In response to “Dialectics of Darkness” (Vol. 4, No. 2).

To the editors:

Egil Asprem’s review of Jason Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment is a rich and informative guide, not just through a history of magical beliefs, but a history of disenchantment. Indeed, he draws attention to the fact that the history of disenchantment is at the same time the history of re-enchantment. That is, in response to Max Weber’s “disenchantment of the world” thesis, there have been various attempts to re-enchant the world, not least by arguing that it did not become disenchanted in the first place—hence why I refer to such responses as (re‑)enchantment.

It is possible to draw from Asprem’s essay what we might call three models of (re-)enchantment:

  • Historical (Re‑)Enchantment
  • New Age (Re‑)Enchantment
  • Naturalistic (Re‑)Enchantment

Historical (Re‑)Enchantment counters Weberian disenchantment by pointing to the fact that historical figures held magical beliefs, even during the Enlightenment era. As Asprem indicates, Isaac Newton is a prime example. The fact that the majority of Newton’s writings concerned alchemy and theology complicates the claim, central to the Weberian thesis, that the Enlightenment was a time of secularizing disenchantment.

New Age (Re‑)Enchantment draws attention to the persistence of magical beliefs in contemporary society. If people today can count themselves as witches and pagans and believe in poltergeists, astrology, and so on, then either the world is re-enchanted or people have continued to regard the world as enchanted despite the disenchantment thesis.

Asprem points to a problem with New Age (Re‑)Enchantment, namely that “those who believe in the paranormal [and those with New Age beliefs] often accept it as science.” If the proponents of such beliefs regard them as science, in what sense do those proponents regard the world as enchanted?

And, of course, we could raise the same query with Historical (Re‑)Enchantment. Newton did not seem to regard his theological and alchemical work as antithetical to his scientific labors.1 Certainly, he, along with other early modern alchemists, approached his work in that area scientifically.

Consider the following excerpt from Newton’s account of an alchemic experiment, which highlights the exacting language of the scientist against the enchanted language of the alchemist.

Saturn [lead] destilled per se in a red heat sent up 60grains & there remained in the bottom 90grains. This spirit carries not up ♃ [tin] nor tinglas ore nor a mixture of these melted with the Greene Lyon nor ♄ [lead dominated by Saturn] impregnated with the Spirit of ♁ [antimony], nor Regulus made of Bismuth & ♃ [tin] ana 1part & Lead ore 4parts.2

I ask whether the Naturalistic model can be questioned in the same way as the Historical and New Age models: is it really a model of (re‑)enchantment?

Asprem describes Naturalistic (Re‑)Enchantment in the following way:

The neo-Kantian assumptions to which Weber appealed, that facts and values, nature and normativity must be completely separated, have not been anywhere near as influential as he assumed. It ignores that strand of naturalistic thinking that explicitly sought to ground ethics and values in the study of nature. It is a strand that runs from early Darwinians like Thomas Henry Huxley to secular humanists and many new atheists.

The suggestion here is that many ethical naturalists do not suffer Weberian disenchantment, because they do not make the fact–value distinction: by grounding normativity within nature, nature in some sense remains enchanted.

It is not obvious in what sense Darwinians, secular humanists, and new atheists regard nature as enchanted, or at least as not disenchanted. Nor is it clear that Darwinians, secular humanists, or new atheists resist the fact–value distinction.

I shall explore these points in more detail through two figures who fit under the categories of secular humanist and Darwinian new atheist: Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins.

