The meanings of words matter. Sometimes the accretions of years of misunderstandings and deliberate distortions need to be discarded, with extreme prejudice even.
While the Enlightenment, ‘one of the most important shifts in the history of man’ as one recent account put it, has certainly had its detractors, who blame it for anything from the Holocaust to soulless consumerism, it now also has a veritable army of self-styled heirs. Militant secularists, New Atheists, advocates of evidence-based policy, human rights champions… each constituency in their turn will draw justification from the intellectual emanations of that period beginning roughly towards the end of the seventeenth century and culminating – some say ending – in the 1789 French Revolution and its aftermath. And each in their turn will betray it.
It is not deliberate treachery. This is no reactionary dissimulation – it is more impulsive than that. Still, in the hands of the neo-Enlightened, from the zealously anti-religious to the zealously pro-science, something strange has happened. Principles that were central – albeit contested – to the Enlightenment have been reversed, turned in on themselves. Secularism, as we have seen recently in the French government’s decision to ban the burqa, has been transformed from state toleration of religious beliefs into their selective persecution; scientific knowledge, having been emancipated from theology, has now become the politician’s article of faith; even freedom itself, that integral Enlightenment impulse, has been reconceived as the enemy of the people. As the Enlightened critics of Enlightenment naivete would have it, in the symbolic shapes of our ever distending guts and CO2-belching cars, we may be a little too free.