The Dark Side of the Enlightenment Project

This article was written ten years ago — if I was writing it now I would update it substantially. The main point it makes is that the European Enlightenment – the idea that reason and facts can be used to provide better solutions to human problems — has failed disastrously. The reason for this failure, still not realized by European intellectuals, is that the heart and soul of human beings has been taken out of the picture. Using only reason, the argument that efficiently exterminating the Jews by burning them in ovens cannot be refuted; see Modernity and the Holocaust by Zygmunt Bauman. It is the heart and soul which strenuously rejects this, without the need to examine reasoning. How Spirituality matters for development has been covered in an earlier post – Spirituality and Development. Instead of updating the article, I am adding a few notes and links to more recent materials, and reproducing the main article in its original form:

The Dark Side of the Enlightenment Project

An extremely important element in the current thinking and psychology of Europeans is the “Enlightenment Project” undertaken by large numbers of European intellectuals. Achievements of Newton, Galileo, and many other prominent scientists created a dramatic impact on the mindset of Europe. A few simple laws could lay bare the secrets of the movements of the stars, and a few observations could upset centuries of belief in the central place of man (and his planet) in universe. Imagine what progress would be possible if these principles of utilizing observations and fact, and building upon them in the light of reason, were applied on a much larger scale. Enlightenment thinkers were inspired by fantastic achievements of science, and technology. They thought that application of the scientific method in all areas of human thought would lead to a radical improvement in the human condition. All social problems such was wars, famines, disease, misery were due to traditions and superstition (that is, Christianity). Opposing tradition, establishment, encouraging fresh and innovative ways of thinking, and subjecting all ideas to the iron test of reason would lead to the improvement of the human race, and to ‘moral progress’.

The first and second world wars came as a shock to believers in the Enlightenment project. The scale of violence, barbarism, and cruelty of Europeans to others was easily equal to the worst happenings in the ‘dark’ and unenlightened times before the triumph of reason. Centuries of diligent study and application of scientific methods to shape minds and construct societies did not appear to have improved human beings judged as humans. Blind faith in progress through application of science was tempered by a dark dose of reality.

Warnings that the Enlightenment project might not turn out so well on the human front had been present all along, but the few naysayers had been ignored by the enthusiastic mainstream. Hume had clearly stated that moral values could not be discovered or established by the scientific method. Everyone saw that morals, integrity and honesty were necessary for civilization. Religion, custom and tradition form the basis for morality. Enlightenment thinkers felt confident that they could find alternative bases for a superior morality on the solid foundations of facts and reason. The far-sighted Nietzsche saw much more clearly than his contemporaries the implications of the rejection of religion as superstition, and the magnitude of the task facing the Europeans in constructing an alternative basis for morality, and human behavior. He described this in the parable of the madman who claimed that “We have killed God” – meaning that we Europeans have lost faith in God. He goes on to say the this tremendous news has not yet reached the ears of men, even though they did the deed themselves. That is, the full implications of loss of faith have not been absorbed by European intellectuals, who continue to believe that rational foundations for morality can be found. The implications of living without any basis for morality have not been absorbed.

The twentieth century can be viewed as a report card for the Enlightenment project. As recorded by philosopher and ethicist Jonathan Glover in his Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, the report is not good. Violence, murders, atrocities, destruction of entire cities, and large masses of innocent people using deliberately cruel methods, has been done on a scale never before seen in the annals of history. Glover writes that the challenge of Nietzsche, to find an alternative basis for morality, has not been met, although he continues to be optimistic that a solution may be found. Many authors have written books and articles on the decline of morals in the West, which has been extremely rapid in the last fifty years. As a small but significant illustrative example, consider the affair of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. According to contemporary conceptions of morality, this is a trivial personal matter, and to take it seriously is the sign of a narrow minded prude. Nonetheless, there is a very serious dimension to this affair. If the wives of leaders of the Western world cannot trust them to keep their promises, and to not deceive them, then who can trust them? Surely it is not the case that a person is compartmentalized so as to behave with integrity in public affairs, and not in his personal affairs.

For us living in the Muslim world, there are some very important lessons to be learned from this history of the Enlightenment project. Those of us who have absorbed the lessons of the West have learned to consider tradition and religion as inferior to reason and observation – this lesson permeates all Western thinking, literature, and other media. The fact is that the science and religion occupy different spheres, and experience shows that science offers no guidance on moral affairs. Physics can lead to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and also provide atomic power. Biology is capable of genetic manipulation of crops to enrich multinationals at the expense of the masses, and equally capable of providing substantial increases in production to feed the starving. We are living in a world which has lost its moral bearings, at least partly as an outcome of commitment to Enlightenment principles. The law of the jungle prevails in the international arena. Any country with sufficient power can invade, capture, occupy, and kill innocents and large numbers without even the pretext of a moral justification. Our Islamic tradition offers strong moral guidance, which is becoming more and more a desperate need of the times.


published in The News, (Pakistan) on Monday, May 12, 2008;  the Jakarta Post on Wednesday, Oct 15,2008; Turkish Daily News, Monday, Nov 26, 2007

This entry was posted in Eurocentric History by Asad Zaman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Asad Zaman

BS Math MIT (1974), Ph.D. Econ Stanford (1978)] has taught at leading universities like Columbia, U. Penn., Johns Hopkins and Cal. Tech. Currently he is Vice Chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. His textbook Statistical Foundations of Econometric Techniques (Academic Press, NY, 1996) is widely used in advanced graduate courses. His research on Islamic economics is widely cited, and has been highly influential in shaping the field. His publications in top ranked journals like Annals of Statistics, Journal of Econometrics, Econometric Theory, Journal of Labor Economics, etc. have more than a thousand citations as per Google Scholar.

3 thoughts on “The Dark Side of the Enlightenment Project

  1. Pingback: An Islamic Approach to Knowledge | An Islamic WorldView

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