The difference is that now we have seen it all before. The patterns of repeated and cruel irrationality have given us a perspective Voltaire might have missed. Now we can see two types of actors in society, two distinctive types of societies. First, in order to build a society at all, there is the culture of knowledge. Those who live by knowledge have an advantage over every wild animal and every environmental hardship. That knowledge is revered-- it is life, literally. Without knowledge and understanding, we could not survive. The best example I know is the American Indians who lived here for thirty thousand years before the coming of European society.
The Europeans are the second type of society. They live by things, by tools and institutions, by accepted norms and collective groupthink. Without their tools, they cannot survive.
Without the conventions of dogma, these people cannot dominate those who live by knowledge. They cannot subjugate and exploit those who provide sustenance and value for them. Without guns or grocery stores, they cannot get food. Without clothes made by someone with knowledge, they would freeze to death. Without political institutions and parties that enable them to employ accepted dogma to skew elections, they could never win. They claim values to self-righteously dominate the discussion and the economy.
But they have lost their values along with their knowledge. Don’t get me wrong, I know Indians are just like everybody else. They are not paragons of impossible virtue. They do, as a group, have a great sense of humor. But the Indians lived by their knowledge. They did not require guns to live here. Thus they did not need to spoil the environment by refining steel or mining coal. The Indians respected the environment as a holy obligation to their own existence. The Europeans could not have survived without guns, without chemistry for bullets, without slavery, without social institutions that enabled the exploitation of many for the benefit of a few. Knowledge dispensed to the many was counterproductive to that subjugation. The natural world was, to the Europeans, merely raw materials to extend dominion.
Just as Voltaire was astounded with the subjugation of society by religious dogma, we today are threatened with the same problem. Here in ‘the land of the free’, we have many who would wish science would just go away. No stem cell research, no natural history, no exploration of the universe, complete and unquestioned acceptance of religious dogma that have no place in a nation founded on innovation and knowledge. Unquestioned acceptance of ‘the way things are’ would leave us in the hands of oil companies and polluters who would allow the natural world to go extinct for a few more dollars. Unreasoned systems of finance create fortunes for a few at the cost of boom and bust for all, and theft of savings and investments for many.
“Nothing enfranchises like education’, Voltaire wrote. “When once a nation begins to think, it is impossible to stop it.” The difference between Voltaire and us is that now the stakes are so much higher as to be the very price of survival. There are still many-- most, in fact, who cannot live without the tools and institutions provided by society. Now there are but a few who can live by knowledge alone. That fact should not be allowed to obscure the absolute necessity of rejecting dogma and embracing knowledge as our only enduring hope. We, as a nation can no longer afford to hold old prejudices and superstitions. We have created a government that holds the power of life and death. To give that power to those who cannot live with wisdom and understanding would be suicide.