imperialism and population control?

As some know, I have a substantial familiarity with the literature on race and its history. This is where, at least for me, this contested legacy of the Enlightenment gets interesting. Most of the literature seems to suggest that race comes through the enlightenment (though the stories of how differs by author). These folks put it the way historian Tyler Stovall does in his recent book White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea:

[T]he relationship between liberty and racism is not necessarily contradictory but rather has its own internal consistency. In short, I reject the idea of a paradoxical relationship between the two; to my mind there is no contradiction. The central theme of this study is that to an important extent, although certainly not always, ideas of freedom in the modern world have been racialized (p. 5).

For Stovall, you can hardly talk about Enlightenment conceptions of individual liberty without talking about racial assumptions behind them. As evidence, he and philosopher Charles Mills point to the very many examples of enlightenment thinkers – Locke, Kant, Hume, and Mill most popularly – who centered the value of freedom in their philosophy while making at least occasional caveats about freedom and the capabilities it demands should not be extended to various types of (non-white) savages.

On the other side, you have thinkers who argue that properly understood, Enlightenment ideas laid the necessary groundwork for combatting ideas of racial difference and the inequality it justifies. Stephen Pinker nods in this direction in his appropriately-titled book Enlightenment Now, when he maintains that it is actually the Enlightenment’s critics who see “people as expendable cells of a superorganism – a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation” rather than, as with the Enlightenment tradition, individuals who share a common human nature (p. 30). Pinker worries that it was so-called counter-enlightenment thinkers, like the cultural relativist Giambattista Vico who, by denying this common human nature, inadvertently justify the emphasis on human difference that can lead to race and racism.

What to make of these contrasting stories of the Enlightenment? Which is correct?. As readers can probably see, a lot has to do with whether you focus on the purely theoretical thought-worlds Enlightenment thinkers erected or whether you focus on how that rubber met the road of actual practice. This is what Kenan Malik argues. He writes that in theory, there is hardly grounds for racism in most Enlightenment thought, and that racism only got added when trying to apply universalistic and egalitarian theorizing to a world of difference and existing inequality.)

It also has to do with how you interpret some of the major Enlightenment thinkers when they qualify their talk of universal human nature and liberty with asides (or more) about those lowly brutes and savages. Let me quote Malik here again, for his handling of this is instructive of the “pro-Enlightenment” side.

The Enlightenment belief in a common, universal human nature tended to undermine any proclivity for a racial categorisation of humanity. There were of course exceptions. Voltaire, for instance, claimed that ‘Only a blind man could doubt that the whites, Negroes, albinos, Hottentots, Laplanders, Chinese are entirely different races.’ David Hume, even though he argued that ‘it is universally acknowledged that there is great uniformity among the acts of men, in all nations and ages, and human nature remains still the same in its principles and operations’, nevertheless also wrote that ‘I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites’ (53).

“There are exceptions.” A lot stands, then, on how significant those exceptions are. Voltaire and Hume are quite canonical to Enlightenment thought, and their statements here seem pretty direct. Malik notes, though, that Hume’s statement was made in a footnote and is quite hard to square with the thought surrounding it. A footnote, okay, but if it is so insignificant to the rest of his thought, why even bother to include it? After all, footnotes are there for reasons. Malik also follows this passage by a chain of citations from other enlightenment figures like Rousseau – and he could have included Montesquieu – who clearly undermine the idea of race and racism.

On the anti-Enlightenment side, Charles Mills has been tough on Immanuel Kant  for his simultaneous praise for autonomy and treating people as ends rather than means and his writings on race and financial enmeshment in race-based slavery. Because this has been a hot-button area among Enlightenment scholars thinking about race, some try to exonerate Kant by noting that his writings on racial taxonomy are entirely separate from his moral writings. Mills, however, suggests that it is quite possible to read these views as consistent with one another, and that it is simply too hard to believe that a thinker who cared as much about theoretical consistency as Kant would not notice and try to reconcile such dissonance.

How to make Kant’s statements consistent? Mills argues that Kant may be thinking about liberty and treating others as ends as, in some sense, requiring certain prerequisite abilities: the ability to think rationally, exercise responsibility, in a way he didn’t think applied to all (groups of) people. Black people may have been people in Kant’s eyes, but not quite the kind of people we are talking about when constructing our deontological theory. This is also what Stovall, the historian quoted above, had in mind when he said that a close look at how the Enlightenment played out in Europe and America tells us that it was always “white freedom” being conceptualized.

I generally find Mills and Stovall pretty persuasive on this point. Even if Mills doesn’t get Kant’s intention right, he and Stovall offer a very plausible story of how the Enlightenment could at the very same time sincerely work for individual freedom and be at least accepting enough of racial ideas and the slavery based on it that it took as long as it did for the practices to end. How could America – a strange blend of Christian and Enlightenment individualism – proclaim itself the Land of the Free while keeping so many in bondage, even importing people specifically for the purpose of bondage? Maybe Nikole Hannah-Jones overshot when she wrote that America was founded on a lie; maybe it was founded on a more nuanced and more loaded idea of freedom than we often appreciate.

But that doesn’t put me in the “anti-Enlightenment” camp either. One problem, I think, is that too many folks talk about the enlightenment as a single tradition, which at very least leads us to overlook the diversity of thought therein. Sometimes, it even leads us – and by ‘us’, I mean Stephen Pinker primarily – to cherry-pick which thinkers and strains of Enlightenment thought we want to acknowledge or downplay. (John Gray deservedly busted Pinker up on this point in a scathing review of Enlightenment Now.)

