Pining For Those Enlightenment Entrails

Denis Diderot (Enlightenment philosopher, Jesuit, art critic and writer) is quoted as having said “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

The sentiment is a bit excessive, but I’m warming to it.

What got me going was a recent issue of a weekly newsletter I receive called “Sightings.” It is published by the University of Chicago’s Divinity School,  and is devoted to issues at the intersection of religion and society. A few weeks ago, the newsletter was titled, “Politics and Priestcraft: Oh where is our Voltaire?” 

It began:

In our postmodern, global, and increasingly divided society, few thin threads of shared conviction seem to bind us together. One of those spindly threads has been a rejection by many people of our Enlightenment heritage, which fueled democratic revolutions, helped to shape the US Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, and, at its best, ignited a drive for emancipation, both hither and yon.

The author acknowledged the recognized deficiencies of the times: yes, there was racism, sexism, exploitation, etc. etc. But there were also profound thinkers and witty philosophes, and as he noted

This Sightings is about an Enlightenment motif that is sadly missing in our public life, and dangerously so. Call this a “non-sighting” of the Enlightenment’s philosophes and their wit and satire against those politicians and priests—of all religions—bent on duping “we the people” and thereby upending democratic sovereignty. It’s a matter of fanaticism and tyranny of the mind. The question is: where’s our Voltaire?

This diatribe was prompted–we learn about halfway in–by reports about several conservative “Christians” who have  been peddling the notion that Donald Trump is a modern day King Cyrus, commissioned by God to re-Christianize America. (Actually, as the author points out,  America hasn’t historically been all that Christian.–  at least not if you are talking about churchgoing folks. But why let facts spoil a good story?)

Evidently,  “a charismatic preacher” named Lance Wallnau appeared on a television program that is currently being hosted by disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker (do these disgraced preachers ever just fade into the sunset? Evidently not) to hawk a Donald Trump/King Cyrus gold coin.

He claimed that the coin can be used as a ‘point of contact’ between Christians and God as they pray for the re-election of Trump in 2020.” My goodness, for a mere $45 you too can own this holy talisman to connect you with God, and it’s authenticated by a TV preacher to boot. Such folderol is rife in the religious world, of course… But so too is preying (not praying) on the desperate, the lonely, or those confused and losing hope.

And that brings us to Voltaire (and Diderot).

Such priestly, predatory actions were the target of Voltaire’s wit and that of other Enlightenment philosophes as well. For all of his gleaming faults, too many to recount here, Voltaire campaigned vigorously against superstition and fanaticism.

The author defines “priestcraft” as the use of “religious means” to secure power and to control people. (Priestcraft would be Mike Pence’s ostentatious piety as opposed to the genuinely religious passion of, say, an equally political William Barber.)

Priestcraft… can fuel secrecy, misogyny, and hatred even in the most public forums of social media. Friedrich Nietzsche, on this point a good philosophe, would say that it is driven by ressentiment, that is, feelings of hatred and envy that cannot be acted on and are therefore transmuted into self-abasement or, in the case of priestcraft, wily ways to gain and keep power. If that is the case, then, priestcraft within a democracy usurps the sovereignty of “we the people.” …

We do need to have the truth of conviction to combat priestcraft in all its forms, subtle and crude, and so reclaim some, though (rightly) perhaps not all, of our Enlightenment heritage. At stake is our freedom as a people, religious or not, and, for religious folks, clarity about what really deserves adoration. At least this is what a “non-sighting” of Enlightened social criticism seems to suggest. In Immanuel Kant’s words: “Sapere Aude. Dare to think for yourself.”

For myself, I think Diderot was onto something….


  1. On a rather pessimistic Tuesday morning while grazing over a small stack of blueberry pancakes and an endless pile of crispy bacon, a group of ole pharts contemplated Voltaire in a quiet corner. The state of human endeavour seemed rather bleak to say the least. Then one erudite colleague upon swallowing an ample strip of bacon posed the most pregnant question of the morning: “Ever wonder what number priest first to deny the human sacrifice?” Silence. Then another sage spoke: “Guess we overstate the dour conditions of our time. We’re making progress.”

