How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?


Billericay Week 4: Religion



                                                                                                                                       Imagining Other Index page

                                                                                                                                      Week 4 Religion Summary for students

                                                                                                                                       Economic Underpinnings (science, agriculture, industry)   





1. Overview: towards secularism, paganism or toleration?

- the power of the (Catholic) church

- historical background

- how far did the change go?


2. Religion and Reason

- attacks on the ‘irrational’, superstition, ‘animism’ – and what of revelation?

- progress/perfectibility vs. sinfulness

- enthusiasm

- nature and miracles

- religion and the individual’s sense of reason

- little atheism – much argument by design

- is God ‘subject to’ reason?


3. Atheism?


4. A near-contemporary critic of secularization – Hegel (1770 – 1831)


5. Sceptics and critics amongst enlightenment thinkers


Edward Gibbon

Fontenelle and others: ‘primitive’ religion vs. ‘progress’

D’Holbach and others: materialism



6. Deism: God must be ‘reasonable’ (like the philosophes!) Voltaire and others.

- Voltaire (i) - on tolerance (ii) ‘if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.’ – implies a ‘civic religion’? (iii) ‘Ecrasez l’infame!’


7. Natural philosophers and religion:

- William Paley’s argument by design (the watchmaker)

- Linnaeus

- Newton: ‘whence is it that nature does nothing in vain, and whence arises all that order and beauty which we see in the world?’

- Priestley


8. Other views:

- Leibniz

- Berkeley

- Rousseau

- Spinoza


9. Religion in other countries:

- America

- England

- Methodism, Pietism etc. ‘personal and emotional faiths’


10. Conclusion




1. Overview: Towards secularism, paganism or toleration?

1.1 The power of the church:


It is important to remember (O’Hara says) that the church was still powerful: The Catholic church outlawed other faiths, and monopolized education (Voltaire and Diderot were both educated by the Jesuits). It censored books, including most of the works of the philosophes. The trial of Galileo showed the church trying to prevent progress, and in the 1770s Buffon the naturalist had to answer to the holy fathers of the Sorbonne when he argued the earth was older than it said in the Bible. Wherever the church had political power, as in Spain, there was ‘appalling intellectual and scientific stagnation’ – progress occurred in countries like Holland and England.


1.2 Historical background:

It is important to remember that the century before had seen military and political conflict sparked by Luther and the Reformation – the Enlightenment can be seen as a movement for a more moderate attitude to religion. Outram describes the ‘hideous memory of sectarian strife, often accompanied by the threat of social revolution’ which was so prevalent in the 17th century (p 118).


‘From the sixteenth century until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, states whose rulers were of opposing religious convictions had fought each other…’ and ‘at the same time… religious dissent proliferated within states.’ (Outram p 114)


And as Porter says (p 35): ‘The church, as outraged philosophes saw it, had thus been not merely mistaken and unscrupulous, but positively evil. Hypocritically preaching peace, it had sown discord and strife. The religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries had spilled oceans of blood. Every year the anniversary of the St Bartholomew’s Eve massacre made Voltaire physically sick.’ Beginning on 24th August 1572, encouraged by French royalty and nobility, Protestants (Huguenots) were murdered: in Paris some 3,000 were killed; in the whole of France 70,000…


The attempt to end this religious-political conflict led, says Outram, to questions such as what is the loyalty of a citizen who does not adhere to the faith of the ruler? This was crucial when ‘… the great majority of states were governed by monarchs whose legitimacy stemmed at least in part from their… allegiance to a particular church.’


Eventually the idea that a political community and a religious community had to be united gave way to a secular state where religious loyalty was separate from loyalty to the state. (Outram p 116)


Outram adds that: ‘the century can… be seen as one of great religious creativity’, bringing about the idea of toleration, ‘possibly its most important legacy’.  ‘The century was framed by two important measures for toleration’: the Toleration Act in Great Britain was passed in 1689, lessening the penalties on those who did not subscribe to the Church of England, viz. Catholics and Dissenters. In France in 1787 the monarchy legislated to give more toleration of Protestants.


1.3 How far did the change go?


Outram (2005) cites Peter Gay, who wrote two books on the period, one of which was called ‘The Rise of Modern Paganism’, seeing the movement as a ‘liberal reform programme’, but also suggesting that its anti-religious feeling contributed to the French revolution of 1789.


Other recent commentators have argued that in the enlightenment the criticism of religion went too far: Keith Thomas wrote of ‘the disenchantment of the world’ (in Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1983).


See also below on Hegel.


