How Enlightened was The Enlightenment? Week 4: Religion


1. Overview: towards toleration

- the power of the (Catholic) church: education, censorship,

- Galileo vs church on rotation of the earth, mountains on the moon etc.

- 1770: Buffon vs church on age of the earth

- historical background: 16th & 17th century wars of religion(internal and external) à church blamed for conflict, and seen as hypocritical

- political vs religious loyalty à separating politics and religion à tolerance


- did the change go too far? Paganism? Disenchantment? (Peter Gay, Keith Thomas) – see also on Hegel below…


2. Religion and Reason

- ‘reasonà attacks on the ‘irrational’, superstition, ‘animism’ – miracles, and revelation?

- nature, God’s order – ‘natural law’ (Newton) a dominant idea

- progress/perfectibility vs. sinfulness

- enthusiasm

- religion and the individual’s sense of reason, (being in control of one’s own mind)

- conclusion: philosophes attacked the irrational, & the power and corruption of the church


3. Atheism?

- if miracles (e.g.) are fundamental, then rejecting them is seen as atheism by believers

- Voltaire and others were ‘deist’ (see below)


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

- we need to have a relation to the absolute/spiritual, to avoid solipsism &  mere utilitarianism in our relations to each other


5. Sceptics and critics amongst enlightenment thinkers

David Hume: we cannot know anything about the original cause – God is beyond human reason (but cannot contradict reason)

Edward Gibbon: religion and social order (functional view vs ‘truth’)

Fontenelle et al: ‘primitive’ religion (to explain the unknown) vs. ‘progress’

Montesquieu: natural laws can be discovered and explain everything (à sociology)

6. Deism, Voltaire and others (Bayle, Rousseau)

- Deism: God must be ‘totally reasonable’ (O’Hara) – precondition for laws of nature – unhappiness etc from social order not from God

- against dogmatism and clericalism (priests looked after their own interests)

- Voltaire (i) for tolerance, as in England (ii) ‘if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.’ A ‘civic religion’ (practical, utilitarian) – but is this really a religion? (iii) Lisbon earthquake 1755 àEcrasez l’infame!’


7. Natural philosophers and religion:

- William Paley’s argument by design (the watchmaker argument, 1802), also Linnaeus (classifications of animals and plants)

- Newton: ‘whence is it that nature does nothing in vain, and whence arises all that order and beauty which we see in the world?’ God is immanent in nature, and can intervene (others argued against this) – we can understand nature – compare: Dr Hannah Fry: Magic Numbers BBC4 (Weds eve).

- Joseph Priestley; Unitarian (Lunar Society: to educate citizens).  


8. Other views:

- Leibniz: God as creator is an innate idea; we live in the best of possible worlds; the world exists in the mind of God

- (Bishop) Berkeley: things (objects) are physical, our mental images are not... Do things (objects) really exist? God must exist to make sense of our picture of reality

- Rousseau: for piety (because from feelings: ‘I sense Him in me’), & a simple civic religion (but not Christianity)

- Spinoza: Everything is part of one substance, ‘God’ or ‘nature.’ (Pantheistic?) We cannot understand God’s will. (Mystical?) Cursed for his views.


9. Religion in other countries:

- French thinkers more inclined to move away from religion

- America: many leaders of the revolution (Jefferson, Franklin, Paine) were deist

- England: Anglicanism flexible, the state not authoritarian, also ‘personal and emotional faiths’ e.g. Methodism, Pietism etc. – reform movements within the major faiths.


10. Conclusion: there was ‘multi-various religious debate and innovation’ (Outram)toleration was perhaps the most important legacy of the age.

See also: Living with the Gods by Neil MacGregor (Allen lane 2018)