The Effect of the Enlightenment on the Christian World and the Need For it in the Muslim World.

By:  Robert D Brinsmead

In response to “An Open Letter to Moderate Muslims”.

The writer could have mentioned that unlike Christianity,, the Muslim world has not gone through the Enlightenment.   The so-called Reformation of Luther and Calvin did not rescue Christianity from being stuck with a rigid adherence to Biblical teaching. As Protestantism hardened, it reverted to a rigid sola scriptura which left it shouting at the Catholics about the infallibility of the Bible. For their part, the Catholics responded by shouting at the Protestants about  the infallibility of Church authority.  Both positions amounted to the same kind of authority in principle. The  books of the New Testament were written by the early Church over a period of about a hundred years. They were finally collected into a canon of 27 books during the rule of Constantine about two centuries later. This meant that Protestantism’s appeal to the authority of the Bible was really an appeal to the authority of the early Church  over against the Catholics’ appeal to the authority of the contemporary Church.  Both sides were appealing to an infallible source of authority to which humans were required to suspend their own reason and judgment.

The dawn of the scientific age in the new heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus and Galileo found the Pope and the Reformers united in their violent opposition to it.  They frantically hunted through the Bible to find passages to prove that the earth rather than the sun, had to be the centre of things if there was to be a heaven above and hell below. And of course it wasn’t hard to find passages in the Bible to support their earth-centred worldview.  But when the evidence for the heliocentric cosmology was put beyond all reasonable doubt, Christians had to modify the way they read the Bible.

 Alas,  two hundred years later, the Church was caught waving the Bible around again in opposition to the new science of evolution put forward by Darwin and Wallace.  At stake here was the basic Christian narrative, based on the Bible, of the creation of a perfect man in a perfect environment about six thousand years ago, followed by a Fall bringing sin and death into the world –supposedly for the first time!   Not only did the science of evolution mean that all life forms on earth had originated from a single source, but that the emergence of life on earth in all of its splendour and diversity had taken place over many millions of years.  This confronted Christians with the proposition that death was not some penalty for the Fall of man, but a necessary part of the evolutionary process long before humans walked this earth.  There never was a time when the fish in the sea did not live to be some other species’ dinner, or that herbivorous animals were not food for carnivorous animals whose very teeth and digestive systems were designed for tearing and eating flesh. Clearly death was a reality long before humans walked the earth.   All this flew in the face of the basic Christian narrative about death entering the world by the sin of Adam and Eve about six thousand years ago.

 There are two lines of evidence which supports the basic science of evolution.  Firstly, the fossil record supports Darwin’s theory that earlier and simpler forms of life have been followed by later life forms of increasing complexity and diversity.  Secondly, genetic science can now  demonstrate the universal occurrence of the same DNA genetic structure in virtually all forms of life, arguing as powerfully as the fossil record that all life has evolved from a single ancestral source (See Campbell and Loy, Humankind Emerging, p. 42).

 Genetic science with its mapping of the human genome can trace back our Homo sapiens’ ancestry to a single mother who lived about 175,000 years ago – and apparently in Africa.

That was nothing like a Garden of Eden beginning.  The story of the human race since that very primitive and even unpromising beginning has not been a tale about a progressive decline from an original pristine state, but it’s been an amazing trajectory of human progress starting with the discovery of fire, and proceeding from the Stone Age to Bronze Age, from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, from Iron Age to the Industrial Age and now to an age of Technology and Information. There never was some lost Golden Age in which mankind lived better than today – in terms of living conditions, education, cultural opportunities, human rights, human freedoms and longevity.  Despite setbacks along this human journey, the basic trajectory has been an upward path of constant human improvement and development.

 It is not possible to change these facts about our human origins to fit a long-held Christian narrative about the creation and Fall of humanity.  Christians can only change the narrative to fit the facts just as Christians had to change the way they read the Bible to fit the new heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus and Galileo.  It is impossible to reconcile the facts of human beginnings and human history with the old story of the Fall of man and those apocalyptic passages of the Bible which portray the world as becoming worse and worse as it plunges toward its imminent destruction. It is impossible to reconcile the facts of science and history with the apostle Paul’s narrative about the entrance of sin and death into the world by the Fall of the first Adam (Romans 5).

 All is not lost, however, because Christians may find in the ethical vision of the Old Testament prophets and in the teachings of the historical Jesus another kind of narrative that sits very comfortably with the real world as we find it.