This brings me to my last point, about some contradictions within Enlightenment thought that I am not sure are sufficiently appreciated. The Enlightenment brought us the hopes of a new science that promised liberty, and the very techniques of classification, measurement, and science, that allowed for more efficient subjugation and control of each other. As one of its most central themes, it postulated a universal human nature, but also had to grapple with the realities of human difference made more evident by advances in travel technology. This idea of a universal human nature also coexisted with newly emerging ideas about and fascinations with classifying and taxonomizing the natural world. Belief in the value of human liberty could either be an argument against empire or for it depending on whether the way you and yours practiced freedom was a human apex that others should be liberated to pursue.

These are all inheritances from the period we call the Enlightenment. My suspicion is that it only looks clean in retrospect, the same way classic rock appears a coherent body of work only decades after we’ve decided what was signal and what was noise. Nor am I sure what value there is in depicting the Enlightenment as so coherent a movement that we can reconstruct what “it” contributed to race in order to decide whether it is on our side or not. Even if we could show, with Stovall, that Enlightenment conceptions of liberty have always been racialized, that need not mean that those traditions cannot be divested of race going forward. Similarly, one could acknowledge that Enlightenment science and taxonomizing aided racialist causes, but other Enlightenment ideas about liberty and dignity played a role in denouncing those causes. Even your favorite record probably has a bad song on it.


53 responses to “Whose Racism? Which Enlightenment?”

  1. This is a very important topic that you’re broaching here, and long overdue in the public sphere.
    I think it obvious that it was the Age of Reason that ushered in the psychological need for a reason. Prior to that, people have had other people as slaves for thousands of years, without feeling any need to go and justify it. Of course it sucks being a slave, but it’s fate, what can you do? And when there is psychological need for a reason, what reason emerges need not be, as it were, a rational reason, nor even consistent with the rest of a persons body of thought.
    Hume and Kant were both explicitly racist, and they both made substantial sums off the slave trade, but how much racist they were, and whether they in that exceeded what was common at the time, is not something on which I can weigh in. I’ve heard it argued both ways, and I don’t know. But they were both very influential writers, and I don’t see that there can be much doubt that their influence helped disseminate and institutionalize racism.
    But that said, first of all, speaking as an old Marxist here (not any more, thank you very much), it should be obvious that it was slavery and the Transatlantic slave trade that gave birth to racism, and authors and intellectuals merely reproduced as ideology what was the material reality of how they got their income.
    Second, if the Enlightenment gave birth to racism, it also birthed the awoved anti-racism of Diderot and others. As you say, it is a complicated matter, and we’re going to have to talk this over at great length, including talking about which of our contemporaries may be guilty of pushing agendas that may not accord with complicated and difficult truth.
    And thirdly, Hume’s and Kant’s personal views speak to their character, but they are not good reasons to not study their intellectual work, and not merely as symptoms of a nefarious agenda. On the whole, it seems to me better to try to give up that childish hankering for perfect heroes and villains, and simply accept that people are flawed, and do not operate under consistency laws, not even those who’d want to. But try to persuade the internet of that – yeah, I’ve got better things to do.

    On the matter of classic rock, I do not agree that we have sifted the signal from the noise. Or else it is the case that I prefer the noise. And there are no bad songs on my favorite album.

  2. It’s just good sense to never “all good” or “all bad” things. I’ve certainly taken Pinker to task for his naive optimism. [See here: https://theelectricagora.com/2015/12/21/report-from-the-empire-of-nice/%5D

    Nonetheless, I find Enlightenment-bashing predictable, tedious, ignorant, and largely besides the point. [Note: KCK is *not* doing this] Is Enlightenment cheerleading worse? Maybe, but I doubt it. Our problem today is *not* that people have too much concern for liberal values. Quite the opposite, and it’s from both sides. That is, the attack on liberal values comes from both the illiberal Right and Left. So, while there is a certain shallow feel-goodism about Enlightenment cheerleading, the attack on liberalism — which is what attacks on the Enlightenment are, no matter what a bunch of grifters like Kendi and others might like to pretend — is significantly worse and as already said, has no particular political valence.

    Absent ignorance or grift, efforts to connect the valuable elements of Enlightenment philosophy with racism and bigotry and the like are in my view, mostly exercises in missing the point.

    What is valuable about Hume’s work today? The rigorous Empiricism. The analysis of causality and identity and induction. The pressure applied to naïve Realism. The elevation of the conative over the ratiocinative in the areas of action and morality. Not only does none of this have anything to do with racism, Hume’s quite obvious racism had nothing to do with it.

    Crispin Sartwell tried to play this game with me, in that case with regard to Descartes, an essential figure in the Scientific Revolution and the History of Mathematics. I wasn’t having it — and you can decide for yourself who got the better of it — but trying to connect the creation of coordinate geometry and trigonometry and early mechanistic physics or even Cartesian epistemology and methodology to “racism” is a boob’s errand. That or someone so in the grip of a picture that his otherwise powerful brain goes dim.


    We could do a lot worse than having people rediscover and admire the Second Treatise of Government, On Liberty, A Treatise of Human Nature, Discourse on the Method, and the like. The academic racism industry however? I doubt we need much if any more of that.

