How does a Conservative differ from a Secularist? – Part 4 (The Age of Reason)
Updated: Apr 11
Secularism has historically put science on a lofty pedestal. Indeed, some secularists go so far as to ascribe to scientism—the belief that genuine knowledge of reality can be obtained through the scientific method of observation and experimentation only. I dealt with scientism in Part 2 and Part 3. But not all secularists believe in scientism. Many secularists would rightly say that science alone is not the only window we have to genuine knowledge. Personal introspection, reasoning, logic, and philosophical inquiry can also do the trick. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to reduce these alternative methods to one word: Reason.
Are reason and science sufficient for acquiring knowledge? Can they sustain a society of ordered liberty? Can they provide us with a moral code rivaling religious doctrine? Can they fulfil humanity’s desire for the transcendent? Can they answer our deepest questions? The secularist says “yes” the conservative says “no”.
The Age of Reason
In the eighteenth-century, the Western world began questioning the mysticism and religious superstitions that were a hallmark of much of the Middle Ages. This new Age of Reason is much celebrated as a turning point in Western advancement. And it certainly is true that the Age of Reason brought much welcome progress.
But it has also brought new maladies on humanity. The Age of Reason brought forth an explosion in human innovation and discovery from penicillin to the microchip. New developments in political and social thought led to the rise of the free market, the Industrial Revolution, and the American Revolution. But the Age of Reason also spawned the French Revolution and a plague of ideologies from fascism to communism. Where reason was tethered to a cultural backdrop of sound religious faith and respect for tradition it tended to do well. Where it was divorced from those things it radicalized. For reason alone is a terrible thing indeed.
“Reason does not impel our impressions and our actions; it follows them,” wrote Russell Kirk. What then compels us? C. S. Lewis taught in The Abolition of Man that it was either the belly (our appetite) or the chest (our conscience). In fact, the proper role for reason was to govern our base appetite or—as Lewis put it—"the head rules the belly through the chest”. Our capacity to reason isn’t what makes us human. Rather, are capacity to reign in our appetite (which may require reasoning) is what makes us more than animals. Reason alone makes us nothing more than clever beasts. Reason alone is a vice without the virtues of faith, morality, humility, and imagination to go with it. Let’s examine each of these four:
Reason without Faith
These days, the notions of faith and reason are often pitted against one another, as some sort of cosmic cage-match between competing ideas of Truth. Some are careful about providing too many reasons for their faith just as others are cautious about putting too much faith in their reason. This was not always so. “The very concept of ‘faith’ has been redefined and has now replaced reason,” explained philosopher and theologian J. P. Moreland. “Today, faith is choosing to believe something in the absence of evidence or reasons for the choice. Faith used to mean a confidence or trust based on what one knows.”
Faith is not the enemy or opposite of reason. Faith is the foundation for reason. We might know that science can teach us about reality. But that knowledge is only good if the mechanisms of science (observation and experimentation) actually comport to reality. Logic is no better, because logic can only tell us about the rules within a system and not whether the system itself is true. “You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it,” observed English writer G. K. Chesterton.
The rules of logic work just as well with fantasy as with facts. It is not certain beyond all doubt that logic is “true” any more than it is certain reason is “true”. Chesterton contended that where religion was gone, reason would soon be going. For both religion and reason were made of the same basic material: That is, they are both means of proof that cannot themselves be proven (without appealing to religion or reason).
The point here is that there is a grave temptation to believe that one is capable of fully relying upon reason without having to acknowledge that what we are actually doing is taking a leap of faith that there is any connection whatsoever between our thoughts and reality. There is a connection between our thoughts and reality; but that connection is something we believe in as a matter of faith and not as some brute fact. Denying this, we risk denying the very ground that supports reason in the first place.
Reason without Morality
“It was assumed that since modern individuals were rational moral agents, rational philosophy could be relied on to come up with a code that, if not identical with religion’s, would be sufficiently congruent with it that the practical moral effect would be the same,” wrote Irving Kristol in describing this secularist mindset. “From Immanuel Kant to John Dewey, that had been the basic assumption of secular rationalism, and it gave rise to the modern quasi-religion of secular humanism. Such a philosophical enterprise, it was believed, would converge on what John Dewey called ‘a common faith’—a faith in the ability of reason to solve all of our human problems, including our human need for moral guidance.”
Despite this faith in reason alone, secular efforts have yet to produce a moral guide that can hold a candle to many religious traditions. For, while some have successfully applied philosophy alone to bolster a virtuous life, philosophy has yet to produce a moral code that’s had the same mass appeal as religion. “Philosophy can analyze moral codes in interesting ways, but it cannot create them,” continued Kristol. “And with this failure, the whole enterprise of secular humanism—the idea that man can define his humanity and shape the human future by reason and will alone—begins to lose its legitimacy.”