2. Religion and Reason:


Although I identified ‘secularism’ as a ‘value’ associated with the Enlightenment, we have to stress that the most important point about Enlightenment thinkers was that they subjected every belief to scrutiny by reason, and their attacks were on aspects of religion that seemed irrational; e.g. miracles, transubstantiation... - and underlying these the question of revelation became problematic (Outram p 118).


Attitudes to religion in the Enlightenment were connected with the new theories of ‘science’ and metaphysics that were being developed. (O’Hara).

Remember the central ‘values’ I listed, including humanism and secularism.


As an example of a contribution to this way of thinking, when Copernicus and his followers argued that man was no longer at the centre of the universe  this implied that God was less likely to be concerned about man, which left man free to think for himself.


However, to be more precise, the growth of ‘natural philosophy’ (science) supported the Enlightenment view that any aspect of religion that was not rational should be rejected. It is not that Enlightenment thinkers were non-believers, but they were opposed to superstition – as Porter (?) puts it: the ‘physical theory expunged almost all traces of animism [the belief that material things contain spirits] from European thought’. [I have lost the source of this quote. However, Porter expresses similar ideas in: Flesh in the Age of Reason, 2002, his last book; this is reviewed at:

The formulation used (removing animism) is precise – and does not mean the removal of belief in God.


Both those of a religious outlook and the more sceptical argued that God’s order had to conform to nature (or that nature showed God’s order). Spinoza, for example, argued that miracles contravene nature, and therefore contravene God’s order. Hume argued that since miracles are supported by less evidence than the natural laws that they contravene, so it can never be rational to believe in them, even if one witnesses a miracle oneself. (O’Hara p 138)


Moreover, the Enlightenment belief in progress, and the perfectibility of man, ran counter to religious views on man’s sinfulness (Outram p 120).


Another common Enlightenment idea was a suspicion of ‘enthusiasm’ (which literally means possession by theos i.e. god). Speaking in tongues, outbursts of evangelical joy etc were therefore frowned on (though less so in America e.g. the Separate Baptists and other ‘charismatic’ movements).


As Porter puts it: if religion was beyond the grasp of an individual mind, it should be rejected. ‘The individual possessed by a false faith could not be in possession of himself.’ 


In England John Locke, Shaftesbury and others ‘sketched out ways in which God was restrained by reason’ (ibid).


Thus Locke argued that God must exist in order for us to make sense of the world. With regard to revelation, he said that it might go beyond reason (and may come from God), but it could not be contrary to reason.


Hence the ‘philosophes’ attacked the absurdities of theology, and the corruption and the power of the churches (especially the Pope).


3. Atheism?


Of course, a criticism of some particular aspect of religion could be taken as an attack on religion per se – so if a Christian believer sees miracles etc as fundamental or central to their faith, then of course a rejection of them is tantamount to atheism.


However, very few Enlightenment thinkers were in fact ‘atheist’ – and O’Hara says that atheism was a ‘dirty word’ throughout the Enlightenment. Even Voltaire (see below) believed in God (for most of his life). And even Hume (see below) believed that the new knowledge, which demonstrated how much order there was in the universe, implied that there must be a Designer or Creator.


4. A near-contemporary critic of secularization – Hegel (1770 – 1831):


Hegel, too criticised the drive for self-knowledge (autonomy) which resulted in destroying faith altogether, thus pushing out ‘a crucial aspect of man’s self-knowledge’ – i.e. the ‘relation to the absolute and the spiritual’ (Outram p 111 – 2). He accused Enlightenment thinkers of only seeing religion (and therefore human relationships) in utilitarian terms… As Outram puts it: ‘Once man had become an end in himself… then he becomes trapped in his own solipsism, unable to judge himself aright, or to form non-utilitarian ties to other human beings.’


Thus Hegel took a contrary stance to Kant, who emphasised ‘human autonomy and self-sufficiency.’


We might compare this with recent comments by Giles Fraser, former canon of St Paul’s, who resigned when the cathedral authorities prepared to remove the Occupy London Stock Exchange protesters. In his introduction to the St Paul’s Institute Report on ethics in the City he says we have lost all sense of community: “We need to recall where we have come from and not fall for the foolish false wisdom that we can simply reinvent ourselves through some superhuman act of choice.” (G. 7/11/11)


He attributes the lack of morality in the City to the change from an ‘old boys’ club’ to a computerized system where there is no face-to-face contact. The ‘Big Bang’ of deregulation was behind the change… The Report shows how few workers in the City (21%) recognise the old City motto: my word is my bond.


He also criticises the tendency to separate economics from moral issues…


He quotes Emmanuel Levinas in saying that the face of the other is the primary site of moral obligation, and Albert Schweitzer, who said: “ethics is a state of solidarity with other human beings.”


And in his Radio 3 talk: The Magnificent Seven and the Crisis of Commitment, Fraser argues that we have become committed to the detached, uncommitted lifestyle embodied in those wandering gunslingers from western movies, who never want to be tied down. Is individualism pushing out all other values and leaving us rootless? (from Radio 3 webpage)


5. Sceptics and critics:


David Hume  (1711 – 1776), having argued that we cannot know for certainty about cause and effect, but only observe that some events are followed by others, went on to say that since there is only one universe, we cannot make any observations about what ‘caused’ it.  In his Dialogues Concerning Natural religion (pub. 1779, after his death) he attacked even deism, arguing that human reason is not capable of understanding the divine will.


Edward Gibbon (1737 – 1794), in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, claimed that Christianity had a part in the downfall of Rome, and was partly responsible for the subsequent ‘dark ages’. Gibbon and others saw that religion was useful to maintain order etc., and in the French Revolution, the cult of the Supreme Being had this purpose. Robespierre, of course, tried to put into practice Rousseau’s idea of a ‘civic religion’ (see also below on Voltaire).


Thinkers (such as Fontenelle, and Shaftesbury, also d’Holbach) who argued that humans were progressing from a primitive state, saw religion as the way that ignorant minds answered questions about natural forces they could not cope with.


La Mettrie and D’Holbach took a materialist line derived from Newton – all motion is caused by matter, and even thought (following Locke) can be explained as a property of matter – so there is no soul, and no need for God. ‘God was a monster invented by the ignorant to explain forces that were not understood, with the unfortunate result of denying men the happiness they could have had upon this earth for the sake of a lie about a world to come.’ (O’Hara p 145). The followers of Pierre Bayle (1647 – 1706), a Huguenot, thought that Christian tenets were inconsistent and therefore unsound.


Montesquieu – a forerunner of sociology - in his Persian Letters (1721) ridiculed the Pope (using a fictitious Persian as a mouthpiece). Again, his belief was that natural (scientific) laws could be applied to all aspects of society.


6. Deism: Voltaire and others.


Deism was the view that God was ‘totally reasonable’ (O’Hara p 141) – i.e. God shared the views of Enlightenment philosophes! As Outram puts it (p 113) they also believed that ‘little or nothing could be known about the creator except the fact of his existence as a precondition for that of the workings of the natural laws governing the cosmos.’


This led to much debate on the relationship between science and religion.


Deists and anticlerical critics both attacked dogmatism and argued that priests ‘fostered mystery and deception to preserve their worldly position.’ (O’Hara)


They also believed that God would surely have created a rational order, in which people could be happy (rather than the ‘vale of tears’ of Catholicism) – and (importantly!) social ills were due to social factors, not to God. (Outram)


Voltaire (real name Francois-Marie Arouet – 1694 – 1778) was the most outspoken critic of contemporary religious views and institutions (the ‘anti-Christ of the Enlightenment’, O’Hara p 30). But he also changed his mind during his lifetime. He argued for religious tolerance, with his Traite de la Tolerance in 1763, and in his English Letters, he praises the tolerance manifested by the existence of so many different Christian groups: the Calvinists (who were the most intolerant, with their notion of original sin, divine grace, and predestination); the Arminians (who were Calvinists who did not accept predestination); Arians (who rejected the Trinity); Socinians (who thought that Jesus was a man - I believe that Blake may have been influenced by these – see E.P. Thompson’s book on Blake); Latitudinarians (who were Anglican, but believed that details of doctrine were not important).


He admired the English Quakers, but later he moved to a ‘natural religion’, which was a ‘non-dogmatic belief in a rational, benevolent God – the author of the Newtonian universe, and the guarantor of justice and morality amongst men.’


Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary was deist, but attacked so many aspects of traditional religion that there is no clear idea left as to what deism actually contains.


However, when he then asked: if there were no such God, what would stop men behaving wickedly? And he replied: ‘if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.’ This was actually an argument for a ‘civic religion’ – religion not for its own sake, but to promote morality. Thus Voltaire believed that servants, and one’s wife…, should have a ‘melodramatic’ (O’Hara) faith, to ensure they didn’t ‘steal the spoons’ or ‘be unfaithful’ (p 32) whilst he himself followed a more rational set of beliefs.


However, after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 Voltaire lost his faith – hence ‘Ecrasez l’infame!’ O’Hara suggests he became an atheist (but see earlier notes on the language used by Voltaire and others).


