In the Third Millenium, Enlightenment Rationality is Often Being Met with Yawns of Indifference, and Even Hostility. Should It Be?

In a 1998 book, Psychology and Religion at the Millenium and Beyond, is an essay by Gloria Orenstein, who was then a professor of Comparative Literature and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. For all I know, she may still be teaching there. In any event, Professor Orenstein, in her essay, offers this recollection of a classroom incident:

Once, when I was teaching a course in modern western literature at USC, I happened to have a group of students who were mostly from the Middle East and Asia. When I began to talk about the enlightenment, about scientific reasoning, about cause and effect, about evidence, and about repeating experiments, etc. I could see the eyes of my students glaze over.

The first time this happened, Professor Orenstein accounted for the students’ response this way:

I simply thought that they found my lecture on this subject either too simplistic or too boring.

But when she brought up the subject of science again, and its impact on literature, she noticed that they were once more “spacing out.” This second time, she stopped the class and sought feedback:

They could not really explain it. Then I asked them in what countries they had gone to high school: Iran, Korea, Japan, Thailand, etc. Suddenly I understood the problem, and I asked them how they would speak about cause and effect, which is what I had been discussing. One Iranian student raised his hand and said: ‘That’s simple. The first cause is Allah!’ Then I asked them whether they thought of cause and effect as a mechanical process or whether, in their minds, effects were created by prayer and ritual and that the causes were often invisible. All their heads nodded vertically in unison. These students had not passed through the western Enlightenment the way we had, which meant that they had not been disconnected from their acknowledgment of the existence of the spirit world. When I was the only white westerner in the class, I came to understand that our western scientism is hardly universal and that the majority of people in the world hold firmly to beliefs about things that can never be proven scientifically.

I find Professor Orenstein’s account of what happened in her classroom profoundly unsettling. It suggests (at least to me) that the prospects for rationality going forward into the 21st century are not good. In a world in which science drives unprecedented understanding of our universe, and makes possible a heretofore unimaginable standard of living, most human beings (even those trained in some of the best universities in the world) simply seem indifferent to the modern world’s intellectual underpinnings, and prefer magical thinking and supernaturalism to evidence and scientific rationality.

The kicker here is that this indifference, and even hostility, to Enlightenment modes of reasoning, may not just reside in those not yet fully trained by the university, but by the university instructors themselves. I say this because it might alarm you (as it alarms me) to discover that Professor Orenstein concludes her essay AFFIRMING her students’ INDIFFERENCE TO THE ENLIGHTENMENT, asserting that the “spirit world” is not given sufficient attention by those of us who have been trained in western modes of analysis:

In the Third Millennium, I think we are going to have to become spiritual pioneers of a new world, the world beyond our physical eyes and ears . . . we have stubbornly chosen to remain deaf and blind to the spirit world and to call that disconnection from all that lives in the vast expanse of the cosmos, sanity.

As an agnostic, I am fine with retaining the sense of wonder, and keeping an open mind and heart to the ontological mystery (the mystery of being), but Professor Orenstein seems to be taking seriously here, and even endorsing, blatant irrationality and magical thinking. The essay that I quote from above is now over ten years old. I wonder if Professor Orenstein still subscribes to its view.

[UPDATE: I Googled Professor Orenstein and find that she still teaches at USC. The quotes of hers that I offer above appeared, in the book cited, on pgs. 105-107.]

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to In the Third Millenium, Enlightenment Rationality is Often Being Met with Yawns of Indifference, and Even Hostility. Should It Be?

  1. billibaldi says:

    Look on the bright side, Professor Orenstein lectures in comparative literature and gender studies. It would be very serious if she lectured something important like engineering or medicine.

    It is amazing Professor Orenstein discusses cause and effect and repeating experiments but then fails to conduct the most rudimentary of surveys and repeat them to check her assumptions.

    (Actually I always thought instant scratch lottery tickets and Lotto a far simpler demonstration of widespread blatant irrationality and magical thinking.)

  2. santitafarella says:


    I think the last two paragraphs of your comment should be directed, in part, at me (as opposed to Professor Orenstein). I accepted her anecdote as standing in for the whole, and drew a gloomy conclusion.