It’s not that those who have endeavored to provide for a “common faith” or a moral guide using reason alone have had nothing of value to say. Rather, it’s that the fruits of their labor do not reach human beings in the same way a machine does not benefit from reading Shakespeare. “Practical knowledge leaves man in torment,” wrote Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind. “The heart is not reached through the reason.” A moral guide based purely on reason cannot have lasting effects because morality is chiefly about what we ought to do or not do; and reason doesn’t compel us, we compel reason. While reason plays a role in answering questions such as is this morally right?, answering the question isn’t the same as obeying the answer.
Reason without Humility
“Liberals postulate the supremacy of human reason…and hold Christian humility in contempt; they believe fatuously in the natural goodness and infinite improvability of man,” wrote Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind. Humility is hardly a teaching unique to the Christian faith. But Christianity does caution against the belief that we can get by without it.
In the Bible, the Book of Proverbs—a compilation of ancient Hebrew wisdom—frequently and forcefully weds humility to wisdom and pride to folly. Reason alone may make you knowledgeable, but it will not make you wise. And knowledge without wisdom is about as useful as a currency without a market. Knowledge is of little use without the discretion of knowing when or how to use it.
Before the Age of Reason people may have had less knowledge about the natural world, but that does not mean they had less wisdom. It was not that it simply never occurred to our ancestors to give reasoning a try as opposed to conspiratorial groupthink or blind faith in the local priest. Rather, our ancestors recognized an inherent weakness in reason divorced from ancient wisdom that may not be readily or practically “testable”. As Irving Kristol put it:
“Modern conservatism found it necessary to argue what had always been previously assumed by all reasonable men: that institutions which have existed over a long period of time have a reason and a purpose inherent in them, a collective wisdom incarnate in them, and the fact that we don’t perfectly understand or cannot perfectly explain why they ‘work’ is no defect in them but merely a limitation in us.”
Yet the Age of Reason would soon turn appeals to ancient customs and religious teachings on their heads in place of a more enlightened approach. It is true religion can lead people to do and believe many foolish and terrible things. But so can reason. And reason divorced of sound religious doctrine stretching from ancient times until today is in greater danger of leading to folly. Without the humility to recognize our own limitations—by which I mean both the limitation of the individual and of an entire generation—we are in danger of ignoring the guardrails left to us. As British philosophy Roger Scruton put it:
“In discussing tradition, we are not discussing arbitrary rules and conventions. We are discussing answers that have been discovered to enduring questions…those who adopt them are not necessarily able to explain them, still less to justify them. Hence Burke described them as ‘prejudices’ and defended them on the ground that, though the stock of reason in each individual is small, there is an accumulation of reason in society that we question and reject at our peril.”
Reason without Imagination
As was noted above with Russell Kirk, liberals are prone to elevate humanity’s capacity for reasoning. Conservatives look to imagination. “[Conservatives] trust in the controlling power of the imagination,” wrote journalist Paul Elmer More, “These, as I analyze the matter—the instinctive distrust of uncontrolled human nature and the instinctive reliance on the imagination—are the very roots of the conservative temper, the lack of imagination, if any distinction is to be made, being the chief factor of liberalism and confidence in human nature being the main impulse of radicalism.”
In Part 2 I noted that it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that adding one and one gets you two and that an apple tree only grows apples. But imagination points us to an even higher truth. For it tells us that one and one can never get us seven, but that pears or even unicorns could grow from an apple tree. Imagination allows us to see where reason is limited, and where faith begins.
“Our world drowns in information, facts, bites, noise, opinions, and other particulars,” wrote professor Bradley J. Birzer, co-founder of and senior contributor to the apply named The Imaginative Conservative. “Yet, even the best of our students have the most difficult time connecting one thing to another. It is myth that allows us to transcend the immediate and the ephemeral. Just as the chest connects the head and the heart, myth connects the immediate fact with the eternal. Myth gives the eternal immediacy and the immediate context.”
Lockean liberalism—the system of government bequeathed to Americans by our Founding Fathers—is a secular enterprise. But it was not given to a secular people—at least not initially. Some secularists may claim to have found solace for their spiritual yearnings outside of religion. Since I cannot know for certain what is in their heart and minds, I won’t argue that they are mistaken. But it has not been demonstrated that an entire society or nation/state or culture can find the same once they’ve departed from their religious heritage.
The cult cannot be divorced from the culture without devastating effects. The benefits—the necessities—of religion on a culture are paramount yet subtle. And those benefits are where we’ll pick things up in our fifth and final post in the series.