  3. “As some know, I have a substantial familiarity with the literature on race and its history. This is where, at least for me, this contested legacy of the Enlightenment gets interesting. Most of the literature seems to suggest that race comes through the enlightenment.”

    Notwithstanding your great knowledge on the literature, Kevin, the concept ‘race’ can be traced to 15th century Spain. The Archbishop Juan Martinez Siliceo seems to have been a central figure. See here: https://erenow.net/modern/the-spanish-inquisition-a-historical-revision/13.php and here: https://www.macmillanlearning.co.uk/resources/sample-chapters/9780333636954_sample.pdf

  4. Rageforthemachine

    But isn’t one of the strengths of enlightenment thinking that unlike many other systems it carries the potential for its own self-criticism? It’s adherence to the scientific and rational method views the possession of truth as an endpoint not a starting point so it is always able to eventually correct the faults in its practice. Other races were excluded from a general conception of human rights because they were not seen as fully human. When “scientific racism” attempted to validate this it eventually became factually unmaintainable and because we had that general conception of human rights every human had to share in them equally.

  5. True, and that is quite well known in the literature. I don’t think I overlooked it, as “comes through” is not a synonym for “was invented by.”

  6. The common thought in the historical literature is not that the Enlightenment invented race (though some take that view for reasons you’ll see); the thought is that while Siliceo seems to have been the first to come up with something resembling what we call race, Enlightenment thinkers were the first to give it a “scientific” footing, and hence take it out of the realm of speculation.

  7. “…there were two Enlightenment projects…One was to create heaven on earth: a world without caste, class or cruelty. The other was to find a new comprehensive worldview which would replace God with Nature and Reason…The political project…is proceeding very slowly…We [critics of the second] hope to do to Nature, Reason and Truth what the eighteenth century did to God.” Rorty 😉

  8. Paul D. Van Pelt

    Maybe I should be paying better attention. It appears to me that many people look for these flash points; that they feed some need for common controversy, to remove our attention from disturbing other things, towards which we are equally powerless. Sorta like a steam valve on an old pressure cooker, culture wars, notwithstanding.

  9. To my way of thinking the Enlightenment is only partially about political ideas about liberty, etc. , though that’s an important component. My interest is in the epistemology that comes out of the Enlightenment which to be simplistic, comes down to making knowledge claims through some combination of reason and experience. The other issue is what are we comparing the Enlightenment to and what is the alternative? Those who wrote in the tradition of British Empiricism such as Mill and much later Russell were most often on the better side-even if Mill was sometimes inconsistent. Going back a bit earlier, Condorcet was critical of racism, sexism, slavery and even of the excesses of the French Revolution. There are certainly aspects of the Enlightenment that deserve criticism and I agree with the author of this post that the Enlightenment is not uniform. But where do the critics of the Enlightenment lead us? Why is Heidegger celebrated along with a lot of derivative philosophies form Heidegger? Why are brutal misogynists and militarists such as Nietszche hailed as progressive?

  10. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Why not blame the Enlightenment for anthropogenic global warming? Silly notion.
    Important to note that Darwinism did not prompt slavery but was subsequently useful in rationalizing it, along with the Bible or any other notion one could concoct.

  11. Could this ‘enlightenment’ as a point of struggle really be a deflection from what is a moral issue? As a argumentative red herring. Racism is as old as human history and people will seize on any device to justify it and claim if you demur that you are denying the science. It’s a natural evil and will probably last as long as the human race.

  12. Ira

    For those who are celebrating,

    Shana Tova !

    A Happy and Healthy New Year !

  13. To you too my friend.

  14. […] Whose Racism? Which Enlightenment? — The Electric Agora […]

  15. Hi Kevin: Thanks for this thoughtful discussion. To my mind, “the Enlightenment” is a “movement” that exists very much on the level of ideology and ideas. Its main achievements were in the form of “treatises”. It was a collection of “purely theoretical thought-worlds Enlightenment thinkers”, as you put it. It had also a practical side, in social and political and educational “reform”. So, to decide whether this movement had a racist dimension I would like to be shown a treatise in defence of racism that was written by an Enlightenment thinker or a racist reform that was initiated by Enlightenment reformers.

    It is easy to find such things in the fascist and Nazi traditions. I don’t know Stovall’s work. You quote him as saying: “to an important extent, although certainly not always, ideas of freedom in the modern world have been racialized”. This is obviously so in the fascist and Nazi branch of the modern world. But what does Stovall put forward to show this in the Enlightenment branch of the modern world? I’d like to know.

    What, in particular, is Stovell’s argument for the claim that “[T]he relationship between liberty and racism is not necessarily contradictory but rather has its own internal consistency”? The “internal consistency” thesis, taken literally, seems to merely contend that a person can be both an Enlightenment thinker or reformer and a racist. By itself this would do nothing to show that the Enlightenment as a whole phenomenon had a racist dimension. The issue would remain of whether this combination is puzzling or paradoxical. Whereas it would not be puzzling or paradoxical if a fascist or a Nazi thinker or activist had a racist streak, because the theoretical side of that movement paraded many racist treatises.

    Incidentally, the quote from Voltaire was not about racial superiority. It concerned the question of whether the human race had one origin, as the Genesis story proposes. Voltaire thought that visible differences between the “races” that he lists is disproof of the single origin hypothesis. (He added “and Americans” after Chinese.) He was merely trying to antagonise the religious, as usual.


  16. I’m not so sure the concept of race started in 15th century Spain. For example:


    The point about Aristotle is interesting and goes to KCK’s point about enlightenment people encountering other people for the first time. Aristotle compared Greeks to other barbarian people. It seems that early on when people would encounter people that were living in far less developed societies they would tend to think the people themselves were inferior. It is not new to the enlightenment. We now know that people of all different races can live in developed societies.

    I seem to recall some racist views of Romans when they would invade barbarian lands in Europe.

  17. I don’t think of the enlightenment as a situation where suddenly some new set of ideas take root and changed the west. Rather IMO the printing press just massively sped up the process that was already happening in the west.

    Although this article does not provide evidence for his claim that the big divide between Church and Enlightenment exists he does outline what I consider the same old myths.


    Here is a book that catalogs many of the achievements that were taking place in the middle ages:


    If you don’t have time to read the whole book here is a review of a different book by the same author:


    Many of these ideas of equality stem from the notion that all men are made in the image of God. The first known existing extended argument against slavery was written by a Bishop in the 4th century and he made use this concept. I quoted the Bishops Homily in this blog:


  18. There certainly was a strain of Christian humanism that swept through Western Christendom during and after the Renaissance. But the Sci Revolution/Enlightenment was a very different thing.

  19. I don’t necessarily disagree with you as these terms can mean different things. For example, I would be fine calling the Oxford calculators “proto-scientists” rather than full scientists.


    But their work and the work of several other thinkers before the enlightenment, should be understood as setting the foundation for science.

    I consider Bishop Nyssa who wrote against slavery in the 4th century a proto-humanist. These ideas were put out there but before the printing press it is unclear how widely they were circulation.

  20. I think you are significantly overstating. I also have a history degree, and studied this period quite closely, as well as late antiquity: i.e. Second Temple Judaism and the rise of Christianity.

    Certainly, churchmen were involved in science before the Scientific Revolution. But it’s revisionist history to suggest anything other than that the Church as an institution was its enemy. The same with its Humanism. Its not an accident that the Catholic Church was pro-Fascist in the 20th century.

  21. Terranbiped

    The Invention of Racism In Classical Times by Benjamin Isaac
    Publisher- De Gruyter

  22. “Certainly, churchmen were involved in science before the Scientific Revolution. But it’s revisionist history to suggest anything other than that the Church as an institution was its enemy.”

    Ok I respect your opinion as a historian and I am willing to read your arguments. But you seem to suggesting something close to the Draper-White conflict thesis. I don’t mean to refer to Wikipedia as an authority in itself but rather as a starting point and place where you can find sources and authorities.
    “The consensus among historians of science is that the thesis has long been discredited, which explains the rejection of the thesis by contemporary scholars.”

    Do you agree that thesis has long ago been discredited?

    If you think the thesis should not be discredited I would be interested in your review of a book like this one:


    or any of the other books that seem to give strong reasons to reject that thesis. Few historians seem to be even trying to

    “The same with its Humanism. Its not an accident that the Catholic Church was pro-Fascist in the 20th century.”

    The Church often gets politics and economics wrong. I don’t deny that. But I do not agree with your assessment that the Catholic Church was pro-Fascist in the 20th century. Sure I wish it spoke out more forcefully against Fascism. But on the whole, it is more accurate to say it was no accident that both Mussolini and Hitler were very anti-Christian.

  23. Joe,

    This can get admittedly murky, and I have not read enough of Aristotle’s own words on the subject to judge the accuracy. But I do know what historians who study race have said about why the way Aristotle did it doesn’t qualify quite as the idea of race.

    Aristotle postulated that there were some people (even within Athens) fit to be slaves and others fit to be masters. He also postulated that people of other lands were, in some sense, less civilized than the Greeks.

    In that first case, it wasn’t that some were inferior because they were of a different race, but just that people – even within the same family – could be of different stock and quality. In the second case, the difference postulated had to do not with the idea that non-Greeks were a different kind of human; it was that they were backward in custom, habit, and acculturation. I am relatively sure at least one (and probably more) history I read suggested that Aristotle and others left room for the idea that those people could be acculturated out of their savagery. No such thing with race.

    Again, I can’t unfortunately attest to the fidelity to Aristotle here, but can only report what several historians of race report. I’d be curious to know what you think.

  24. David, thanks for the citation. (What book/essay is that from?)

    One reason I wrote and have been thinking about this – it gets to Rorty’s point – is that there is a maddening tendency (especially on the right currently) to speak of The Enlightenment or The West as if it is one pristine set of values. The first, of course, is a historical period we named as such only after the fact, and the second is a geopolitical generalization that gets harder to define the closer you look at it.

    The enlightenment, as I see it, is as we should expect – a bundle of thinkers tied together only by loose family resemblance and whose positions are often at odds with each other. Even the very idea of the United States (as a nation founded on ‘enlightenment principles’) has more than a few contradictions at its core. No one can yet explain to my why the French postmodernists are not part of the western tradition. Some try to explain why Marxism is incompatible with the enlightenment, but the answer always begs the question at issue and ignores obvious features of Marxism. Etc.

