Defending The Values of The Enlightenment

Donald Trump’s visit to the UK has led to mass demonstrations in London, Scotland and elsewhere with protestors making clear that they oppose his anti-immigrant and anti-environment policies along with his appallingly misogynistic views.

On Monday 16th July, Trump is scheduled to meet the Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Helsinki. Many Europeans leaders are deeply concerned over Trump’s friendly overtures to the Russian leader. Klaus Scharioth, who served as Germany’s ambassador to the USA during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama sums up this concern in today’s New York Times:

“For me, the key thing is the Enlightenment. I think that keeps the E.U. together, the values of the Enlightenment — a free press, religious freedom, minority protection, free elections, democracy, a free judiciary independent of all the other branches of government, tolerance, respect for others. I’m afraid the United States might no longer be speaking out for these values. And that makes me very anxious.”

I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, and it is hard to overstate how much all of us in Europe owe to the values of the Enlightenment. It is why we instinctively recoil from Putin’s authoritarianism. It is also why we are rightly sceptical of religious movements, including Islamic ones, that strive to create religious states – we recognise that in practice those states will almost certainly lead to increased discrimination against minorities and greater intolerance.

It is deeply concerning that we are witnessing the rise of populist movements in Europe and policies advocating intolerance towards minorities. The thuggish supporters of the English Defence League and the bans we are now seeing being introduced in parts of Europe against women wearing the burqa or niqab are examples of this increased intolerance.

As Scharioth notes in the New York Times:

“Nobody thought in the early 1920s that Italy would become a dictatorship. Nobody thought that Germany, supposed a quite cultured nation, would get rid of democracy in a very short time.”

It is time to stand up for Enlightenment values and actively challenge those who seek to undermine them – whether they come in the shape of populists like Trump or whether they are advocates of utopian religious states.

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