In his article Rowan Williams criticised the enlightenment by saying:
Indeed, their tolerance of slavery does the revolutionaries no credit (though it’s a fault they shared with most of their contemporaries).
But it is the most extraordinary cheek for Williams to criticize the enlightenment for failing to abolish slavery in its first century when Christianity’s own failure to do so lasted 18 times as long!
Williams signally fails to explain why European Christians began to oppose slavery in the 18th century after so many centuries of tolerating or even applauding it. The historical record shows that abolitionist campaigning, following a change of sentiment amongst Christians, played a major part. It can hardly be coincidental that this change followed the enlightenment and that some leading abolitionists were liberals in matters of theology. Consider, for instance, the Reverend Elhanan Winchester, an American abolitionist who moved from the
In fact reason supports morality. It is democratic and undermines traditional beliefs about the inferiority of foreigners, women and ethnic and sexual minorities. Thus it expands the circle of people to whom moral consideration is due. It causes us to question and makes us cautious about our beliefs. Thus it protects us against absurdities and, as Voltaire warned us, many atrocities have been committed in the name of absurd beliefs.
Reason alone can never motivate moral commitments which derive from our social existence. But it’s an invaluable tool and guide to moral thinking. Though he may not mean to Rowan Williams’ article encourages irrationality and immorality alike.
(First posted: 8 August 2008)