    So, I appreciate the quote. The enlightenment just wasn’t a single project. If it appears to be, it only looks that way in comfortable retrospect that involves some forgetting and filtering.

  25. I’d have to say that the large majority of historians of race disagree with you that racism is as old as human history. They might say, more accurately maybe?, that tribalism of some sort is as old as humanity. But while race is a type of tribe, not all tribes are races. Race is the very unique postulation that there are inherent differences in kinds of people (based on separate origin or genealogy) that justify different treatment between them.

  26. To your more general suspicion that whether the enlightenment brought forth – or ramped up – the idea of race and racism, yes, I think it may be a red herring, at least of a certain sort.

    The real problem, of course, is just whether and how racism is problematic and what to do about it. That doesn’t require an origin story… unless you think, as some do and I do not, that if racism and race are so deeply embedded in enlightenment ideas, and those ideas have come to govern social organization, the only way to get rid of the former is to ditch the latter entirely. That is, racism, some say, is so embedded in enlightenment thought that anything that thought touches will carry the scent of racism.

    I see that as a genetic fallacy.

  27. That’s interesting. I have my own related interest/struggle here. A lot of folks write and talk as if we can draw a straight line from, say, an epistemic position to a political position, as if all philosophy resembled Ayn Rand’s “deductive system” where you can deduce all the right philosophical positions from a set of axioms and premises.

    Examples: liberty must rest on the idea of objective truth, and relativism will lead us into illiberalism. Or the reverse: the idea of objective truth leads to colonialism and relativism is the key to becoming more tolerant.

    What I’m struck by is how EITHER position – objective truth, relative truth – can led you in either direction, toward liberty or toward colonialism – depending on how you reason from them. If I have objective truth, that COULD lead me to see those who don’t have it as so uncivilized that in order to save them, I must liberate them by forcing them to my enlightened ways. OR, it could mean that I believe the right to liberty itself is an objective truth that precludes colonialism. Relativism could lead to toleration, or it could lead to a refusal to denounce or not engage in colonialism.

    So, folks who want to say that all we need to do to get (back) to correct politics is to embrace (or jettison) enlightenment principles, I find those to be real head-scratchers.

  28. Lol. You seem confused about church history. They backed both Mussolini and Franco.

    Zero credibility that institution has at this point, with anyone but the faithful. And don’t even get me started on the crimes committed against my people.

    I suggest dropping it. You’re not going to get anything positive out of me with regard to that odious institution.

  29. Terranbiped

    There is only one all abiding universal truth about the Catholic Church, its sole prime imperative is its survival and continuation at any cost.

  30. Joe’s a good guy. It’s the church I dislike. The institution. And it historically has been a consistently illiberal force in the world, it’s humanistic strains regardless. This is something I know quite a bit about and am prepared to discuss. I used to teach the history of the university, going back as far as Alcuin. I am both well versed in and an admirer of medieval Christian humanism. It has nothing to do with what the Institution of the Church did over those millennia and into the 20th century, with Mussolini and Franco.

  31. Terranbiped

    No reflection on Joe at all. The Church has often made deals with the Devil.

    When you consider the first responsibility of evil is concealment and that of the Church, continuation; the pedophile scandal becomes inevitable and self explanatory.

  32. Rageforthemachine

    I was raised Catholic and I have no love for the fatalism it seems to inspire in its adherents, but I don’t know, after spending two decades watching Protestants online from WLC to Matt Slick to Darth Dawkins defend their weird theologies, I’ll still take a good old-fashion hierarchical authoritarianism to people who think they have a special revelation from God.

  33. Yeah, I like them even less.

  34. Terranbiped

    As they say in Texas, El Paso on both:)

  35. ombhurbhuva

    group condemnation. That’s on topic.

  36. Group condemnation, that’s on topic. We can distinguish between the aims and objectives of a group which may be benign and the actions of individual members which are certainly not. Not to do so is a natural unreconstructed behaviour. Induction on the basis of a few examples is quite unsafe but its done. It could be a moral algo that is on balance sound policy that keeps our group safe.

  37. Thanks for the response. I agree this gets murky as I think scientifically/objectively different races do not exist. So this is a cultural construct that seems to have constantly changing meanings. I believe Merriam Webster just changed their definition of racism in the past 5 years. So what we decide to call “racism” is always going to be somewhat of a rough judgment call. If you only consider discrimination against black people “racism” or discrimination against people based on a belief specifically about their genes, then of course the case that there was no racism in ancient times becomes much easier. But if you think at its core racism can mean that certain immutable traits make some groups of people inferior to others, or that your own identifiable people are superior to others then I think we see there was obviously a notion racism.

    Now I am relying on the translations of others so I can’t vouch for the veracity of the translations. But consider this quote from Plato in Gorgias:

    “…nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior.”

    Would anyone say this view is not racist? I think this is a racist view, although it is a different form of racism than we see today.

    I do not believe this is necessarily the view of Plato but rather someone that Socrates was arguing against. (In what ways Socrates may or may not disagree with the quote is somewhat unclear) But if the idea is that the notion of racism did not exist until later then I think this passage pretty well shows there was what we consider a core notion of racism.

    There are many other passages from ancient texts. I haven’t read the book recommended by Terranbiped but based just on my general memory of what I read I would think this book would establish that the core concept of racism generally existed back in antiquity. Did they use Merriam Webster’s definition that was just adopted in the past 5 years? No of course not, but you will find plenty of views along the lines of the one I quoted that I think we would see as racist.

