Religious tyrants, revelation radicals, adherents of binding, blinding, theological codes, often feel out of place in the modern world. They routinely misuse the very laws of liberal democracies to mount counter-systemic attacks against critics, even killing those they disagree with. 1 Even if they seem more closely associated with one faith tradition or another, they are not confined to any particular religion or part of the world. Religious fundamentalism and bigotry, of one sort or another, continue to scourge our world, producing cognitive disasters, even aggression and violence.
But reason, turning into monstrous myth or organised atrocity, has scarcely fared better. Its very orderliness, industrial efficiency and scale are indicative of its derangement. Our uncivil cultural and narrative wars, supposedly in the name of a variety of good causes such as justice, equality, and, yes, climate change, too display dangerous degrees of irrationality and intolerance.
In 1944, towards the end of the devastating World War II and appalling Holocaust, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W Adorno, passed the dire decree of “the self-destruction of enlightenment.” In their Preface to their epochal Dialectic of Enlightenment2, they warned of the regression of reason that threatened the world: “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity” (xviii).
For, as they argue, “The Concept of Enlightenment,” has at its very heart “the very principle of corrosive rationality” (4). The Enlightenment project cannot escape it. A shocking dénouement follows: “Enlightenment is totalitarian.” In other words, rationality of the modern, instrumentalist, post-enlightenment age is, at best, a god with clay feet, at worst a hideous monster.
That is why it is imperative to reflect on how a new global consciousness suitable for the times to come into being. For starters, it will have to resist the corruptions of both revelation and reason, to steer clear of the mass hysteria and histrionics of the narrative wars of the left and right, to think beyond the straitjacket and self-interest of nation-states, to break out beyond disciplinary silos policed by specialist gatekeepers.
(Views are personal)
1 The fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the several deaths associated with it, Bangladeshi feminist Taslima Nasrin being hounded out of her country in 1994 and later from India, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s forced departure from the Netherlands after the killing of producer-director Theodoor “Theo” van Gogh, the hideous murders of Charlie Hedbo staffers and guests on January 7, 2015, and so on.
2 Max Horkheimer and Theodor W Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, tr. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).
Makarand R Paranjape
Professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi