30 December 2006


What Powers the Zeitgeist?

In chapter 7 of The God Delusion Richard Dawkins considers "the changing moral Zeitgeist". He maintains: "...there is a consensus about what we do as a matter of fact consider right and wrong: a consensus that prevails surprisingly widely. ... With notable exceptions ... most people pay lip service to the same broad liberal consensus of ethical principles." He calls this "somewhat mysterious consensus" the Zeitgeist.

However, after considering examples of changes in the Zeitgeist, such as attitudes to racism, sexual mores, votes for women, and so on, he says: "Where, then, have these concerted and steady changes in social consciousness come from? The onus is not on me to answer. For my purposes it is sufficient that they certainly have not come from religion." He then conjectures briefly about "changing meme frequencies" and "the driving role of individual leaders", but concludes: "It is beyond my amateur psychology and sociology to go any further ..."

This is a pity, but one can perhaps understand that he does not want to intrude onto the territory of other scientists. However, the rest of us are free to speculate.

When I first read these passages I felt somewhat offended, as a member of a long-established Secular organisation, and familiar with the struggles of our own and sister organisations, at the failure to give due recognistion to the efforts of all the many progressive campaigners who in my view were the primary, concrete causes of improvements in society. From Tom Paine and the campaigns for the Rights of Man (and of Woman), through the campaigners for free speech, for proper parliamentary representation, for wider availability of education and so on and on. The Zeitgeist does not just move on of its own accord. It is the cooperative work of thousands.

Besides these concrete causes there is also the abstract cause, which is reason, science, logic, enlightenment, the advancement of knowledge. In short the gradual triumph of the rational over the irrational.

I wish I could be as confident of the progressive direction of the 'moral zeitgeist'. This view of progress in history came with the Enlightenment and while it may appear to have short-run elements of truth in it we are unavoidably only looking at very short periods when compared to the ebb and flow history of human society as a whole. Even in modern times while science and technology have progressed there have been both progressive and reactionary periods in terms of moral enlightenment and the treatment of others. Has slavery really ended? No - it is alive and well and trading in human beings from Africa and Eastern Europe. Has gender equality triumphed? No - there are very severe restrictions on the rights of women in many parts of the world - and these are if anything increasing with the spread of Islamism. In the West there is now a coalition of reactionary religious forces - Islamic, Catholic, Jewish - that aim to reverse the progressive changes in rights for homosexuals.

Future centuries, with massive population growth, growing inequalities, growth in surveillance and the decline in the capacity of the earth to provide for all, may well bring forth even greater reverses to the cause of human rights as powerful elites defend their privileges and religious institutions exploit the ignorance of millions in attempts to impose their views on others.

Sorry to be so pessimistic but I thought that Dawkins on this 'moral zeitgeist' is walking on very thin ice indeed.

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