It has been called The Age of Reason and The Enlightenment which had been fermenting throughout Europe for 200 years, and bore fruit in the 18th Century, producing the American Revolution and its Constitution and Bill of Rights as well as the French Revolution and its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
The Enlightenment marks a principled departure from the Middle Ages, State and Church mandated oppression, toward an era of rational human discourse, freedom of religion, liberty, scientific advancement, and a new way of thinking about government.
At the time when reason began to assert itself, most of the world was illiterate. The printing press had been around for 300 years and contributed to the spread of enlightenment, but books were still too costly for the masses. Those thinkers must have looked forward to the day when most of the world would be literate and able to read for themselves the wisdom produced by that period.
Today, in the civilized world, the majority can read, but a daily reading of any modern American newspaper’s “letters to the editor” has to give pause as to whether near-universal literacy has improved the intellectual level of the masses or whether we are in the process of descending into another period of darkness.
Nearly half of Americans believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old and the majority of the American public still believes that homosexuality is a product of the way people are brought up (13%) or is a lifestyle choice (38%). How enlightened is America?
The personal computer and the Internet have brought the latest scientific knowledge to our fingertips, but a majority don’t seek out the knowledge -- they spend their days reading and forwarding political e-mail from people who think the same they way they do and accept the most bizarre charges as Gospel.
A Pew survey showed that as late as late as July 8, 2008, 12 percent of the American public still believed that Barack Obama is a Muslim -- with only slightly more Republicans than Democrats believing it; the unsubstantiated rumor that Obama is not a native-born American is still being argued by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage with plenty of support from people who have never looked at the evidence for themselves.
Are we as Americans, the jewel of the Age of Reason, really enlightened? Are we even rational, for the most part? I think it’s open to debate.