  2. It is curious that the Divinity School article claims that rejection of the enlightenment is a spindly thread holding our society together. I would hope the author meant respect for the enlightenment is still holding us together.

  3. Personally; the bastardization of Christianity by organized religions (specifically Catholic and LDS) who have taken Christ’s (a Jewish Rabbi) simple message of love, acceptance of all peoples and basic humanity and turned it into a very costly cult with a lengthy list of rules to live by and become an acceptable human. I have reached a point that when watching a movie and I see the First Communion of small children filing forth to “receive the body of Christ” in a pageantry they cannot possibly understand…I see brainwashing of our children. My 31 year old granddaughter recently converted to the Catholic church (I use the term church rather than religion deliberately); this was after months of weekly classes, textbooks, a decision by church leaders as to whether she qualified to become a member of their holier-than-thou organization and the ceremony of acceptance. In truth; she was agreeing to accept their decision that she is a lower class human, bound by servitude to her husband and the expense of joining their organization. And 15% of their combined incomes as tithe is an expense.

    About that $45 coin which …”can be used as a ‘point of contact’ between Christians and God as they pray for the re-election of Trump in 2020.” There is a cheaper pathway; just watch the TV ads for Peter Popoff’s FREE “Miracle Spring Water” which will enable all your wishes to be granted. I’m sure there or those followers of Popoff who do pray for the reelection of Trump.

    I am aware I have gone far beyond Sheila’s “jaundiced look at the world we live in” regarding religion which today has nothing to do with faith in a higher being or humanity or spirituality in our lives. It is as always, FOLLOW THE MONEY.

  4. After reading the part about selling the gold coin to fools willing to part with their money I found myself briefly wishing that I had been taught to be a snake oil salesperson. They don’t suffer from any guilt and just seem to see other people as opportunities for personal gain.

    Those people are the ones in this world who become the millionaires and billionaires or the disgusting mega church preachers or the politicians who are willing to sell their souls to the highest bidders. The rest of us plod along trying to make an honest living and are forced to pay the taxes that support their lavish lifestyles.

    Feeling a bit defeated this morning for living an honest, hard working life and playing by the rules only to be repeatedly kicked in the gut financially and otherwise.

  5. “Subtle and Crude” sounds like it should also be the main ingredients of the recipe of the counter response to the priestcraft on FoxNews every night.

  6. I note with sadness the passing of discernment. I have always loved satire and I hate that we now must label it before publishing, lest some humorless fool take it for a serious statement of fact. There was no such disclaimer on “Gulliver’s Travel”, yet everyone knew. How did we come to this sad state?

  7. It is interesting that you mention Peter Popoff, JoAnn. I remember when James (The Amazing) Randy appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson – 1986 – exposing Popoff with tapes of his faith healing tricks and also of Popoff and his wife discussing how they had fleeced the suckers. He declared bankruptcy a year later.

    Of course, you can’t keep a good faith healer/con artist down, so he has made his comeback.

  8. Nancy! I know just what you mean. But I do sleep at night (usually) and that is something of value.

  9. I hear you, Nancy.

    I’m sure those golden coins sold like hotcakes in the USA. And at $45 a pop, Jimbo can repurchase his way into the good graces of his fellow televangelists.

    Yesterday’s article prompted me to add an article myself. The topic is morality or the lack of it in our world.

    Our public servants don’t serve the public at all. We’ve allowed them to be bribed — while not legal — indeed not moral.

    One of the purposes of religion was to teach us morality in facing decisions between self will vs. God’s will. How does morality impact the choices I make?

    Well, if you’re not woke yet, you’re ignorant to your choices. However, even if you are asleep, or an automaton, there are negative consequences for poor decisions.

    If our public servants make the wrong choices, then we all suffer the consequences. Sadly, decisions based on self are the norm, and we’ve allowed it. Both sides do it even though we only see it on the other team. Party and politician have been sold off to the highest bidder. The propaganda required to cover this up is immense.

    For those who have woke up, making the better choice is many times very costly and interferes with my wants and desires, but that’s the point of morality.

    When faced with a decision involving a lower and higher path, most people choose the lower path and later regret that decision. Public servants and preachers alike who jump into the business to make money only will suffer because they serve self. If they are serving self, they’re not serving a power greater than themselves or the people.

