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World Civ Essay, Research Paper

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Enlightenment Attitudes Towards Religion

By: Lisa

Enlightenment Attitudes Towards Religion Scientific and philosophical innovations during the 18th century brought about a new breed of thinkers. Their driving forces of rational and reason shifted the religious temperament of the elite from enthusiasts to intellectuals. They argued that there was no divine standard of morality, no afterlife to divert humanity from worldly concerns (The Western Experience, pg. 657). They were radicals who sought to displace the authority of religion. Driven by reason, enlightenment thinkers naturally opposed superstition and attempted to replace religious mysticism with philosophical standards and scientific formulations. Their shift of focus highlighted reverence for the Creator and moral teachings of the Bible. By eliminating superstition they hoped to bolster the Christian religion (The Western Experience, pg. 660). Two philosophies of the new enlightened view of religion were toleration and deism, both of which sustained the faith of the educated elite. However, these philosophies displaced the authority of religion in society (The Western Experience, pg. 660). Never again would the teachings of Christianity be so readily accepted. French critic Pierre Bayle put forth the concept of religious tolerance in his Critical and Historical Dictionary. Typical of an enlightenment thinker, Bayle put the claims of religion to the test of critical reason. He concluded that many of Christianity s sacred traditions were myth and its history nothing more than fantasy and persecution. He also professed that importance lay in an individual s morality and not their creed (The Western Experience, pg. 660). Dennis Diderot echoes this sentiment in his encyclopedic definition of the term irreligious stating that morality is the universal law that the finger of God has engraved on all our hearts, and that consequently we should not confuse immortality and irreligion. Mortality can exist without religion; and religion, perhaps, even exits frequently with immortality (Course Pak, Chapter 2, pg. 157). Further Diderot sites the Fathers of a council of Toledo in his definition of intolerance where they state do no violence of any kind to people in order to lead them back to faith, for God is merciful or severe to whomever he chooses (Course Pak, Chapter 2, pg. 156). By siting the fathers, Diderot masterfully escapes censorship while fighting the churches belligerence with its own words. Catholic Habsurg emperor Joseph II championed the philosophy of tolerance in 1781 in the Edict of Toleration. The Edict granted Jews and Catholics the same religious and civil rights, this was the first time such an act was condoned by a Catholic Habsburg ruler. In addition it also tried to limit the power of the Catholic Church by ordering the dissolution of numerous monasteries which were useless and corrupt. (The Western Experience, pg. 660). While tolerance proved to be an important concept of the enlightenment, deism was indeed the primary religious doctrine. Voltaire, one of the Enlightenment s most prolific writers was an outspoken champion of deism, which unites religion and reason. In his best seller The Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire wrote, in theology we find man s insanity in all its plenitude and goes on to say organized religion is not simply false but pernicious (The Western Experience, pg. 660). Deism was his alternative to the false world that organized religion fostered. It recognized God as the creator but held that the world once created functions according to natural laws without interference by God. (The Western Experience, pg. 660). Deists professed that religion should be a matter of private contemplation rather than public display. Ultimately, they believed humanity functions on its own in an ordered universe, without threat of damnation or the hope of eternal salvation (The Western Experience, pg. 661). The Age of Enlightenment spawned a new era of thinking. Its quest for the rhyme and reason of what is and why birthed a new intellectual freedom. Perhaps the most sensitive subject, which it questioned, was that of religion. For centuries it had gone unscathed by the changing world. Suddenly it became something that could no longer be passively accepted it was something to be evaluated and analyzed.


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