    My bad.

    But although her anecdote is not sufficient to draw a conclusion, I certainly have the impression that the 21st century is evolving into an Age of Irrationalism, with fundamentalist religion expanding and people becoming more and more narcotisized by electronic media.

    It does not seem to me a good environment for generating a culture patient with extensive book reading and attentive to complexity and ambiguity (two requirements for the spread of Enlightenment forms of rationality).


    • Gloria Orestein just consult my text above write to me via e-mail. says:

      I am Gloria Orenstein, and I just came across this. To begin my reply I want to say that i do not know about the book you found this in, and i wonder how it got into that book. If you have some details on the book,I’d like to investigate , because I don’t have any knowledge about this publication of my article. So, I would like to find out how this occurred without my knowing it.
      But I am not upset that it was published there. I am not upset by what you wrote about it. The problem is that your have blown this up in such a way that it misconstrues what I was getting at in that essay. I say that I taught western literature and had a reading or two from the Enlightenment , which was why I brought this up. I have also been a student of a Shaman from Samiland (lapland, northern Norway), and I have experienced why we absolutely need to teach about peoples whose knowledge of the spirit world and how to navigate with that knowledge is important to their survival—and to ours, but would you ever believe it if you hadn’t seen things for yourself? Yet, of course western studies assumes the belief in many invisible things and spirits/entities/ angels etc. So, what I ultimately wanted to say, and perhaps it did not sound that way but what I meant was, that we must, in the future, balance our course offerings with the knowledge and teachings from indigenous peoples—not imaginary fantasies, but whose practices have been relied on and employed for centuries in many countries, among many indigenous peoples with a shamanic tradition etc. This seems obvious to me . There are two or more ways of looking at this–just as we look at the wave and the particle. My shaman died of what we call cancer, and what her western doctors called cancer. But her father , the head Shaman of the Sami people , living in Alta, Norway, and my shaman, his grown daughter and a full shaman in her own right, both termed “a spirit war”. She died of a spirit war, they said. She could not receive anything to lessen her pain unless she went into a Norwegian hospital and accepted their form of treatment, which was not the shamanic way illness was treated in her culture. I did not become a shaman, and I cannot tell you more. I can only say that it is to the benefit of all that we from the western Enlightenment tradition begin to understand that western science is only one way of understanding how the universe and its visible and invisible energies and consciousnesses act. We would be better off to begin to open up to the experiences that give one the possibility to conceive of the spiritual existence of intelligences and agencies that affect our lives—ones that we cannot see or measure YET, but perhaps may when our senses like those through which we attain knowledge and vision of the “beyond” dimensions describe the many other ways of living in their worlds (to which we are connected cosmically) so that we can conceive of other explanations of events and situations that we have tried to explain via the Enlightenment, materialistic , mechanical model or world view unsuccessfully. I did not mean to suggest that we abandon the knowledge we have gleaned from the Enlightenment, but that we EXPAND OUR CONCEPTION AND WORLD VIEW by interrogating other cultures and other mainstream and outside of the mainstream spiritual traditions and practices.
      I am writing this many years after I published that essay, and i still agree with the essay, but i would say that much of our present world is now becoming aware of the stimple point I was making , and has opened itself to a wide variety of methods and understandings from other cultures, which we would have previously ignored thinking that because they dealt with the Chi or other invisible energies and entities , they were not worth learning or that, this they meant we had to discard modern western science. Actually, truth be told, I wrote that because i had been suggesting at USC that we hold a training for the professors in the diverities and details relating to the cultures of the foreign students in attendance in our courses. This was a couple of decades ago—as my essay shows. Today professors are a bit more aware and accepting of these diversities, and I think that our multicultural curricula were just created just for the students, but that the the entire faculty needs to be introduced tot hese worldviews or students will just blank out. However, as I point out in my essay elsewhere, the fact that they come from cultures that do practice shamanism or rituals or have “curanderos/as” who workwith spiritual energies has not stopped them from becoming educated inthe western sciences at all. They are not closed to us. We have been closed to them. Often they go home and consult traditional healers when they are ill. Here in the states they will consult mainstream western doctors. Having more information about how the rest of the world and also the rest of the universe functions is important and one should not close one’s mind to alternative world views and traditional practices that have worked for centuries in different cultures.
      This is my comment on your writing about my essay, and i think that the entire essay makes it clear that it is to our detriment if we cut ourselves off fromthe expanded worlds of wisdom that other cultures can contribute to everyone’s knowledge, and not insist that ours is the only way. If we made more room for native American spiritual teachings and First World people’s spiritual ways and practices, we might learn a lot that would benefit our own culture, and they are studying our ways, but we are not studying theirs. It is our loss because of the arrogance and close mindedness that we also inherited from the Enlightenment, which did bring many advances, but which also should be placed alongside of teachings from cultures that have alternative methods for understanding and working with realms that we just think of as the invisible and emptiness. If we can accept that telescopes and microscopes helped us to realize that there are tiny microbes that we had never seen before, why can’t we understand (along with many FarEastern cultures) that there are energies that they are in touch with because of their long traditions of practicing meditation which opens portals of vision to other dimensions? Thank you for reading this, and for quoting from my essay. Please do send more information on the book in which you found it. Thanks in advance, Gloria Orenstein, Prof. Emerita USC