    And no, you can’t go back to sleep once you wake up. Once you know better, you have to do better.


  10. Where are our philosophers? In the process of becoming extinct, thanks to the commoditization of knowledge and education and the idolization of STEM for STEM’s sake. Not that Philosophy doesn’t bear some responsibility for its own slide into irrelevancy, at least in the U.S., but you get my drift.

  11. Nancy,
    That feeling of defeat that so many of us share comes IMO from the appalling lack of justice in our society. Not only do we daily see injustice triumphing in our courts and government, but we see it in the economy we face everyday. We see it as our institutions are turned into mega money makers for the few at the expense of the many. We see it as polluters poison our drinking water, kill off more of nature, and never are held accountable. We see it daily on Wall Street, at the bank, at the grocery store, and at mega medical facilities. We see it and cry out and protest only to then endure a complacent silence that is so deafening that it roars across the land. We are losing this country to injustice.

  12. Thomas Paine Quotes:

    “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

    “One good schoolmaster is of more use than a hundred priests.”

    “Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.”

    “Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”

  13. Patrick,

    Those “philosophers” must be doing a good job at re-defining corruption, graft and hypocrisy. Since critical thinking is anathema to Republicans who write school curriculums, your point is moot. Republicans/Christian charlatans cannot and will not tolerate critical thinking. Philosophy? Money. More money. And still more money.

  14. On religion:

    “Many a man has cherished for years as his hobby some vague shadow of an idea, too meaningless to be positively false; he has, nevertheless, passionately loved it, has made it his companion by day and by night, and has given to it his strength and his life, leaving all other occupations for its sake, and in short has lived with it and for it, until it has become, as it were, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone; and then he has woke up some bright morning to find it gone, clean vanished away like the beautiful Melusina of the fable, and the essence of his life gone with it.” Charles Peirce 1878.

  15. TV evangelists are not priests at all, they are capitalists and they are grifters. It seems like all those follow the same simple philosophy: make more money now regardless of the impact on any others ever.

    Once that mission is adopted the how of making money is clearly no longer the point. The point is to make more, ever more. The point is that how is a fully open ended question. Any way possible.

    The people who philosophize about government as did those during the Great Enlightenment preach that that choice to live according to that motto required a government of the people to make and enforce laws that regulated the “impact on others ever” – that drew a line between crime and capitalism that could deter the former and allow the later in order to harvest the benefits of business, jobs, goods, services, tax revenue.

    Of course that created an arms race between government, crime and business all chasing “make more money now”.

    Arms races of course are MAD endeavors, ending with mutually assured destruction and that’s where we are now. The race is at a standstill. Nobody won. Crime, capitalism and government have become one.

    Can we save the baby of progress and dump the bath water of make more money, etc?

    We don’t have the answer to that question yet but 2020 seems like a watershed year in finding out.

  16. In this “best of all possible worlds,” one of the things that discourages me most is the apparent loss of faith in intellect and philosophy. The smartest people don’t always have the right answers, of course, but they usually have the most information and the highest ability to analyze it to determine what needs to be done. Throw in a little morality and good intentions, and you have the potpourri of ingredients that was blended to form the melting pot we were formerly so proud of.

    Knownothingness has never worked for any group anywhere. Yet we bow to democracy’s dictate to allow the most ignorant among us to wield power, as long as they can win a majority to their side. Democracy cries out to be rescued from its nosedive into oblivion. Ruminating over pithy profundities from Diderot and Voltaire might be a place to start. For good measure, let’s toss in some Thomas Paine: “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

  17. Vernon-
    I think you misunderstand my point. Capitalism has been turning knowledge into a commodity and education into a product at every level for decades now. If there’s no perceived immediate ROI for the subject matter, it’s toast when budget time rolls around. At the university level, the Liberal Arts -Philosophy, History, Literature, etc.- are the first to go. Reflective, critical thinking gets pushed out because it’s seen as getting in the way of the instrumental rationality that produces that return on investment; actual, reasoned and stable answers to hard questions about truth, right and wrong, justice, and so on are replaced by quick, easy, relativistic answers that are conducive to immediate satisfaction. Conflict of interest, for example, is merely in the eye of the beholder (who, of course, from the perspective of the one engaged in the conflict, is just bitching about something they don’t have or can’t get), and when reality contradicts your asserted position, well, there are “alternative facts,” and both views are equally valid so there’s no legitimate debate to be had about whatever it is.

