Jurgen Habermas, who coined the expression 'post-secular society'.
Legislation is about to be enacted on gay marriage in France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Many would say that this is an issue of little importance relative to the economic turmoil in Europe and on-going military conflict in the Middle East. Yet it is this simultaneous acceptance of gay marriage across the major western powers that illustrates a continued belligerence in Enlightenment thinking that shakes off criticism as though it did not exist.
It is the millennia of tradition, divine law and status as a sacrament of the Church, all anathema to Enlightenment adherents, that makes the institution of marriage uniquely pivotal to any current consideration of the Enlightenment’s obsession with progress. It highlights the power of a movement that continues to dominate western thinking, as it has for over two hundred years, despite having its philosophical legitimacy substantially eroded. We are all children of the Enlightenment and this is why alternatives to this deceptively natural way of thinking often seem remote. Michel Foucault claimed that the Enlightenment determined ‘what we are, what we think, and what we do today,’1 and John Gray has insisted that ‘all schools of contemporary political thought are variations on the Enlightenment project’.2
The Enlightenment legacy, guarded by its neo-liberal heirs appears to be secure, as it extends its reach across the world, all opposition crushed by its two irresistible forces of military and economic power. Localised opposition is ground down by attrition, resulting in the erosion of difference and the ruthless imposition of a shared economic and human rights ‘consensus’. The legacy is remarkably immune too from the criticism heaped upon it by political theorists of the last century and this. It seems to have a momentum of its own, carried forward by economic forces that are deemed by the mutant Marxism of its supporters to be inevitable, whilst remaining devoid of any philosophical or moral content.
Enlightenment reason inculcates an overwhelming concern for efficiency and gives people enormous power without any legitimacy grounded in morality. Thinkers in the mid-twentieth century rushed to associate this amoral ‘instrumental reason’ with totalitarianism. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, for example, attributed the barbarism of the Third Reich’s death camps to Enlightenment thinking. Whilst Jacob Talmon and Isaiah Berlin laid the blame for Bolshevik totalitarianism and the Soviet gulags on the way the Enlightenment’s universalism extends politics into every sphere of life. However, whilst these critiques resonated in their historical context and served the political and economic objectives of the western democracies, more recent commentaries have taken the form of a post-modernist critique of the western neo-liberal consensus. The common themes that recur in the post-modernist critique centre upon the Enlightenment’s universalism and rationalism as dangerously hegemonic, logocentric and totalising. It is the relentless drive towards sameness and the intolerance of other forms of thinking as irrational that has led the post-modern critics to regard the Enlightenment’s universal claims for reason and progress to be code for intolerance and oppression. Jean-François Lyotard, for example, claimed that the Enlightenment’s own metanarrative entails exclusion and coercion, the elimination of diversity and difference, which is why Lyotard frequently associated the Enlightenment idea of rational consensus with terror.3 Michel Foucault too exposed the dark side of the supposedly humanitarian and progressive Enlightenment, to show that every apparent victory of Enlightenment ideals of ‘freedom’ and ‘reason” in fact resulted in new and even more insidious forms of domination and control - his notable illustration being the Panopticon prison.4
Martin Heidegger’s ‘destruktion’ of Cartesianism left Enlightenment thinking teetering on shaky metaphysical foundations, yet it continues to offer scientific rationality as its guiding principle. Alasdair MacIntyre identified this as the Enlightenment’s chief failure, arguing that it provided insufficient grounds for moral judgement, undermining earlier justifications for morality without putting anything in their place.5John Gray is especially wary of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on instrumental reason, claiming that when this kind of reason prevails in the social world instead of a more collective, ‘communicative’ reason –when, to use Habermasian parlance, ‘the lifeworld’ is ‘colonized’ – the predictable result is a Weberian loss of meaning and widespread Durkheimian anomie.6 Jürgen Habermas, erstwhile supporter of the Enlightenment, has indeed recognised the need for a bridge to certain religious traditions in order to restore meaning. As such, religious values would act as a moral counterweight to the markets and power of bureaucracy that continue to weaken social solidarity.7Yet despite Habermas describing the prevailing mood as befitting the term ‘post-secular society’, western governments carry on as though nothing has happened.
Gay marriage is presented as a natural consequence of rational thinking which is not to be questioned. Opposition is disregarded, and treated as a bigoted residue of pre-Enlightenment thinking that will quickly pass into history, aided and abetted by governmental control over the education of the masses. Herein lies the terror. Democracy under these conditions, with compliant media and no anti-Enlightenment opposition, bears all the hallmarks of totalitarianism. In a sweeping disregard for tradition, divine law, even something as fundamental as gender difference, Enlightenment thinking seeks to impose its universalist objective of sameness with a crushing power. Acting in the name of freedom and diversity, its actions are the polar opposite, resulting in legal enforcement and the erosion of diversity. Gay pride in difference is squashed and millennia of acceptance of marriage defined as a union between one man and one woman is set to be expunged, at a stroke.
The truth is that, to instrumental reason, difference is a nuisance. The state, in the name of equality, needs little excuse to impose uniformity. All must be rationalised and subordinated to the facilitation of bureaucratic administration and calculable economic efficiency - even the holy sacraments.
Nowhere is safe from the all-pervasive reach of the Enlightenment state. Sanctuary is no longer to be found, even in the Church.
1. Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, trans. Catherine Porter, in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, vol. 1 of The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: New Press, 1997), 303.
2. John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age (New York: Routledge, 1995), viii; see also John Gray, Voltaire (New York: Routledge, 1999), 48.
3. See R. Hariman, Prudence: Classical Virtue, Postmodern Practice (Pennsylvania State University, 2003) 267
4. See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books,  1979), 200-209.
5. See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press,  1984), chapter 5.
6. See Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume Two: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press,  1987), part 8, especially 326, 355.
7.German philosopher Jürgen Habermas agreed when he commented in 2004 that “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [to Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter,” quoted in Christopher Cauldwell,Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West, ‘Benedict XVI: New Ideas About Belief and Unbelief” (London: Allen Lane, 2004) pages unnumbered.