To Light the Flame of Reason: Clear Thinking for the Twenty-First Century

To Light the Flame of Reason: Clear Thinking for the Twenty-First Century

By Christer Sturmark reviewed by Peter A. Huff
Guilford, Conn.: Prometheus Books, 2022. 354 pp., paper, $29.95.

Pundits cannot agree on the twenty-first century. Is it the era of rampant secularism or the epoch of revenant superstition? For Swedish tech entrepreneur and publicist Christer Sturmark, ours is the secular age extraordinaire—but nowhere near secular enough. The legacy of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, he contends, has enshrined the scientific method as mainstream society’s royal road to truth. The forces of posttruth, however, coupled with what he sees as disturbing reversions to outworn myth and mysticism, hinder full-scale appropriation of the Age of Reason’s ideals and cast aspersions on its first principles.

Hence Sturmark’s call for not only a reboot of the classical Enlightenment vision but an Enlightenment 2.0 calibrated for our time. Part polemic, part apologia, part primer, part manifesto, To Light the Flame of Reason has elicited endorsements from eminent apostles of secularity and New Atheist prophet Richard Dawkins. An homage to reason, it exposes both the aspirations at the heart of modernity and—unwittingly—the contradictions at the core of a one-dimensional view of human experience.

Sturmark’s ambitions are bold. The book’s fourteen chapters, divided into two parts, tackle a broad spectrum of topics, including strategies for critical thinking, warrants for a naturalist worldview, the failures and fallacies of religion, the principles of progressive education, and the prospects of morality without God. The first part attempts to lay the groundwork for techniques of clear thinking based on science, and the second sketches the pathway to a new Enlightenment in politics and society.

Overall the tone of the book is personal, informal, and supremely confident. Sturmark speaks securely in the first person but rarely engages in self-criticism and almost never exhibits empathy for competing points of view. He is strongest on themes close to his disciplines of mathematics and computer science but ineffective in his attempts to transform the sprawling fields of philosophy into a single, well-defined point. Romantic reactions to the Enlightenment in art, music, and poetry are ignored. Nietzsche, Freud, and other doctors of suspicion are barely mentioned, while Marx is completely overlooked, as are other critics of the Enlightenment’s contributions to economic oppression, imperialism, and colonialism. The darker sides of science—evident in theories of race, policies of eugenics, the disenchantment of nature, and the overreach of the infamous military-industrial complex—are conveniently dismissed under the label of pseudoscience.

Perhaps the low point of the book is Sturmark’s wholesale discounting of the medieval intellectual achievement. His assertions that the church “had a total stranglehold on philosophical teachings” and that Europe’s first universities devoted themselves “exclusively to the study of Christian theology” perpetuate the sort of unsubstantiated myth that he decries everywhere else in the book.

Sturmark is most troubled by the survival and successes of religion in the twenty-first century. From his vantage point, nothing reveals the impediments to a new Enlightenment more than the revival, creation, and spread of spiritual movements around the world. Long sections of the book are devoted to critiques of the moral and intellectual deficiencies of religious traditions, including the sins of priestcraft and patriarchal theocratic power—all well deserved and presumably well known to his audience. Defining religion primarily in terms of belief in supernaturalism, Sturmark betrays no familiarity with liberal, modernist, and feminist forms of religion or phenomena such as religious naturalism, religious humanism, and spiritually inclined atheisms. New Age movements, never precisely defined, are singled out for particular opprobrium, but again Sturmark demonstrates no special awareness of the thinkers and innovators associated with these trends, much less the significant role played by esoteric traditions in the formation of modern science. A lack of acquaintance with the sophisticated research on the origins, nature, and varieties of religion, produced by both believing and unbelieving scholars, limits his secular humanist verdict to a twenty-first-century reprise of the nineteenth-century village atheist rant.

Sturmark’s desire to compose a paean to reason is admirable. In an age notorious for its conspiracy theories, social media hoaxes, unbridled academic grade inflation, outright political lies, and mockery of evidentiary rhetoric, a defense of reason and rational and civil discourse is desperately needed and much appreciated. Nor can fundamentalist extremism be left to metastasize unchecked on the fringes of society or in its corridors of power.

A new Enlightenment with truly global scope, however, can be inaugurated only through an expansion of reason, not its contraction. Even if we deny, as does Sturmark, the immortal survival of the greatest minds of the early modern Enlightenment, their unforgettable words remind us that reason cannot properly fulfill its noble function without imagination, intuition, self-critical introspection, and what Pascal dubbed the reasons of the heart.

Marketed to a broad readership, To Light the Flame of Reason amounts to little more than a predictable sermon to the Western secular choir. Its arguments are derivative, its claims unnuanced, its conclusions simplistic, and its documentation far too scanty. A new Age of Reason requires more light and more heat.

Peter A. Huff is the author or editor of seven books, including Atheism and Agnosticism, selected for Library Journal’s “Best Reference Works of 2021.”