On top of the first great paradigm shift demanded in the heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus and Galileo, and the second great paradigm shift demanded by the science of evolution and genetics, there is another great paradigm shift demanded in the science of Einstein, the Hubble telescope, and the discovery of the Big Bang  13.7 billion years ago.  Here is  evidence for an expanding universe, indicating that creation is still a work in progress.  These realities call for even more dramatic adjustments in the way Christians must now read their Bibles.

 But as the good book says, “If we can’t keep pace with the footmen, how shall we contend with the horsemen?”

 Beside the changes demanded by the age of science, there are the enormous political and social changes in our modern world that call for adjustments in the way Christians read the Bible.  A lot of the old ethical and social norms that used to be  acceptable in a Christian culture are not acceptable to a more enlightened and advanced human consciousness.   Few would try to read the Bible today to justify the institution of slavery although there are no shortage of passages in both Old and New Testaments which were once used by churchmen to  justify slavery.   Few Christians today will use the Bible to justify the denigration and subordination of women, although there are passages in the New Testament about the status of women which do not measure up to the demands of a more enlightened human consciousness.  Since great thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mills gave birth to our modern liberal democracies, few in the Christian West will use the Bible as John Wesley did to support the divine right of Kings.   And few indeed will now appeal to  the Bible to justify religious intolerance, much less to sentence people to death for having opinions unacceptable to the Church.

There is yet another, no less remarkable aspect to the Enlightenment that we need to consider.  The scientific method of investigating  the natural world has also been  applied to an investigation of Biblical literature, using the rational tools of Historical Criticism, Textual Criticism, Source Criticism, Redaction Criticism, Form Criticism and more.  The progress made in the field of literary criticism over the last 200 years has shattered the myths of an error-free Bible as effectively as the age of science shattered the primitive worldview of the Bible.   Conservative Christians have sometimes been like a  Rip Van Winkle sleeping through the findings of Biblical scholarship of the last 200 years.  Yet the evidence has clearly demonstrated that the sacred books of the Old and New Testament never dropped straight out of heaven as if dictated by the Almighty.  This is not to dispute that they contain some “inspired”  insights of sages and saints, but these revered ones were as fallibly human as the best among us today – and just as liable to “see through a glass darkly” as St. Paul once put it.

No liberated son or daughter of the Enlightenment is going to insist that what some goat herder scrawled on animal skins in a pre-scientific age is more reliable than what astronomers can now see through the Hubble telescope.  The science of literary scholarship has demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that the Bible borrowed its Creation stories and Flood stories from much older sources of ancient mythology.   It has been shown that features of the Mosaic laws were copied from the earlier Code of Hammurabi. And that Judaism was deeply penetrated and influenced by the apocalyptic teachings of the Persian prophet Zarathustra, influencing it to create a whole new stand of literature in the second century BCE called “Jewish Apocalyptic.” This apocalyptic worldview of pre-Christian Judaism then became “the mother of all Christian theology.”

 Gone are the days when we simply took it on the authority of the Church that the canon of the New Testament was based on “apostolic authority.”  Biblical scholarship now universally recognizes that no part of the New Testament was written by eye-witnesses of the historical Jesus.  Except for the letters of St. Paul (who never met the historical Jesus and who wrote his letters about a generation after his death), most of the New Testament documents were written in the second and third generation after Jesus, and by authors who had their own religious agendas.  Some of the documents have even been shown to be forgeries of apostolic authority – like the New Testament letters bearing the name of St. Peter and letters to Timothy allegedly written by St. Paul.  The New Testament itself is strewn with contradictory stories of the nativity, the resurrection and other events in the life of Jesus.  There are diverse points of view on everything from whether or not to keep the Jewish law, on whether or not to get married, on whether or not the end of the world is about to happen, on whether or not salvation is possible apart from faith in Jesus and  joining the one true Church, and much more. And perhaps the most crucial question right now is  whether Jesus taught an ethic and a theology that was consistently non-violent,  or whether he was an apocalyptic teacher who taught that God would ultimately resort to a show of unprecedented violence, rather than unconditional love as in Matthew 5:38-48, to establish God’s reign on earth. No wonder the myth of an infallible book has spawned more than 30,000 different Christian denominations, most claiming that they alone interpret it correctly.

It is one thing to recognize that holy Scripture contains gems of wisdom from the sages and saints of an earlier age.  It is quite another thing to appeal to it as a source of infallible authority, a mistake  that can have very dehumanizing consequences. The age of Enlightenment has skittled forever the validity of the old claims about an inerrant Scripture. The human liberation from the tyranny of religious myths has played no small role in the launching of the free world into an age of unprecedented prosperity and progress. According to William J. Bernstein, this triumph of human rationalism over mythology is one of the four core things that has given birth to the prosperity of the modern world.  (The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created)

 The Christian Fundamentalists still insist that the Bible should be interpreted literally, just as it reads. Luther once advised  readers of the Bible to put all the indigestible bits on the side of one’s plate  and just eat the good stuff. If one tries to digest everything the Bible says,  bones and all, one soon gets into deep trouble. Like for instance,  what to do with a man who lights a fire to cook a meal on the Sabbath day? Kill him, says the Bible.  What to do with any person who utters a blasphemy? Kill him.   What to do with a son who is going through an all too common rebellious phase? Kill him.   What to do with homosexuals? Kill them?  What to do with anyone teaching or practicing a different religion? Kill him.  What to do with an adulterer,  a fornicator or a man who sleeps with an menstruating woman? Kill them.  What to do with a man who brings home a woman/wife of a different race?  Kill them both? What do with people who complain about their food or austere conditions? Kill them with a plague of poisonous snakes.  The Bible features ethnic cleansing and appalling atrocities – recorded in the books of Joshua, Deuteronomy 20,  1 Samuel 15  and supposedly ordered by God –  which make the current ISIS atrocities look quite moderate.

 It is important to address the violence of the Old Testament right now because Muslims try to live by it too as just another of their holy books dictated by Almighty God.  Much of the Islamic  religion comes straight out of the Old Testament.  There was a time when Christians used to act like ISIS.  Even John Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake in a slow green fire because the brilliant medical doctor and theologian was declared to be guilty of heresy.  During his trial he was asked, Do you believe that Jesus was the eternal son of God? Servetus replied, ,“I believe Jesus was the son of the eternal God.”  Not good enough.  The prolonged agonies of his dreadful execution would make getting one’s throat cut with a blunt ISIS knife look relatively humane.   It was only 300 years ago that Thomas Arkenhead, only 20 years of age,  was hanged in Scotland because he dared to question whether Moses really wrote the first five books of the Bible – something practically all Biblical scholars now question too.

 The winds of change brought about through the Enlightenment have even changed the way the Christian Fundamentalists use the Bible.   There are no Flat Earthers among them now.   Some may cling to a Creation event just six thousand years ago.  They may still cling to the story of the Fall of man.  Catholics are told they can accept the theory of evolution provided they retain the doctrine of “original sin.” (Which looks like having one foot in the age of modern science and the other foot in the age of ancient mythology!) But Christian Fundamentalists generally no longer appeal to the Bible to justify the institution of slavery, to oppose gender and racial equality, or to restrict the religious freedom of others.  These gains in the Christian West are to a very large extent the fruits of the Enlightenment.

 These winds of change have not yet swept through Islam.  It is for this reason that Muslim culture tends to resemble so many features of the pre-Enlightenment Christian culture.  They still retain the features of a pre-Copernican, pre-Darwinian and the pre-Relativity/Big Bang worldview.  The Muslim world is yet to produce its giants of liberal democracy such as  Locke, Jefferson and Paine. It is yet to have a more enlightened human consciousness bring the norms of its Muslim ethics to the bar of human reason.  And last but not least, the Muslim world is yet to be shaken by an army of literary scholars applying the blow torch of Historical Criticism, Textual Criticism, Source Criticism and Redaction Criticism to its own holy books, beginning with the Qur’an.  Until this happens, Islam is always going to be troubled by its Fundamentalists who want to take their Qur’an literally – and act on what  was written in the context of a Bedouin culture of the 7th Century. As things stand, the moderate Muslims appear to be ill-equipped to help those among them who want to take the words of their holy books seriously and literally. Have Muslims in general  grown up enough to question whether every word of these books is free from all fallible human influences? Or are the moderates trying to help their Fundamentalists by just interpreting what their Prophet says with weasel words and lots of summersaults to explain away an all too obvious meaning?

It is the committed Muslims who are in danger of falling for the delusions of Fundamentalism.

The historian Marty Marty once made this comment about the Christian movement:  “The committed Christians are not civil;  and the civil Christians are not committed.” If we took out the word “Christians” and put in the word “Muslims, ” Marty’s statement makes a lot of sense.


Robert D. Brinsmead, Duranbah Rd, Duranbah, NSW2487   PHONE 02 66 777 279  –  by Permission of Robert Brinsmead

This article was written in a response to an open letter to Muslims.

Ali A. Rizvi

Pakistani-Canadian writer, physician and musician

An Open Letter to Moderate Muslims