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Hi Gloria,

        I have a very large library of more than 10,000 books, and so I couldn’t readily locate the text I quoted you from, but I looked it up on Amazon, and it indeed has your essay listed, and your name as a contributor, and on the pages that I mention above. The book has an imprint of 1998, and so perhaps, given the amount of publishing you might have done throughout your career, where you placed this particular essay may have just slipped your mind. It’s also possible that the rights to the original publication went to, say, the journal publisher, which then gave permission for the essay’s reprint in a book.

        I don’t know how long you’ve been retired, but if you are still active in the academic community, I went to a wonderful environmental humanities conference at UC Davis this past week. It’s something you might consider attending next year. Based on what you are writing above, it sounds like you would enjoy it, as I did. The focus was on literature in relation to ecocriticism.

        As to your position on the Enlightenment, and the need for openness to other cultures, I agree that open-mindedness and embracing humanity in its diversity are important. You and I both live in Los Angeles, perhaps the most multicultural city in the world. : )

        As to empiricism, I do think it’s important to distinguish appearance from reality, and so I hope that science can go on informing us as to what is really real, even as diverse cultures have their communal lives grounded in appearances that may or may not be real, but which they take to be real. The danger, to my mind, is when cultures defame or interfere with science, not allowing science to proceed.

        The book in which your essay appears can be found at Amazon at this link:



        PS. Feel free to email me at if you want more information on the UC Davis conference for next year.

  3. billibaldi says:

    I apologise for any offence caused.

    I would like to argue for optimism.

    A lot of people hold irrational beliefs but mostly people act in a mostly rational fashion.

    A striking example of people differentiating between belief and action is Italy. According the CIA world book, 90% of Italians are Catholic, the Catholic church essentially condemns contraception yet Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the World (fourth lowest in the ranking list of the CIA world book). At the same time Italy has a higher life expectancy than the USA. I would argue that Italians have made the rational trade off of reduced number of children in favour of a longer (possibly better quality) life. I only presented Italy because it is probably the starkest case.

    (The Catholic church’s teaching on contraception can be held to be irrational because supposedly an old man in a old building in an old city can never be wrong says so. I am now expecting notification of excommunication in post.)

  4. santitafarella says:


    You make a good point for optimism.

    I suppose that even Professor Orenstein relies on doctors, and not witch doctors, when sick—and accepts from them medicine, as opposed to relying exlusively upon the concoctions of a local person in contact with the “spirit world.”

    And I suppose it could be argued that it is PRECISELY the broad triumph of reason in society, on so many levels, that generates the call for greater attention to magical thinking and the spirit world. You don’t ask people to live in a particular way if they are already broadly doing so.

    The broken wheel squeaks loudest.


  5. santitafarella says:

    When I wrote this blog post earlier in the year, I think I may have been a little bit hard on the professor. I can see why she would feel that scientific naturalism and reductionism are emotional dead ends for “overgoing” beings like humans. There are layers of explanation. Humans tell stories, interact, and have emotions. They are not just engaged in empirical approaches to ultimate questions.


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