If you were to stroll through any typical upper-middle-income American neighborhood in 2021, the odds are very high that you’d observe at least one yard sign exuberantly proclaiming something like this: “In this house, we believe that science is real, love is love, no human is illegal … ” and other banal tautologies. There are usually six or seven examples in this litany, but really, one of the main goals of the yard sign—aside from signaling virtue—can be accomplished with just this: the curtsy to Science.
In a country where the traditional definition of virtue has “evolved” and the search for metaphysical truth has largely been sidelined, millions of Americans seem to believe that there is no higher truth than the Science and that there are no more virtuous citizens than those who deferentially submit to the experts, the societal planners, and the proclaimers of the Science. We can thank the Enlightenment for this spirit of scientism, as Science has now been fully separated from teleology (i.e., “goal directedness”) and final causality, which many elites consider to be backward Medieval thinking.
This separation—and the general idea that human beings and their interactions can be boiled down to and predicted by physical phenomena and scientific methods—has led to numerous destructive movements such as scientific socialism, historical materialism, and even progressive racialism. While Science has indeed provided wonderful breakthroughs that enhanced human flourishing, it does not engender all knowledge that is necessary for human societies.
As John Gray has documented in Seven Types of Atheism, several of the leading Enlightenment figures—including David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Voltaire—infused some of their writings with a pseudoanthropological racism. This is particularly evident in Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Hume’s notes accompanying his “National Characters” essay. Gray states that: “Though twenty-first century missionaries for ‘Enlightenment values’ resist the fact, modern racism emerged from the work of Enlightenment philosophes.”
Out of the Enlightenment’s penumbra of positivism, proponents of eugenics and scientific racism achieved some prominence in the late 1800’s and the Progressive Era of the early 1900’s. Eugenics notoriously sought to use Science to “purify” the human race through selective breeding practices and even forced sterilization. Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term “eugenics” and began to apply Darwin’s work in evolution to human societies. Margaret Sanger, the well-known founder of the American Birth Control League and the first president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, infamously—and with a disturbing enthusiasm—worked to reduce the birth rate in African American communities as part of the “Negro Project.” Sanger also advocated for the sterilization of disabled people….[ ]
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