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The Enlightenment in the US Faces Slow Demise

The Lisbon Earthquake, picture from The Earthquake Engineering Online Archive - Jan Kozak Collection: KZ128 (via Wikipedia)

For decades, religious conservatives have been attacking the underpinnings of the Enlightenment, apparently without fear that they are attacking the worldview of the Founders. Rick Perry is just the latest of these pre-moderns to take center stage. Perry is famous for his solution to drought: three days of prayer. He prepared himself to enter the race for the republican nomination for president by sponsoring a prayer rally featuring a number of fundamentalist preachers whose stock in trade is homophobia and hellfire. Perry led the group in ecstatic prayer:

“Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government, and as a nation we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us, and for that we cry out for your forgiveness,” Perry said.

This is how the guy thinks. In a speech in May, he said “I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God, and say, ‘God: You’re going to have to fix this.” And the fact that he has tremendous support among fundamentalists tells us that many of our fellow citizens think the same way.

It reminds me of a story. On November 1, 1755, there was a terrible earthquake about 150 miles west in the Atlantic. The earth shook for ten minutes in Lisbon, creating fissures 16 feet wide in the city center, and causing the collapse of a number of buildings. The shaking and destruction, coupled with widespread use of candles and cooking fires caused massive fires. Many people ran in fear, and streets were blocked by debris from the fallen buildings so fires could not be extinguished. They continued five days. Meanwhile, many of the survivors rushed to the beach and even boarded boats. When the tsunami came, they were swamped by waves estimated at 20 feet. Perhaps 30,000 people died and many more were injured.

The King of Portugal, Joseph I, and his court had left the city. When he returned and saw the devastation, he was distraught. He turned to his prime minister, Pombal, and asked what he should do. Pombal replied “bury the dead and heal the sick,” perhaps apocryphally.* With this leadership the people of Lisbon began to clean up and rebuild.

Among many others, the Jesuit priests of the community asserted that this disaster was a result of the sins of the populace, and that it portended the second coming of Jesus Christ. This is perhaps understandable. As Susan Nieman* points out, the combination of earthquake, fire and tidal waves could easily be seen as the result of design. That view would have been natural to people steeped in the Old Testament stories treating natural disasters and defeats in wars as a sign of God’s anger at the Chosen People for wandering from His ways. Religious leaders for centuries had made similar claims about other disasters, such as the Black Plague, which seemed plausible in the absence of better explanations.

Nieman describes some of this reaction. “Jesuits had no trouble responding … that the earthquake was God’s reaction to an Inquisition that had grown too lax – nor in following the quake with an auto-da-fé.” People who believed that the disaster was a sign from the Almighty spent years noodling about that, instead of getting about the prosaic business of burying the dead, healing the injured, feeding the hungry, and rebuilding the city. Chief among the Jesuits was one Gabriel Malagrida who said:

It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the Devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin.

Malagrida preached like this for years, and eventually it became too much for Pombal. He arranged the arrest of Malagrida on tenuous grounds, and imprisoned him. While in jail, Malagrida had visions and wrote them down. That provided Pombal with the grounds for an Inquisition. Nieman says:

The daylong auto-da-fé in which [Malagrida] died was also the end of a form of explanation. After Lisbon, even relatively conservative Western cultures were no longer willing to tolerate God’s hand in their daily affairs. … Even today, major earthquakes can evoke cries and speculations that will seem archaic, but they are generally confined to fundamentalist sects and hapless victims. Political action will focus on corrupt officials who take bribes in exchange for relaxing building codes rather than on increasing the performance of religious rituals.

Nieman says that the Lisbon earthquake led thinkers of the day to the recognition that natural disasters like earthquakes have no moral dimension. They simply happen, and the goal of humans is figure out what can be done to prevent them, and to plan so as to minimize death and damage. After the Lisbon earthquake, the word “evil” was not applied to these events, only to human behavior.

Clerics lost their secular role. They could no longer say that natural disasters were the act of the Almighty, and that they had the ability to avert the wrath of the Almighty. If they wanted to be heard on matters of the polity, they needed to educate themselves in the secular world. Most religious leaders saw that their role related to the morality of personal actions, not to building codes or capital gains taxes. They began to teach the actual principles of the New Testament, especially the Corporal Works of Mercy**, adopting the language of Pombal, and led the way to dramatic improvements in the lives of average people. That change in the role of religion is central to the Enlightenment.

Texas has long been the home of people who think that they can do the will of the Almighty by restating history books and praying at football games. This is a large and apparently growing group of people. Perry and other Republican candidates are dependent on them, and they must think there are enough of them to give them traction. It is frightening to think that there are so many members of Nieman’s “fundamentalist sects and hapless victims” ready to claim that the political problems we face happened because “as a nation we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us…” and that the solution is to “… cry out for [God’s] forgiveness.”

It is a profound rejection of the Enlightenment.
*Sources for this description include Wikipedia, The National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering, and Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Modern Philosophy, by Susan Nieman Princeton University Press, 2002

** The Corporal Works of Mercy are:
• To feed the hungry
• To give drink to the thirsty
• To clothe the naked
• To harbour the harbourless
• To visit the sick
• To ransom the captive
• To bury the dead

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