  38. Terranbiped

    Perfectly said. (I use the word perfect it it’s most literal and benign sense)

  39. This is not really a response to Dan in particular other than to say I wasn’t referring to Franco.

    I do agree with Terranbiped that “The Catholic Church” (I put that in quotes because I think it is fair to just work off of a general idea of what the church is and what should be attributed to it) has had to make deals with bad people and some of them were bad. Even today the Church has to make deals with places like China and other repressive governments. These deals often benefit both sides as that is the very idea behind deals.

    I am fairly well read on the history of the church as well. But of course there are gaps. The Church has had influence on large parts of the world for over 2000 years. Anyone can read the history of the church and get a whole slew of facts in defense and to attack the church if they want.

    One book I have read that tries to take a wholistic view of Christianity’s effect around the world is Dominion by Tom Holland.
    But even he openly admits he only sketches times and leaves many out. But I like his approach of comparing the post Christian cultures to pre Christian and non Christian cultures. I agree with his overall thesis that modern western secularists are using Christian values to criticize Christianity.

    And when I say “Christian values” I do think they are Judeo/Christian values. People can interpret the Hebrew Scriptures in all sorts of ways if they want. But Jesus was a religious Jew and the other Jews of his time (at least according to Gospel accounts) did not so much take issue with the moral lessons he was teaching but rather his ontological claims of being God. But that said I don’t claim to be a scholar on how ancient Jews understood their scripture, I’m just saying I don’t mean to exclude Judaism.

    On the whole I would rather we just learn from the mistakes than argue about whether they really were mistakes. The Church was horribly mistaken when it tried to kill and oppress heretics – even though they honestly thought the effects of these heresies was going to lead people to eternal damnation. Even if we grant that it will cost eternal salvation it is simply the wrong way to go about achieving that end. The Galileo story is often overblown but the church was still wrong. I think we can pretty much all agree on that.

    So why haven’t we learned that punishing people for expressing what they think is the truth is not the way to go? Why does it seem we have to relearn this lesson that the inquisition was wrong? As someone that has studied the inquisition and the Nazi and Soviet Union how are we are thinking a “Czar of disinformation” is even remotely acceptable? Have we learned nothing at all?

    On the whole I think the Catholic Church has been a force for good in the world. The Catholic Church helped shape western society and values. If we compare cultures that were influenced by Christianity with those that were not on the whole I think the societies that have had Christianity are better off in many ways. I am an unapologetic fan of Western Civilization and I also think that civilization can be seen as having roots in Athens and Jerusalem. I think this is also revealed when we look at regimes that are come about from people that are especially against Christianity.

    I am not someone that feels the need to defend the church when it has done wrong in the world. I have found accepting reality leads to a happier life than trying to fight reality. When you read history you will find that churchmen were often like other people of their age not much better or worse. But I also think our culture has many tropes about the Catholic Church that seem to never die. The Draper-White conflict thesis is one. We see it throughout media. I don’t mind if someone wants to defend that view even though it is discredited. But to pretend that only people blinded by faith reject it is not accurate. It is the legacy of historical Protestant hatred of the church and has been taken up by atheist hatred of the church. Are there grains of truth? Sure, but it is an overly simplistic narrative that is often based on false information.

  40. And by the way I don’t mean to make this a left versus right issue with my comment on the “Disinformation Czar.” The right forgets this basic history lesson far to often as well. For example DeSantis passing a law that *private* companies can’t teach critical race theory. This is also crazy in light of the lessons from the Inquisition as well as the totalitarian regimes of the last century not to mention Putin and China today.

    I may not agree with CRT or anti-vaxxer’s posts, but the government has no business forcing people to say (or not say) whatever they believe. That is an easy and clear line for me to draw. As both sides get more polarized I hope sensible people will recognize certain bedrock principles that have kept us free and prosperous for decades.

  41. “Judeo/Christian values” is meaningless. Just a further way for Christendom to appropriate and erase Judaism, which it has been trying to do since the Middle Ages.

    Christianity is more Greek/Mystery Religion than it is Jewish. This is quite evident when you look not at Christianity vs. the Ancient Hebrews religion, but Christianity vs. Rabbinical Judaism. The difference in fundamental beliefs, understandings, and values is manifest and overwhelming, down to the most basic picture of human nature.

    You may think the Catholic Church has been a force for good in the world. I think the opposite: that it is one of the most villainous institutions in history. That lunatic Protestant or Islamic fundamentalists are worse doesn’t change that.

    Your rotten church didn’t drop the Blood Libel and Deicide charges against my people until the goddamned 1960’s. As for “deals” with Franco and Mussolini, I guess you can call them that if it makes you feel better about the Church, but it’s misleading at best.

  42. Rageforthemachine

    3 points.

    1. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that there is a certain set of moral precepts that are unique to the Christian religion, isn’t using Christian standards to critique Christianity precisely what one needs to do? It is an internal critique of the faithfulness Christianity has to its own moral standards. If your wish to claim, for example, that Christian recognition of individual human dignity is what ended slavery, but slavery was also ubiquitous in the Christian dominated world at one time, it’s fair to ask why that was the case and if there were other precepts in Christianity that made slavery.l easy to adopt.

