“The modern world has crept up on us with the promise of great progress, but it has also exacted a fierce price. If modernity has delivered a bounty of scientific insights, technological advancement, a rational worldview and secularized social structures, it has done so at great cost by sacrificing traditional values, religious beliefs, transcendent perspectives and a reverence for the sublime.” That, in a nutshell, is the story of disenchantment.
To my mind, this line of thought is neither truthful nor helpful.
It has opened up the arena of constructive discourse to a wistful mode of thinking that is as well-intentioned as it is misguided. In essence, this is an intellectual sleight of hand that goes as follows. With one hand, you are encouraged to embrace the nostalgia of loss, as tradition is superseded by innovation; meanwhile, with the other hand, the assertion is made that the old and the new ways are simply alternative but equivalent viewpoints.
And… hey presto! Before you know it, you believe that maintaining your allegiance to outdated ideas is a perfectly acceptable option. Better yet, that allegiance need not be justified by those ideas’ inherent merit—your emotional attachment to them is reason enough. In other words, this disingenuous little flourish of intellectual prestidigitation has put the enchantment back into disenchantment.
If the facts don’t support the truth of your position, then let that position itself be the fact-free truth to rally around. This is how you keep obsolete ideas on life support: turn them into a rearguard just cause.
Rainbows in Kansas
Let’s have a look at one of the more innocuous victims of disenchantment. Once science discovered that rainbows are created by light waves refracting inside minute airborne water droplets, the colorful atmospheric phenomenon might well have lost its allure, its wonder, its magic. It had, after all, been revealed to be “just” an optical illusion. There was no rainbow, really.
But lo and behold: we all still love rainbows. And we happily concede that they don’t exist as physical entities.
What has happened here is that even as rainbows moved house from Mysterious Portent Ave. to Basic Optics Lane, we simply transferred our attendant feelings of joy and wonder to its new address. Our newly acquired knowledge hasn’t made rainbows any less “real”; it just made them wonderful in a new way.
Not so, however, for many other domains of human inquiry.
- The well-established fact that the mind is what the brain does has not stopped multitudes from believing in an immaterial soul.
- No amount of evidence for biology as a gradual evolutionary process will suffice to convince some that all species weren’t created in an instant and in toto.
- Despite the astonishing achievements of astronomy, many are still charmed by the notion that the heavens regulate our personalities and our lives through astrological mediation.
- The fascinating wealth of historical and contextual perspectives has not swayed the orthodox from believing that their sacred texts are verbatim transcripts of a divine mind.
Our continued enchantment with disenchanted notions is giving them traction beyond their validity. We have become enamored of our own homesickness for a land to which there is no return. It may be an appealing thought that even though we’re not in Kansas anymore, we could yet somehow click our red shoes and return to a world that is more familiar, less threatening. But some steps cannot be retraced. New insights and knowledge may be misunderstood, denied or disparaged, but they cannot be un-known.
Retcon, Rinse, Repeat
If you see enlightened modernity as an unwelcome retcon to your cherished traditions, it’s very easy to do what many die-hard fans do in such cases: dispute the legitimacy of the change. That’s why reframing the disenchantment of the prescientific world as a lamentable fall from grace harkens back to similar legends of corruption and loss of innocence.
Adam and Eve, for example, tasted the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and were cast out of paradise and sentenced to a life of mortality and suffering in a world stained by sin. This myth is foundational to the Abrahamic faiths, which are all dedicated to and propelled by a similar project: the promise of a release from the ills of the sublunar realm and a return to a state of peaceful balance.
Seen in this light, the backlash against the fundamental transformation that was the disenchantment of the premodern world may well be a corollary to such perspectives. It’s a way to combine a retrospective yearning with the promise of delivery. Which makes it easy to label whatever sits between these complementary backward-looking and forward-looking panoramas as an unsolicited interruption unworthy of consideration.
Let’s Get Real
The reality of the matter, of course, is different. Let’s take a moment to revisit the examples we saw above.
- Even if you accept that there is no such thing as a disembodied eternal spirit, the workings of the mind still inspire tremendous awe. The human brain is the most complex structure in the known cosmos. We are, in a very real and acute sense, how the universe knows itself across the expanse of time and space. The idea of a metaphorical “soul” is perfectly commensurate with this reality—and the fact that such a soul or spirit or essence is symbolic does not diminish its salience in any way.
- Seeing the web of life as an ongoing biochemical experiment of titanic scope—stochastic, unguided and atelic—does not diminish its majesty in any way. Darwin said it best: “There is grandeur in this view of life.” Better yet, the very fact that it isn’t ordered, regulated or purposeful makes it all the more remarkable. It invites us to replace hubris with humility.
- There is no known force or particle or field that could in any reasonable way be thought to determine the content of our character or the flow of our fate through the motion of heavenly bodies in space. ’Nuff said. But the very fact that we are capable of dreaming up a system of prognostication that seems to offer useful or relevant insights means that those same insights can also be gleaned in our own minds without the illusory mechanics if soothsaying.
- All texts, religious or otherwise, were written down by human hands. The impulses that inspired them may have been fleeting of sustained, individual or communal, sobering or intoxicant—but the process of distilling thoughts into words is deeply, essentially human. Superimposing the idea of revelation onto a text is like adding a layer of varnish over a painting: it’s a way of protecting the substrate against the elements. But ideas are not brush strokes, and living wisdom is ossified by such uncompromising preservation: it saps the underlying meaning of its vitality and relevance. Better to see our scriptures as a product of their circumstances; they are not only in need of interpretation and redress, but deserving of it.
Clinging to yesteryear’s views and narratives does them no service. Like life itself, ideas flourish when they are part of a vibrant ecosystem, when they are used, tested, revised, augmented, refuted, honed, and, yes, discarded.
So let’s not keep perspectives that are now “disenchanted” around by succumbing to the enchantment of their nostalgic or sentimental appeal. Instead, let’s revitalize them by accepting and even embracing their new role in the tapestry of life. The universe is as the universe is. We understand a small sliver of it, and there is always room for improvement, for an evolution of ideas. Assigning a faux patina to viewpoints that don’t deserve it does a disservice both to the people who believe in them and to the beliefs themselves.
There’s a steamboat leaving for a lost island where rainbows are still real. For the price of your soul, you can buy a slice to take home with you. Tickets, anyone?
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