Reductionism Rampant

Detail of The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver by James Gillray (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
A secular, mechanistic worldview raises more questions than it purports to answer.

In 1978 the Berkeley molecular biologist Gunther Stent published a book called “Paradoxes of Progress,” in which he wrote that “the most meaningful [contemporary] definition of progress can be made from the purview . . . of the will to power”; but, he added, “it is a totally amoral view of progress, under which nuclear ballistic missiles definitely represent progress over gunpowder cannonballs, which in return represent progress over bows and arrows.” Regarding the moral evaluation of scientific research and technological change, the distinguished scientist Stent went on to add, in another chapter of his book entitled “The Decadence of Scientism,” that “scientism lacks philosophical merit” and is “dangerous”: “Science cannot itself provide a foundation of ethics.”

Over a hundred years before Stent, on All Saints Day, November 1, 1866, the great French popular artist Honoré Daumier had published one of his greatest caricatures in the French satirical magazine Le Charivari, “The dream of the inventor of the Needle-gun.” At the time, the French army was being equipped with the new Chassepot rifle, a version of which, the needle-gun, had been used with devastating effect by the Prussians in their victory over the Austrians at Sadowa earlier that year on July 3, 1866: In that battle 40,000 men were killed. Daumier depicts the inventor of the new rifle standing, with his arms crossed and a pleased idiot-grin on his face, on a battlefield such as Sadowa, with heaps of corpses, as if to say: “It worked!”

Over 300 years earlier, the French writer François Rabelais had written that “science without conscience is . . . the death of the soul,” foreshadowing both Daumier and Gunther Stent, as well as the greatest of all satirists, Jonathan Swift. Swift satirically shows and mocks the “progressive” European traveler Gulliver’s corruption in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by having him try to ingratiate himself with the giant, virtuous Brobdingnagian king by offering him the “advanced,” European technological secret of making gunpowder, an offer that the king contemptuously spurns and condemns. Rabelais, Swift, Daumier, and Stent all give us the old but true, orthodox tradition of Western and world ethics, as against modernist, “progressive,” libertine, and reductionist departures from and denials or violations of it. The vindication and transmission of this orthodox tradition is the greatest aim and achievement of much of our literature, art, political thought, laws, social customs, and religion.

But powerful cultural, social, and economic forces, which Walter Lippmann called “the acids of modernity,” deform, reduce, or destroy the trajectory and momentum of this tradition in the interest of the “will to power” that Stent deplored and the nihilistic, post-moral “enlightenment” that Daumier mocked. Scholars Barry Kanpol and Mary Poplin have edited a new book of essays, Christianity and the Secular Border Patrol: The Loss of Judeo-Christian Knowledge (Peter Lang), which documents and deplores the rampant intellectual reductionism that our chief cultural agencies, especially universities, the nihilistic arts, pop audio-visual culture, advertising, and publishing, increasingly promote. Communism is effectively dead, but libidinal-libertine anarchism has taken its place. The words “Western civilization” on Donald Trump’s lips have a hollow and ironic sound, with such trumpery ripe for depiction by Daumier’s satirical successors.

Reductionism and the will to power (libido dominandi) are closely related, epistemologically and ethically, amounting to what T. S. Eliot called a degrading, schizoid “dissociation of sensibility”: We reduce realities (including human beings) to their manipulable and exploitable physical features in order to dominate them: we reduce thou to it, persons to things, ends to means, subjects to objects, essences to existents, mind to matter, spirit to flesh, reason to sense experience. A much-too-short essay in the Secular Border Patrol volume is on the exemplary French Protestant polymath Jacques Ellul (1912–1994), whose groundbreaking work on the nihilistic dynamic of technology (from bows and arrows to cannonballs to nuclear missiles) was first translated into English at the urging of Aldous Huxley. Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World is still the greatest single literary work we have on these issues in their contemporary form, but their lineaments were visible to writers such as Rabelais, Shakespeare, Pascal, Swift, Blake, Mary Shelley, Hawthorne, and Dostoyevsky (see my own “Mary Shelley among the Radicals”).

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Rosenberger v. Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia (1994) that university authorities could not discriminate against religious points of view among student groups, activities, and publications if those religious groups of students (in this case an ecumenical group of Christian students putting out a magazine called “Wide Awake”) met all the university’s criteria for funding that other student groups were required to meet and did not represent an externally funded outreach of a particular church. The Court argued that “viewpoint discrimination” was impermissible in such a setting, that religious points of view, speech, and publication had the same rights of expression as all other points of view. The point is most sharply and usefully argued in the Secular Border Patrol volume in two essays by Professor David R. Hodge of Arizona State University: “Secular Privilege: Deconstructing the Invisible Injustice” and “Spiritual Microaggressions: Examining the Covert Messages Directed towards People of Faith.” Hodge shows, sometimes with understated and effective irony, how our dominant culture-shapers clearly contradict themselves in their aggressive attempts to “impose their views” — inevitably secular and usually reductionist — on others while endlessly using the damning phrase “impose your values” in respect to religious persons and groups as if they were uniquely guilty of such proselytizing.