    2.Couldn’t we make a special case for singling out religion for moral hypocrisy? After all an institution like the Catholic Church not only claimed to be the exemplar of morality, but a representative on Earth of the very standard of morality. The fact that it also claimed this hegemony on right for a thousand years, often by punishment of death, deserves special scrutiny.

    3. If Enlightenment values are really Christian values why did it take so long for them to take hold in a West that was Christian dominated for over a millennia? While I know the conception of the Dark Ages has largely been debunked when it comes to tolerance, pluralism, and progress why does the world beyond the 17th century seem so much more progressive then the world of the 5th through 15th century?

  43. “‘Judeo/Christian values’ is meaningless. Just a further way for Christendom to appropriate and erase Judaism, which it has been trying to do since the Middle Ages.”

    Ok I didn’t want to suggest that Judaism had no role in shaping the west so I included it. Judeo/Christian is just less awkward than always saying values of Judaism and Christianity. I think Judaism did have a role in shaping western culture, both from Jews and through Christianity.

    As for whether Christianity has more in common with Greek mystery religions etc., I’m skeptical, but would have to hear the case.

    “Your rotten church didn’t drop the Blood Libel and Deicide charges against my people until the goddamned 1960’s. As for “deals” with Franco and Mussolini, I guess you can call them that if it makes you feel better about the Church, but it’s misleading at best.”

    I think concordats are agreements so they are deals. I don’t mean it like “what a great deal!” But they are deals in the sense that both sides think entering it will further their ends. I am not sure that makes me feel better about anything, I think it is just a fact.

    As for dropping the charges of Blood Libel and Deicide in the 1960s I tend not to get bogged down in official teaching issues. What is an official teaching of the church is something I think is far from clear. Blood Libel I do not believe was ever an official teaching of the church and it was condemned by Popes.
    But that said I can’t say other Popes may have believed this sort of vicious rumor. Is it an official teaching when one Pope says A and then no longer an “official teaching” when another says not A? I don’t know about that.

    I’m just saying that you can find Popes and well respected Catholic Saints on both sides of these issues. I am not sure these “charges” were officially made. But regardless it is horrible that respected Catholics have pushed such lies as they no doubt have. So yes the Church did horrible things.

    I think the difference in our views is here:

    “You may think the Catholic Church has been a force for good in the world. I think the opposite: that it is one of the most villainous institutions in history. That lunatic Protestant or Islamic fundamentalists are worse doesn’t change that.”

    Of course other churches or institutions can be worse than Catholics and that doesn’t mean the Catholic church wasn’t a net bad. But when looking at whether the Catholic Church was overall a force for good I am not saying it was perfect either. If we want to evaluate what the world would be like without the Catholic Church we really should look at other institutions that have existed including Protestantism, Islam, Communism, Fascism, Roman empire, Aztec Empire, Caste System etc. Because it is not the case that if the Catholic Church did not exist, some perfect institution you imagine in your head would replace it.

    And by the way I am not so negative about Protestantism or Atheism for that matter.

  44. If you don’t know the changes in official doctrine regarding the Jews that are in Vatican II, I don’t know what to tell you. I have the entire V2 in hardbound and have read them.

    We’ll have to disagree. Not only has the CC not been a force for good in the world, it has been a largely malevolent force. It’s musical and visual arts are its finest accomplishments, and the only ones I’d care to keep.

  45. Terranbiped

    Your 2. Well, that’s the whole point about making “deals”. Does the unchanging nature of God or his revealed word make deals?
    Of course not. Only men who interpret for their own ends damn themselves as the pinnacles of moral hypocrisy and foul the very nature of their own creed.

    The whole enterprise of a divine revelation goes against everything rational. I guess we should be thankful that homosexuals and adulterers are no longer stoned but disappointed that all neighbors are not loved as ourselves.

    Religions are social institutions that effect society for good or bad but the idea that they have any monopoly or preeminence on truth or morality is patently absurd.

  46. Terranbiped

    Men can be wrong, even if they think not, God can’t and that’s supposedly the distinction between religion and isms.

    You haven’t invoked or recognized the divine in any of your comments about religion. Are you strictly viewing religion as an earthbound philosophical and social institution?

  47. Rageforthemachine

    Thanks for the good questions that I think make for a good discussion.

    1) I think it is fine to evaluate the Catholic Church based on Christian principles. I think that is a good thing. But we should acknowledge that we wouldn’t be able to do that without Christianity. Christianity gave us that tool and that is a good thing.

    The main precept in Christianity is that we should love God and others as much or more than ourselves. And we should treat the least among us as though they are God. Its not a huge number of rules but working that out personally and societally does take time and is very hard. Many moral ideas stem from this general approach even though they are not specifically listed including the idea that we shouldn’t treat other people like property. If society had long treated other people like property its not going to change immediately. But eventually Western societies did ban slavery. So I think it is not so much other precepts that encourage slavery as it is just overcoming practices that have existed for a long time and made people wealthy. The power of greed is why it took so long to ban slavery.

    2) Yes it is ok to make a special case for the church. But if you are condemning that institution based on a higher standard then you use for other institutions keep that in mind whether it is a net positive. I might say Federer is played poorly the other night but I am holding him to a higher standard than the amateurs I play against. For me to say Federer’s tennis on the whole brought down the level of tennis played world wide over all would be wrong.

    3) “why does the world beyond the 17th century seem so much more progressive then the world of the 5th through 15th century?”

