Field of Science

The cheek of the archbishop

Recently New Scientist carried a series of articles called “7 reasons why people hate reason” (26 July 2008). The one by the Archbishop of Canterbury was called “Reason stands against values and morals”. What a cheek!

In his article Rowan Williams criticised the enlightenment by saying:

Revolutionary America and France lost no sleep over slavery. Humanity had to wait for [a] more traditional … vision of what human beings were in the eyes of God and in the frame of the cosmos, to see the slaves finally emancipated.”

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 USA to the UK, from Baptist Christianity to Universalism, and who helped to found South Place Ethical Society. South Place later became one of the first UK humanist organizations.

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.


  1. i've highlighted all of "Reasons why people hate reason" articles in New Scientist

  2. I think the history of slavery and Christianity is more complex. Roman Europe had an extensive slave economy. Christianity was against enslavement (even the enslavement of non-christians, in contrast to Islam where only enslavement of muslims was banned). Christian missionaries were involved in emancipation, and slavery was slowly removed from European life, although it remained common in the pagan north. Of course, what replaced slavery (serfdom) was not that much better, from a moral perspective. More recently, the slum dwellers of Dickensian London were no better off than the slaves in the salt mines, and in some ways worse off (because at least slaves had a cash value, whereas the urban poor only had value insofar as they could sell their labour)


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