    But as I said, it’s not all to be laid at the feet of capitalistic higher education. As a discipline, Philosophy, at least in the U.S., has been slowly killing itself since the mid-Twentieth Century, with an inward focus on academic pursuit as the accepted definition of itself as a profession, and an even more inward focus on esoteric questions about logic and language (and maybe a few token excursions in to areas of professional ethics to keep the department funded) as the accepted understanding of what constitutes legitimate philosophical inquiry. We’re living through the fruit of that professional myopia and disciplinary neglect: the rise of an authoritarian state unchecked by any effective rational dissent in defense of a known constitutional alternative.

    No wonder we can’t find Voltaire.

  18. “Reflective, critical thinking gets pushed out because it’s seen as getting in the way of the instrumental rationality that produces that return on investment; actual, reasoned and stable answers to hard questions about truth, right and wrong, justice, and so on are replaced by quick, easy, relativistic answers that are conducive to immediate satisfaction.”

    The very essence of the huge slippery slope we currently find ourselves on.

    Bravo Patrick Sullivan, Ph.D., bravo and thank you!!!

  19. I offer the notion America’s Voltaires are among us now and for decades and have been diligently working to keep our intellectual and spiritual lives focused and honest They are the JRR Tolkiens, George Lucases, Stan Lees, Alan Moores and others of the past 100 years. Thanks. 🙂

    “The world is full of exceptional people. The people in the world who do kindness, or search for the truth despite their lives being at risk. The engineers, the teachers, the doctors, and adoptive parents, the scholars and the fireman, and yes, the journalists. People who risk everything for the sake of others and those who simply try to help those whose needs be greater than their own. Those people inspire me, not the other way around.” – – Superman: Strange Attractors

  20. we all had diffrent views this a.m. thanks,glad im not alone at being ,out there at times. religion suppressed my thoughts,and being less than well educated like the above.and no i didnt read voltaire. im more the nerd type with reading tech manuals,and such.. religion does and has, consummed many a life,some,and sometimes all of it. if your into lay terms of my view, i dont see religion any more than a tought following,handed down one gen to another,with some black sheep going in other drections. this discussion focuses on where its going and why,deeply,and how its envolved over a few decades. i can relate to the time lines and why. but then again i just see more bull shit from those who devise schemes, and why.
    excuse my callousness,this is not on your opinions above,but rather looking at the whole picture. when people are initiated to a cult,alright call it what ya define it as, but i see the majority unable to function unless its being controled,or in control… ive run around with too many others who had a bad habit of always saying thieir sorry for something. i backbone em. never say your sorry,and think before ya spout out. if the preisthood
    ,ministers etc,is something to join to find others,and gather in cloaked sets,and devise a way to control,anyone who sez trump is any more than a lizard is obviously taking you for a ride,in thier need for gratifaction of their own hypocracy,and needs to control thier own needs,over others… then say what ya want. call out anyone who is controlling,in front of the congregation,and do it in its presense,and have your damn argument down tight. we can avoid the pitfalls and ignore the present admin in DC, but when they go to prayer breakfast,or natl church,and have a collar read prayer in front of congresss,i draw the line. hypocracy… any teleavangwlist who spends like a king to spout words,, if god sees me in favor,he makes me rich,it in the scripture.. yea right,and im barnum and were all suckers..

    on a diffrent line. if your incline to listen to some one who knows present trucking issues,and they do affect us all, todd spencer of OOIDA will be in front of congress 6/12/19 for a shove it in thier face about infrastructure, A over due needed issue,called truck parking,drivers pay. and other subjects. if your think the ELD just saved lives, your mistaken. the american trucking assoc,is not,our represenitive for independant drivers and small buisness owner ,the OOIDA is. the ATA only sees $ supporting big trucking companies and our demise…best wishes.

  21. I am old enough to remember when “Christian” could be understood to mean “a decent human being.” Now it seems synonymous with “bigot, grifter, pervert.” The right-wing evangelicals have certainly damaged the brand.

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