Philosopher Simon Critchley discusses the new Enlightenment.
Question: Does Obama’s election signal a desire for a new Enlightenment?
Simon Critchley: We’re in a situation which is very unusual. I was born and brought up in England and you know, religion was a thing of the past. Social democracy was the way of the future and all the rest, the wealth state.
The last couple of decades, in particularly the last decade, have been defined by the marriage of religion and politics, and politics driven by religious conviction, whether that’s George W. Bush or Ozama Bin Laden, and in many ways those two are a lot metaphysical twins in some strange way, and also by believing in violence.
So, if you were pessimistically to look at the future, you’d say, well, based on what’s happened recently, the future is going to defined by this triangle of religion, politics and violence. That seems to be where we’re headed and that’s extremely bad news. Is that likely to change? I hope so.
I think I’ve been critical of Obama and some things I’ve read in a book, enormously buoyed out by the decency of what he’s trying to do. It’s a return to something; basic virtues. What Obama has done I think, incredibly well is to, as it were, take that idea of religiously motivated politics from the right and to transpose that for Liberals in a way that Liberals can also believe. Belief isn’t something that they have. It’s something that we have too and he’s done that by, I think, occupying in an incredibly clever way, the rhetorical space of historically black Christianity but in a way, that doesn’t use that language, the language of say a German might but, which basically uses the language of the founding documents of the United States. It’s all about we the people achieving a more perfect union and all the rest.
The United States, for me, was founded on an idea of civil religion. It is the most successful civil religion arguably in history. It’s doing incredibly durable. What Obama has done is to re-infuse or reinvigorate that civil religion that allows people to believe. And what’s fascinating about that is the way in which that belief will enable people to organize and change their view of things. I mean, November 4, 5 ; where I live in Brooklyn, was just like a huge party; expansive collective joy. It was wonderful and I fear the people are going to be disappointed because in a sense the stakes have been cranked up so high, all he can do is fail. I hope he’d be given time but I’m not sure they will.
Recorded on: Feb 3, 2009.