Hodge amusingly but damningly lists 65 examples of pervasive and often militant “secular privilege” in our culture. Speaking, like C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape, as if from the privileged, anti-religious point of view, he says, for example: “I can typically go door-to-door trying to convert people to causes I believe in without facing the stigma of ‘religious proselytizing’” (No. 55). And: “I can use the legislative process ‘to impose my values’ upon the general public and expect others to label my actions as ‘social justice’” (No. 56).

Militant reductionist ideologies, from Marxism to Social Darwinism and our current ‘progressive’ radicalism, inevitably entangle themselves in obvious rational contradictions.

This problem has grown more critical and intense since the distinguished, dissenting educational philosopher Philip H. Phenix, of Teachers College, Columbia University (a bastion of uncritical secular “Progressivism”), wrote in 1955 in The Teachers College Record: “It seems unfortunately to be the case that what has been presented as a means for preserving religious peace and freedom through secularization [in the schools] has to some extent become a method of propagating a particular dogmatic faith, namely scientific materialism or . . . naturalistic humanism.” Especially under national Democrats, this has certainly become in America (and much of Europe) our “established religion,” despite the warnings about reductionism and the rational and ethical contradictions of all forms of naturalism, pointed out by dozens of philosophers (and scientists such as Stent, Max Born, Michael Polanyi, and Stanley Jaki), not to speak of theologians, and despite the tragic character of history since 1900, dominated by irreligious perspectives, ideologies, manias, and personalities.

Scholars such as Hodge and Phenix illustrate the point that militant reductionist ideologies, from Marxism to Social Darwinism and our current “progressive” radicalism, inevitably entangle themselves in obvious rational contradictions, but increase their passion and volume to drown out rational dissent and opposition (and perhaps their own anxious doubts). Thus the ominous attacks on free speech and religious association on college campuses that have attracted the attention of organizations such as FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). The self-contradictory but passionate and habitual “moral inversion” of anti-religious and anti-metaphysical intellectuals has led to a hostile climate for religious believers and morally traditional students and faculty on college campuses and in elite cultural circles. The great ex-Marxist Polish émigré philosopher Leszek Kolakowski warned us almost 40 years ago against reductionism, having particularly in mind his own experience in his native Poland under so-called “scientific socialist” Communism: “Scientism, far from being a logical conclusion inferable from the body of scientific knowledge, is an ideology stating that cognitive value is defined [only] by the proper application of scientific methods.” Alfred North Whitehead, Gunther Stent, and C. S. Lewis made the same argument, not to speak of the philosophically literate Polish and German popes of our time.

Having lived through National Socialist racialism–Social Darwinism in Germany, the German Jewish philosopher Richard Kroner (1884–1974), a convert to Christianity, wrote profoundly about the false idols of modern reductionism, materialism, and scientism: “People begin to adore science after science has deprived them of their proper object of adoration, because they need such an object and are fond of adoration” (Culture and Faith, 1951). A quarter-century earlier the distinguished Cornell philosopher E. A. Burtt warned us, as did his Cambridge and Harvard contemporary Whitehead, that the only way to avoid metaphysics is to say nothing. Rationality, conceptualization, volition, and language itself are irreducibly metaphysical: For those who refuse to see this, Socrates lived and died in vain. The current reductionist rampage and regime is an obscene, transgressive violation of the greatest insights and products of the Western (and world) mind, spirit, and imagination in philosophy, ethics, literature, architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and humanistic discourse itself. It justifies the worry of the great Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga (1872–1945) that the anti-metaphysical animus of modernist culture is fundamentally dehumanizing and disintegrative, an “abolition of man” (to use Lewis’s phrase).

The most profound and valuable essay in the Secular Border Patrol volume is by the enormously distinguished contemporary educational-policy specialist and educational philosopher Charles L. Glenn Jr., professor emeritus of educational policy at Boston University and former dean of the School of Education there. In a series of first-rate books on the history of modern education and contemporary educational and social-political policies, Glenn has established a reputation in the first rank of American and world educational authorities — alongside E. D. Hirsch Jr. and Diane Ravitch. With his distinguished Belgian colleague Professor Jan de Groof, he has written a standard, multi-volume work surveying and comparing all of the world’s major contemporary educational systems.

Glenn’s essay “Secularism: A Militant Faith in a Post-Secular Age” thus brings to bear an extraordinary level of learning and authority that helps to make it a profound study of the scientistic and political manias of modernity as they affected the growth and development of the French educational system from the early 19th century to our time. It is a model of intellectual insight, precision, and relevance, certainly enhanced by Glenn’s long dialogue with the late, great Austro-American sociologist Peter L. Berger (1929–2017), his longtime colleague at Boston University. For, despite generations of confident sociological predictions across 250 years, we do not live in an increasingly secular age or world. Glenn’s and Berger’s English sociological colleague David Martin recently asserted, based on 30 years of research, that Pentecostal Christians alone now number between 200 and 600 million, “depending on criteria” (Times Literary Supplement, November 10, 2017). Outside of eastern Asia, Communism is essentially dead, but Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity are not. Berger, Martin, and Glenn have argued that we live in what is in many ways a post-secular age.

Yet Glenn is keen to distinguish between an appropriately secular sphere and a militant, intolerant, ideological secularism, or, to use Phenix’s terms, “scientific materialism” or “naturalistic humanism.” This reductive ideology first grew up in the modern world in 18th-century France, though its error of using “nature” as a God-term was also identified in that century (see my own “Two Roadside Abductions”). “Nature” is an utterly ambiguous term that can be filled with several different, contradictory meanings, as Matthew Arnold and Tennyson (“Nature, red in tooth and claw . . . ”) pointed out in brilliant poems in the 19th century, and as Social Darwinism was to display in gruesome, saguinary fashion after 1859.

As libertarian license and radical rage agitate our Western society and disfigure its culture, ‘high’ and popular, it is clear that there is no benign, liberal, secular ‘end of history’ within reach.

Glenn’s crucial distinction is between procedural “secularity, rightly understood as a legal and political arrangement of neutrality toward religious and other convictions, consistent with a pluralistic society,” and secularism as a militant, intolerant, essentially totalitarian ideology and belief system. His careful history of militant French secularism makes fascinating and valuable reading even for persons well acquainted with the history of France in the 19th and 20th centuries. Stung by their incapacity to create the perfect egalitarian utopia so passionately hoped for in the French Revolution, and by the Catholic educational revival in the 19th century, French anti-clerical (but mostly bourgeois) radicals grew increasingly militant and intolerant throughout the century, with events reaching a kind of crescendo during the Third Republic just after 1900, with the banning of Catholic religious teaching orders and the seizure of churches (see also my “Dispelling the Grand Illusion: Pierre Duhem’s unwelcome witness”). Militant Bolshevik Communism was the Russian successor to this Jacobin-Republican French tradition, as were Chinese, Korean, Cambodian (“Khmer Rouge”), and Vietnamese Communism. Despite the murderous oppression of these Marxist regimes, Glenn writes, today “to an extent not seen in Western Europe (except in Spain) and North America (except in Mexico) in more than a century, religious practices and expression are under attack from militant secularism.” Thus we have an increasingly intolerant and censorious “secular border patrol” in our universities, schools, and culture, despite the miserable disfiguration of human ideals and hopes that militant secular ideologies have produced since the French Revolution.

Of that revolution itself, recent scholarship has vindicated the conservative critiques and negative judgments of it of Barruel, Burke, Alexander Hamilton, de Maistre, Carlyle, Dickens, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Jacob Burckhardt. As libertarian license and radical rage agitate our Western society and disfigure its culture, “high” and popular, it is clear that there is no benign, liberal, secular “end of history” within reach. According to the Oxford historian William Doyle, writing in 2005, “The publishing sensation of” 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution, was historian “Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, which proclaimed violence as the Revolution’s essence.”

The militant partisans of “the secular border patrol” would do well to consider that when the metaphysical or religious dimension and horizon of human persons, societies, and cultures are denied, ignored, scorned, or attacked, there is no clear warrant for peace and goodwill on earth, which are hardly the “natural” attributes of human beings. Glenn quotes the English Labour-party politician Roy Hattersley (an atheist) as adding that “if suffering human beings have to wait for atheists and agnostics rather than religious believers for help, they are likely to wait a very long time.”

In a recent newspaper interview, the British satirical writer Ian Hislop, longtime editor of Private Eye, was asked incredulously by his irreligious interviewer if it was true that Hislop still regularly attended Christian worship services. He replied: “Yes, it’s true. You see, I’ve tried atheism. But I kept having doubts.”


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