The Calas case of 1762 also shows how Voltaire opposed both narrow, dogmatic, sectarian beliefs and authoritarian secular powers: the eldest son of a Toulouse Protestant family was found dead, and it was suggested that he had been planning to convert to Catholicism, and had been murdered by his father. The father was tried and executed. Voltaire took up the case, arguing that if the man was guilty it showed how dangerous religious sectarianism could be; if he was innocent it showed the malice of the authorities who put him on trial.



7. Natural philosophers and religion:


Some scientists (‘natural philosophers’) argued for the existence of God – especially by using the argument by design.


Remember that Isaac Newton himself believed in God as creator (see notes on science in the Enlightenment), and – though accused of being a materialist – he in fact said such things as: “Gravity explains the motion of the planets, but it does not explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.” (Tiner 1975 – from Wikipedia, and the BBC programme on electricity presented by Jim Al-Khalili).


The best-known example of this is William Paley’s 1802 analogy of a watch found on a deserted beach (on a deserted island perhaps) – even though there is no other supporting evidence, we must postulate the evidence of a designer of the watch.


Linnaeus, too, found evidence of design in his classification of animals and plants’. (O’Hara p 137)


However, according to O’Hara (p 137) Newton’s science produced an even more convincing ‘argument by design’.  For if it could be demonstrated that the whole universe operated on the basis of a few simple laws of motion, then how else to explain this than buy the existence of a Creator?


As Newton himself said: ‘whence is it that nature does nothing in vain, and whence arises all that order and beauty which we see in the world?’


Moreover, in Newton’s theory God was still needed after the Creation to keep the laws of motion working; as Outram puts it (p 119): God would constantly need to intervene, to correct imbalances, and to supply energy (whereas Descartes’ theory had no role for God apart from at the creation).


Many of Newton’s followers interpreted his work as showing that there was a separation between God and His creation – supplying arguments for deism, in the sense that God was creator (‘First Cause’) of the universe and its laws; another interpretation is that God is identical to these laws.


Joseph Priestley the scientist (1733 – 1804), discoverer of oxygen, who also studied electricity, was a Unitarian. [See the quotations already given (from O’Hara p 7 – 8) for his views on the accumulation of knowledge] He belonged to the Lunar Society, stressed the role of education in producing people capable of being active in the world as good and thoughtful citizens and as men of business (O’Hara p 63 – 4). Like Newton, he studied the prophetic books i.e. alchemy… ‘but by his time the practice was becoming rare’ (O’Hara p 223).



8. Other philosophes’ religious views:


Gottfried Leibniz (1646 – 1716) could be seen as marking the start of the Enlightenment, (or ‘straddling the beginning of the Enlightenment and the end of the 17th century, as O’Hara puts it). His ideas were especially influential on Kant (see week 3). His most lasting contributions were in mathematics, but his metaphysics (we live in the best of possible worlds, since God would not have created an imperfect world) suggested an over-optimistic view of the world, which was ridiculed by Voltaire. 


For Leibniz, as for Descartes, (as I understand it) the idea of God as the creator of the universe is an innate idea. He tried to overcome the dualistic logic of Descartes and others with an elaborate theory of ‘monads’, and by arguing that the world exists in the mind of God.   


George Berkeley’s (Bishop Berkeley of Cloyne in Ireland, 1685 - 1753) religious ‘solution’ to the problem of dualism: if things we see are physical, but our images are mental, then we cannot be certain that things are still there when we cannot perceive them. However, God is everywhere, and he perceives reality, so the existence of God is necessary for the common sense picture of reality to be maintained. (O’Hara p 52).


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his later years especially, supported religious piety, because it was based on emotion rather than being intellectual (see next week for Rousseau’s views on human nature).


He also believed in the value of a ‘civic religion’ – but it would need to be simple, without dogmas and rituals that would distract from love of ones country. However, he saw Christianity as unsuitable for supporting political order: ‘true Christians are made to be slaves’…


While he was passionate about religion, his views changed through his life: he was ‘under the Catholic influence of Mme de Warens’ as a young man; then he wrote a defence of his Protestant faith in Letters from the Mountains, attacked the persecution of Protestants (Manuscrit de Geneve), and he described a ‘natural religion’ in his Rêveries. He said we do not need any holy books, only to consult nature and our inner feelings: ‘I perceive God everywhere in His works… I sense Him in me’.


This was one reason he opposed the scepticism and materialism of his contemporary philosophes.


The Jewish philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632 – 77) developed theories that were in conflict with established religious views: he was expelled with a curse by the Jewish authorities, and accused by others of atheism. Only in Holland was he tolerated.