    The printing press. I really think without the printing press we would have just kept on at about the same pace. Science wouldn’t be shared as quickly not as many people would be able to read etc. But there were other factors that didn’t help (Viking invasions, Plaques etc.) but the printing press was key.

    How did ancient Greek society get so advanced without it? It cuts against my case I admit. But I think ancient Greek society is such an outlier it is just a wonder.

  48. Terranbiped

    The question is, if not for the ubiquitous influence of the centrality of Christendom in the Western ontology, would we be where we are today because of, or, in spite of?

    It’s extremely easy to trash religions and I engage in it regularly with abandon but, I can’t dismiss that Christianity might have been a necessary “evil” that ultimately led to all the advanced and Western ideals that followed. I think it has served its purpose and we should now throw that baby out of the crèche with the bath water.

    Saying Catholicism has on the whole been more destructive than constructive in the long chain of historical events is a rather thin and visceral determination of the very big picture. It’s just an unappetizing brute fact.

  49. “If you don’t know the changes in official doctrine regarding the Jews that are in Vatican II, I don’t know what to tell you. I have the entire V2 in hardbound and have read them.”

    Oh I know V2 condemned these accusations. But you said “Your rotten church didn’t drop the Blood Libel and Deicide charges against my people until the goddamned 1960’s.”

    I’m not sure that the church ever officially made the “charges” to begin with. There is a difference between a Pope or a Saint saying vile things and that being official Church teaching. But even if you say that is splitting hairs (and I agree that can be) I linked to Pope Gregory X condemning Blood Libel in the 13th century.

    In other words yes There were rotten vile things said about Jews by Catholics but it wasn’t uniform teaching and it is not proof that the Catholic Church is worse than other institutions. Promoting scapegoat lies for self gain is not something unique to Christians or Catholics. Soviets had Kulaks, Nazis scapegoated Jews, Turkey condemned Armenians, Muslims had….etc. etc. I’m not saying these bad actions of institutions prove Catholics are on the upper half of the scale but you know looking at real governments and real institutions around the world over the past 2000 years come on?

    The Catholic Church lead to Charity and Education as well as billions of people self reflecting on how they could serve others. IMO, it’s not so bad.

  50. “Your 2. Well, that’s the whole point about making “deals”. Does the unchanging nature of God or his revealed word make deals?
    Of course not.”

    Actually the God of bible does quite a bit.

    “The whole enterprise of a divine revelation goes against everything rational. I guess we should be thankful that homosexuals and adulterers are no longer stoned but disappointed that all neighbors are not loved as ourselves.

    Religions are social institutions that effect society for good or bad but the idea that they have any monopoly or preeminence on truth or morality is patently absurd.”

    Monopoly is too strong. But compare societies that have had Christian influence with Islamic counties or Communist ones like China and North Korea. Also consider the times when leaders were outwardly against Christianity in western countries such as Lenin Stalin Hitler and even the reign of terror in the French revolution.

    Why are the cultures that were influenced by Christianity so much worse than those that weren’t? Or worse than those that rejected Christianity and decided on their own new morality based on reason or science?

  51. “Men can be wrong, even if they think not, God can’t and that’s supposedly the distinction between religion and isms.

    You haven’t invoked or recognized the divine in any of your comments about religion.”

    Because we are discussing the actions of men not God. Popes are not divine.

    “Are you strictly viewing religion as an earthbound philosophical and social institution?”


  52. I just listened to a podcast where a historian that specializes in enlightenment history, Ted McCormick reviewed Pinker’s book, enlightenment now that is linked in this article and found it wanting historically.
    One point McCormick made is that Pinker seems to think ideas get written about put out there and then change happens. He takes issue with that. I think he makes some interesting points. Jefferson wrote about equality of people but then had slaves. We shouldn’t just assume that the Quakers that were on the ground and very influential in the abolitionist movement were motivated by writings by Voltaire or other enlighten philosophers.

    He points out that Pinker seems to simply argue post hoc ergo propter hoc when it comes to all the good things that have happened after the enlightenment time period. But he also seems to brush off all the negative things that happened such as the increase in slavery and the many genocides etc. I’m not saying post hoc ergo propter hoc is always wrong but if Pinker wants to argue these ideas are important he shouldn’t have a double standard. (To be fair to Pinker I haven’t read his views directly on this so I am not sure they are being charitable to him.)

    Causation in history is often tricky. In the 4th century Gregory of Nyssa gave one of the best arguments against slavery I have read. Yet it seems to have had no detectable effect on the world for centuries. The Quakers would quote their bibles but the bible was there before. Why then did some of these ideas take hold? Is it that the enlightenment brought about some new idea that no one thought of before that made them realize slavery is evil? Or perhaps slavery simply became more popular after the enlightenment, due to technological advances and trade, and people could see the evils of it more clearly.

  53. Terranbiped

    The Enlightenment – “emphasized reason over superstition and science over blind faith.” “Reason, individualism and skepticism.”
    Some Googled entries of the basic tenets ascribed.

    I think these represent a broad quantum change from what generally preceded. But, even so, it leaves a lot of space for rationalization, collective evil and self interest. Human nature and the affairs of men are not so easily curtailed or deflected by a new way of perceiving and conducting reality. Why would anyone expect otherwise when All saviors, deities and kings have tried and failed. Our better angels are always under assailment.