Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2001-2002

An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism, by Daniel Harbour; and Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World, by Roy Porter

reviewed by Dan O’Hara

How good it is to welcome two new books that take a highly positive view of what has become known as the Enlightenment project, something that has come in for much abuse (it hardly merits the term “criticism”) from postmodernists and assorted nihilists in recent years. But the two books – and their authors – could hardly be more different.

Daniel Harbour is a brilliant young Oxford maths and philosophy graduate, still in his early twenties, who at the time of writing was working for a PhD in linguistics at MIT. This is his first book, really an extended essay. Professor Roy Porter, now in his sixties, doyen of historians of the eighteenth century and author of numerous outstanding books, has here produced a wide-ranging survey of his (and other) work in the field, and even managed to give it an interesting new slant. His book will become a touchstone for several decades.

Daniel Harbour makes a distinction between two worldviews, which he calls “Spartan meritocracy” and “Baroque monarchy”. The former makes the minimum of assumptions about the world, and rigorously tests all concepts and data for their usefulness and truth. The latter allows itself the luxury of numerous and arbitrary assumptions, which it refuses to test, but readily accepts the “authority” of self-styled experts and gurus who, in reality, not only add nothing to the sum total of human knowledge, but also divert us from practical and humane solutions to real human problems and dilemmas.

These are useful models of two approaches to knowledge, and the author is successful in showing how atheism relates to the former and theism to the latter; but I do feel the terms are grossly overworked. Furthermore, with a hint of premature donnishness, that might be acceptable in the lecture room, but becomes tedious on the page, he begins every chapter by telling us what he is going to do in it, then doing it, and then telling us what he has done. I know we live in a world of sound bites and short attention spans, but perhaps the reader could have been trusted to get the point without constant iteration.

There are, however, several passages in the book that I should have been proud to have written, particularly those that deal with the baleful influence of the religious (Baroque) mindset on such moral issues as slavery, anti-Semitism, women’s rights and the gay issue. But there are many more where the editorial blue pencil might have been wielded more courageously.

Harbour also has a tendency to dispense with the article (definite and indefinite) in passages where its inclusion would have aided clarity, and there were one or two sentences where I could not be sure of his meaning, even after several readings. There are also a few typos, and the Oxford philosopher of religion, Richard Swinburne, mentioned twice, is both times called “Roger”.

Nevertheless, this is a spirited and refreshing advocacy of atheism, one likely to engage the intelligent sixth-former and undergraduate, though in the older reader, already familiar with the field, it may induce more irritation than illumination. I would not, however, want to discourage a brilliant young writer, who, I suspect will in time look back on this youthful essay with a little embarrassment, and go on to produce a much better book. This one, he tells us, was “intended to be read in a comfortable afternoon beside a swimming pool”. But the photograph on the dust jacket is likely to make most readers of this journal, at least, wish they could spend that comfortable afternoon with the author instead!

Though there is certainly a place for a book such as this, and I wish it every success, if asked to recommend a single volume advocating atheism, the best, to my mind, is still J L Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism (Oxford, 1982).

Roy Porter’s chief aim in his latest book is to show that the growth of knowledge and critical enquiry that flowered in the eighteenth century, which many recent commentators have presented as essentially a French achievement, to which Britain contributed little if anything, was, in fact, deeply rooted in political, scientific and cultural developments in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Britain, and that this was fully acknowledged at the time by leading French philosophers – Voltaire, Diderot, D’Holbach, etc.

This book is so wide-ranging that no reviewer ought to try to summarise it in the space available here, but I would strongly recommend anyone interested in the intriguing question of how we got where we are today to invest in it. The author’s comprehensive and kaleidoscopic knowledge of the field, and his wonderful way with words, ensure that the reader will be more enlightened about the Enlightenment, and its lasting achievements – so central to modern humanism – by this than by any other book I know of, or could imagine.

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2002-02-17 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :