Since 11 September 2001, the idea of Enlightenment has been ripped from university textbooks and airlifted into battle between the West and its irrational enemies. In this elegant polemical essay, Dan Hind rightly quibbles with this supposedly Manichean tussle between the guarantors of Enlightenment in the West and everyone else. Hind wants to rescue the idea of Enlightenment from its usurpers, while pressing it into the service of something better. He doesn't succeed, but fails in an interesting way.
The Threat to Reason begins by rehearsing the different national variations on the theme of secular Enlightenment which emerged in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The age of reason brought with it intellectual commitments to robust individualism, to freedom from church and state, to the twin ideas of rational inquiry and scientific method. Hind knows his subject well enough to write about it with insight and wit. The perceived threats to Enlightenment, he says, differ according to local taste and political affiliation. "The mainstream left likes to fret about religious fundamentalism, while the right tends to go after post-modernism."
He is quite right to be suspicious of the new militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who seem to think that the ideas associated with Enlightenment can be imposed by state diktat, or (in the case of Hitchens) by sending in the Marines. He is right, too, to shrug off the idea that a deeply unpopular new strain of militant Islam could on its own be enough to topple the idea of Enlightenment in Western countries.
But Hind wants to go much further. He wants to argue that the ideas associated with Enlightenment are under threat not from religion or even new-age gobbledegook, but from powerful and entrenched corporate interests. Alternative therapies cost little and do little harm, he points out, while thousands of people die every year from the side-effects of pharmaceutical drugs. Maybe, but Hind seems unable to distinguish between ideas associated with Enlightenment and things which he simply doesn't like. …