Bertrand Russell’s essay “A Free Man’s Worship” is an awe-inspiring piece of secular humanist prose that employs the fact–value distinction. For Russell, the universe is a brute fact, and in its very brutishness it threatens to lead human beings astray. On the one hand, we are tempted to create religions which deny the cold reality “that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave.”3 On the other hand, we are tempted into a Nietzschean atheism, which is simply another version of primitive savage religion: confronted by an alien and inhuman world we prostrate ourselves before it, worshipping only the omnipotent but blind power of the universe. The dignity of man consists in resisting both of these temptations—and we resist them by appreciating “the independence of ideals” and “the opposition of fact and ideal.”4

Born insignificant and powerless from Nature, our “unthinking Mother,” we suffer under her irresistible forces in a universe, “Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, [as] omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way.”5 At the same time, it is in accepting that the “trampling march of unconscious power” is both indifferent and hostile to the brief fragility of human life, that we gain a subtle mastery over Nature.6 That is, by resigning to the littleness and ultimate purposelessness of human life, we no longer make the mistake of worshipping the “tyranny of non-human power.” Instead, we recognize that the only things worthy of worship are our own ideals—the ideals of truth, beauty, and love—which we do not get from “the realm of matter.”7 “In this way,” Russell writes, “mind asserts its subtle mastery over the thoughtless forces of Nature.” First, because we stand true to our own values in a valueless world that will ultimately devour them, refusing to succumb to despair or to the worship of power. Second, because, in doing so, even the brute fact of the universe, which cares nothing for our values, becomes a “crucible of imagination” for them.

It becomes possible at last so to transform and refashion the unconscious universe … that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay. In all the multiform facts of the world—in the visual shapes of trees and mountains and clouds, in the events of the life of Man, even in the very omnipotence of Death—the insight of creative idealism can find the reflection of beauty which its own thoughts first made.8

It is instructive to compare Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” with Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow.9

Although Dawkins does not refer to Russell in that book, he might well group Russell together with those who have strayed into the “illusion that there is a simple opposition between nasty and nice … tough and gentle,” and, we might add, between human and nature, fact and value. Russell could declare with Alfred Tennyson, “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” while Dawkins explicitly avows that expression.10 Instead, Dawkins appears to think he can tread a path between what Russell celebrated as the free man’s worship and what he condemned as the worship of power.

For Dawkins, the world is not that which Russell called “the old idol of clay.” It might be extraordinary that the human mind should emerge from a purposeless and unthinking universe; but far from its brutishness oppressing us, the “slow grind of natural forces” actually hold the secret to explaining what Russell celebrates as the unique and mysterious qualities and ideals of the human mind.11

At the same time, the scientific study of the universe is not the worship of power. Science demythologizes and disenchants nature. We are not prostrate in ignorance before it like Russell’s primitive savage, nor the unwitting victims of its overriding forces. Instead, we are struck by the beauty of our own scientific, precise analyses, revealing “the world as an orderly place” that contains “strangeness beyond wild imaginings but no spells or witchery.”12 Rather than worshipping the power of the irresistible forces of the universe, we come to understand them, and in doing so, attain scientific advancements that contribute to human flourishing.

Dawkins also wants to argue that “science allows mystery” and that “mysteries do not lose their power when solved.”13 This is a curious use of the word mystery, and Dawkins’ insistence that a disenchanted world is the object of “awed wonder” leads him back into Russellian language.14

For Dawkins, as for Russell, the human brain is an enigma, granting us the gifts of metaphor and imagining, which make us unique “among animal kind.” It is these gifts that enable us to emancipate ourselves “from the tyranny of simulating only utilitarian reality.” Through that emancipation, we are able “to get outside the universe,” to stand back from the “slow grind of natural forces” and build “a model of the universe inside our skulls.” In doing so, we not only come to understand the natural forces that made us and guide us, but celebrate them. Consequently, we find beauty, satisfaction, and meaning in a universe which would otherwise render human life brief and insignificant:

The spotlight passes but, exhilaratingly, before doing so it gives us time to comprehend something of this place in which we fleetingly find ourselves and the reason that we do so. We are alone among animals in foreseeing our end. We are also alone among animals in being able to say before we die: Yes, this is why it was worth coming to life in the first place … A Keats and a Newton, listening together, might hear the galaxies sing.15

Of course, the galaxies are not literally singing. They are only doing so metaphorically and are indifferent to our admiration and enjoyment of that singing. If we are reveling in listening to the singing we hear and make the mistake of imputing it to the universe itself, then, for Dawkins, we drift back into uncritical hobgoblinesque enchantment, just as, for Russell, we would be primitively worshipping power.