His views are almost pantheistic (notes from Russell pp 138, 181, 554):


- only one substance exists, and everything is part of the same substance, i.e. ‘God or Nature’ [the sum total of everything?] and ‘individual souls and separate pieces of matter… are merely aspects of the divine Being’


- finite things are defined by their boundaries, i.e. by what they are not – God is infinite and is the only possible infinite being


- while men must love God, (with what he called ‘intellectual love’ that is: love which combines the intellect and the emotions) it is impossible that God should love men (presumably because humans are finite, and ‘aspects of God’…)


- everything happens according to God’s inscrutable will – if things appear sinful to us, that is because we are finite: to an infinite being, seeing everything, they will not be sinful (as Russell says, this is a mystic’s argument).


Further notes on Spinoza:


Russell (p 552) describes Spinoza as: ‘the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural (sic!) consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness. He was born a Jew, but the Jews excommunicated him. Christians abhorred him equally; although his whole philosophy is dominated by the idea of god, the orthodox accused him of atheism.’


His opinions were tolerated in Holland, which was a liberal country; but when the Jewish authorities tried to pay him (100 florins a year) to conceal his doubts about the religion he refused and was ‘cursed with all the curses of Deuteronomy’ and with a curse that Elisha put on some children who were then torn to pieces by she-bears – ‘but no she-bears attacked Spinoza’ says Russell!


Although his theology is liberal, his political thinking follows Hobbes: there must be no opposition to the sovereign, and the church must be subordinated to the state. He did, perhaps inconsistently, advocate freedom of speech… 


The mind-body problem is still here, in that thought has no extension in space, while clearly matter does…



9. Religion in other countries:


The focus on France – which many historians take according to Outram (p113) tends to exaggerate the move away from religion.


In America: (O’Hara p 143) Calvinism was still ‘the… orthodoxy’, but many revolutionaries – Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, Tom Paine – subscribed to a number of deist principles – hence the separation of church and state in America (still being fought over).


In England, thinkers such as Shaftesbury were influenced by deism, on the other hand, the Anglican church was not opposed to free thought, nor was it (since the Glorious Revolution) in alliance with an oppressive state, and it tended to absorb deist ideas.


On the other hand, as Outram points out, ‘in the enlightenment almost all major faiths developed internally generated reforming movements. Where Lutheranism had Pietism, Catholicism had Jansenism, and Anglicanism had Methodism.’


Then other conflicts arose, such as that between Jansenism and the Jesuits, as the factions were used by rulers to press for reform.


Alongside deism, other ‘enthusiastic’ religious movements arose during this time, such as Methodism in England, and the ‘Great Awakening’ in North American colonies, and the Pietist movement in the German states (Outram p 122, and see p 113 where he adds a reference to the mystical sect Hassidism within Judaism). All these ‘emphasised a personal and emotional faith.’


Further notes on Pietism:


Pietism sought to emphasise personal religious experience, and believed that Lutheranism had become too pre-occupied with reforming the church, whilst it should aim to reform the world (Outram p 123). Their idea of service to others and the state reinforced the power of the social elites in Prussia, and of the Lutheran church (contributing to the growth of a Prussian court-oriented nobility, and thereby to Prussian absolutism, says Outram).


10. Conclusion and questions for discussion:


‘The century is one of powerful multivarious religious debate and innovation’ says Outram (p 114). Is this variety a good thing?


There was not only variety but division: (O’Hara) even though the wars of religion, and the persecution of witches etc were a thing of the past, some philosophes were very hostile to the church. This was mainly because the church was rich and powerful, and they believed the church had deliberately misled people to gain power over them.


Others were members of the church (abbés), and the church itself was more liberal and tolerant. Is it fair to say the church is  part of the ruling class?


Moreover, as Outram argues (p110) paintings such as Greuze’s ‘The Morning Prayer’ show how a ‘far more common piety’ was practised.


As O’Hara puts it: in the Enlightenment, the new secular intelligentsia was fighting against the old religious elite that had controlled the way people thought for so long. Thus the 18th century saw a significant step in the secularization of Europe.  Is this a good thing, or not? (Remember Hegel’s criticism).


And yet: many philosophes set up their own secret cliques – whilst arguing (against the church) for freedom from censorship, a free press etc. Many were freemasons – newly emerging at the time, and which often parodied church rituals. Were the philosophes setting up a new religion – a religion of humanity? Were (are?!) the masons a new pseudo-religious elite? Are philosophers part of the ruling elite?