re-printed from The Guardian U.K.
In 1918, the German sociologist, Max Weber, claimed that the spreading influence of scientific rationalism meant that religious explanations of the world would become increasingly pushed aside. For Weber, this meant that, “the fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and … the disenchantment of the world … the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life.” Different trends around the world over the last 20 years, from the rise of political Islam, the resurgence of religious political movements across the former Eastern Bloc and the power of the Christian fundamentalism in the United States have cast doubt on Weber’s assumption of the increasing irrelevance of religion to public life. Today, many social scientists claim, in contradistinction to Weber, that the world is actually becoming “re-enchanted”.
However, what both Weber’s analysis of disenchantment and counter-claims as to the importance of contemporary re-enchantment often share is a tendency to make an easy association between religion and enchantment on the one hand and secular rationalism/scientific atheism and disenchantment on the other. In fact there is a long history of occasions when very modernist secular events seemed highly enchanted to many of those participating in them. Wordsworth’s response to the French Revolution, containing a reference to “reason” as the “prime enchantress” of the earth, being but one famous example. Likewise, organised religion can often be experienced as profoundly disenchanting, as the work of generations of writers, from James Joyce to Jeanette Winterson testifies.
For those debating the role of faith in public life, this sense that life is either more or less enchanted or wonderful with or without religion becomes something of a political resource to be fought over and used as a weapon against one’s opponents. And this sense of enchantment feeds into wider claims about the ways in which it is possible to find meaning or value in worlds that often look devoid of any moral compass, be it the world of free-market globalisation championed by the believer Tony Blair, or the world of the selfish gene as described by the atheist Richard Dawkins.
For Blair, the launch of his Faith Foundation marks not only an effort to encourage interfaith dialogue, but a conscious attempt to alter the political culture by, “restoring religious faith to its rightful place, as the guide to our world and its future”. In Blair’s “Faith and Globalisation” lecture of last year, he argued that faith is “integral” to society, “giving the use of reason a purpose and society a soul, and human beings a sense of the divine”. The two aspects seem to be linked in Blair’s mind. Recapturing the “sense of the divine” given by faith is intimately linked to its role in giving reason a purpose. Reason by itself, contra the young Wordsworth, cannot enchant or provide its own sense of purpose, without the gift of faith that makes life “more than just a sparrow’s flight through a lighted hall from one darkness to another”. For Weber, a key element of scientific rationality’s tendency to disenchant the modern world is that it is “meaningless” because it cannot answer the “only question important for us: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?”
Those who see themselves as defending science and rationalism against a tidal wave of religious superstition, whether they have read Weber or not, are keenly aware that a sense that, as Weber puts it, scientists, “with their bony hands seek to grasp the blood-and-sap of true life without ever catching up with it”, is one of the most powerful weapons to be used against them. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, for example, begins and ends with passages which outline how much more wonderful and alive the universe appears when viewed through scientific eyes. He approvingly quotes Bertrand Russell’s claim that, “even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver … in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own”. Far from science disenchanting the world, for the rationalists it is faith, that by casting a veil of fairy stories in front of our eyes, keeps us from appreciating the true majesty and wonder of the universe that we live in. Dawkins knows that to simply disenchant is not an attractive position, so he has to establish science as a rival and superior enchantment to that of faith, hence his references to the “soul shaking” power of “sacred” science to “open the mind and satisfy the psyche”.
Such rhetorical tussles over enchantment play an important part in ongoing political battles over the place of faith in our daily lives. When the post-Downing Street Blair, who is now free to “do God” tells us that, “a faithless world is not one in which we would want ourselves and our children to live”, it is hard not to think back to policies that he championed in government to encourage a greater role for faith in state education. For Dawkins, such indoctrination of youth into faith is “a grievous wrong” to be opposed. Yet both are aware that the power of their position to inspire the human spirit is central to winning the argument.
Proponents of the role of faith in public life have perhaps mistakenly assumed that they would have a monopoly over a sense of enchantment, yet the popularity of books such as Dawkins suggests that they might have a fight on their hands retaining it in coming years.