Thus, Dawkins agrees with Russell that we only find our meaning as human beings in the fact that we are rational, contemplative, imaginative beings. But unlike Russell, he argues that these are values we have from nature, rather than in opposition to it. As a result, tensions emerge in Dawkins’ position. The capacity for imagination, metaphor-making, and critical reflection are unique gifts, but gifts from the slow grind of evolutionary processes. The universe has allowed us to catch it in its song—but it is not actually singing, and, within a purposeless universe, our existence, as beings capable of listening to the universe, is mysterious and, like the universe itself, ultimately purposeless.

Consequently, Dawkins maintains that our unique evolutionary gifts give us meaning. However, our ability to hear the galaxies sing only gives human life meaning; it does not give the universe meaning. To say so would run the risk of suggesting that the universe both sings and created human beings so that something could hear it sing.

It is not clear in what sense Dawkins, particularly in his return to Russellian language, avoids the fact–value distinction. But he certainly encounters the origin of that distinction: the is–ought gap. Evolutionary processes might explain why there are beings who can listen to the universe sing, and perhaps even why those beings emphasize the intrinsic value of such an experience. However, evolutionary processes do not explain why we ought to place ultimate value in that experience against other experiences available to us in our fleeting lives, nor why we ought to agree with Dawkins that this experience justifies—provides reason for—human life.

We might say that, as such an experience is limited to human beings, and is only available to certain types of human beings—Dawkins singles out poets and scientists—that there are other aspects of existence that provide the reason for life in general, and human life in particular, including Russell’s emphasis on love. Or, we might say that while evolutionary processes explain the reason why such beings as human beings exist, those beings, like all others in a purposeless world, lack any reason that justifies the ascription of any particular meaning, purpose, or value to their existence.

Asprem’s category of Naturalistic (Re‑)Enchantment is a striking one, and I have by no means exhausted potential candidates for it.16 Russell’s secular humanism and Dawkins’s new atheism not only employ, or come up against, the fact–value distinction, but they resist the (re‑)enchantment of the world. In Russell, the human mind of the free man may paint some form of enchantment over the universe, but it is only the human mind that could be described in any sense as enchanted. In Dawkins, the human mind and the universe are equally unenchanted, although he does think the former ought to find the latter enchanting.

Dafydd Mills Daniel

Dafydd Mills Daniel is McDonald Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the University of Oxford.

  1. Asprem claims that Newton’s alchemic and theological writings are ignored. This is no longer the case. See, for example: Rob Iliffe, Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Sarah Dry, The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); James Force and Sarah Hutton, eds., Newton and Newtonianism: New Studies (Dordrect Kluwer, 2004); James Force and Richard Popki, eds., Newton and Religion: Context, Nature, and Influence (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1999). Even Richard Westfall’s seminal biography of Newton discusses these writings: Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980). There is a thriving literature on Newton in these areas, and, more than this, we are now able to access Newton’s writings on these subjects online at The Newton Project and The Chymstry of Isaac Newton
  2. Isaac Newton, “June 1682,” Portsmouth Collection Add. MS. 3975, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge University, 63recto, The Chymstry of Isaac Newton, Indiana University Bloomington. 
  3. Bertrand Russell, A Free Man’s Worship, and Other Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1976), 10. 
  4. Ibid., 10–13. 
  5. Ibid., 18. 
  6. Ibid., 18–19. 
  7. Ibid., 12, 13. 
  8. Ibid., 15. 
  9. Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (London: Penguin, 1999). 
  10. Ibid., 210. 
  11. Ibid., 16. 
  12. Ibid., 81, 29. 
  13. Ibid., 29, 41. 
  14. Ibid., 17–18. 
  15. Ibid., 285, 311–13. 
  16. See, for example, Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (London: Penguin, 2012). Although, it is noteworthy that on the topic of Naturalistic (Re‑)Enchantment, Haidt develops his evolutionary social intuitionism in explicit contradistinction from the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris.