The Enlightenment Attributed To God Essay, Research Paper
Assessing the role of God in Enlightenment thought is not an easy task, the main reason being that the majority of the great Enlightenment thinkers did not actually address (or attack: the two verbs at this time being synonymous) the issue of God specifically (the notable exceptions being the atheists d’Holbach and Jacques-André Naigeon). What the philosophes did address and attack was organized religion, usually Catholicism (although Christianity as a whole was fiercely criticized). In order therefore, to discover their perception of God, it will be necessary to examine their arguments concerning religion. However, even this is not as simple as it appears. The Enlightenment was a very broad movement which included thinkers of differing beliefs and ideas and therefore, there was no uniform consensus on the subject – some (such as d’Holbach) were atheist, others deeply religious (notably Rousseau), whilst the majority were deists of one kind or another (deism was a movement that ran parallel to the Enlightenment although it had originated prior to it). Clearly though, the majority of the philosophes were religious, which is significant – the Enlightenment did not attack God nor did it attack religion (as Nicolson puts it, “it was not faith that they attacked, but superstition: not religion but priesthood.”) yet this was supposedly a movement that advocated rationalism, reason and knowledge, ideas which are not, to my mind, compatible with religion. It would seem therefore that the Enlightenment’s stance on religion was social rather than theological. This then would explain the crusade that was waged against Christianity (the famous écrasez l’infâme). To the philosophes, Christianity was a social institution which was the antithesis of everything that they stood for. As Porter writes, for Diderot, Voltaire et al. “emancipation of mankind from religious tyranny had to be the first blow in a general politics of emancipation.” The changing perspective of religion was undoubtedly influenced by the changing philosophical and scientific atmosphere of the Eighteenth century. The decline of Cartesian philosophy and its views of the universe and society, to be replaced by Newton had a tremendous impact on the Enlightenment (as did the work of other great English thinkers, especially Bacon, Hobbes and Locke). It seems in hindsight that conflict with Christianity was inevitable, as scientific knowledge increased, yet the sheer ferocity of the attack that followed merely reinforces the idea that the conflict was more than simply science against faith. It is easy to see why Newton appealed to the philosophes – the idea that nature could be explained through science but (on a metaphysical note) that even science could not discover all causes and affects and Newton’s own (deist) belief that God personally intervened to regulate nature – all could be incorporated into a rationalist faith. The impact of Newtonianism is apparent. For Voltaire, (who has been described as a Newtonian deist) “the whole philosophy of Newton leads of necessity to the knowledge of a supreme Being, who created everything …” The influence of English thought on the Enlightenment was not confined to science. The deist movement, which was a significant component of Enlightenment thought, had originated in England in the Seventeenth century, around the time of the Civil War and had a vigorous following, its chief propagandists being Hobbes, Locke, Paine, Toland, Tindal and Collins. As with their French contemporaries, they used reason and rationalism against the Church, writing books which criticized all aspects of Christianity. The interesting thing to note is the chronology – was the social and political atmosphere of the Civil War and its aftermath a direct cause of English deism, or would it have occurred anyway? The notion that true religion was simply obeying God’s moral law (and nothing else) and that everybody had a right to worship as they saw fit, would not be out of place in the Enlightenment yet it began in England (as Gay correctly points out when, “in the 1760s Voltaire mounted his … campaign to écrasez l’infâme he invented nothing. He bought out into the open a battle that had been fought underground for more than half a century). Deism’s significance, therefore, was that it was a social and intellectual reaction (in this example, against organized religion), mirroring social and intellectual reactions in other areas of human life, e.g. politics. Thus the situation in England was now being repeated in Enlightenment France (it should be remembered that the philosophes wrote on all aspects of life including the arts and sciences) and indeed many of the Enlightenment thinkers had read the works of Toland. Collins et al. and been subsequently influenced. Of all the Enlightenment polemicists who assailed Christianity, Voltaire is probably the best known. His hatred of the atrocities committed in the name of religion (The Crusades, The Inquisition, St.Bartholomew’s Eve Massacre, Wars of Religion) added to his experience of religion in England, led him to argue for religious tolerance for all faiths, even Jews and atheists. Like other Enlightenment figures Voltaire recognized the function that religion played in society, that of regulating people’s behaviour, i.e. encouraging justice and morality within society (which was the basis for Voltaire’s observation that if God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent Him). This seems to be a contradictory position – the philosophes appeared to be attacking Christianity but also arguing that it was a necessary part of society. This is presumably an elitist attitude though – ordinary people who didn’t know any better could have Christianity whilst the more enlightened could have their rational and benevolent deism. The attack on Christianity was genuine enough though – Hume applied his scepticism to the belief that God’s existence could be proved from creation and also to the idea of miracles, whilst Fontelle and Boulanger launched a thinly veiled attack on Christianity’s “magical” and sacrificial elements (under the guise of a study of primitive religions). Whilst Voltaire and Diderot were considered fierce critics of the Church even they were frightened by the radical atheism of the Baron d’Holbach, whose views, expounded in his book, System of Nature were described as being a “thundering engine of revolt and destruction”, (this illustrates the need to remember that Enlightenment thought was not uniform) and who was, according to Diderot, “raining bombs upon the house of the Lord.” d’Holbach made his views clear when he stated, “to discover the true principles of morality, men have no need of theology, of revelation, or of gods, they have need of commonsense only … men are … wicked only because their reason is insufficiently developed.” Why should Voltaire and Diderot be concerned by this though? It cannot be denied that Voltaire disapproved of atheism – his work Jenni, or the sage and the atheist, was clearly an attack on d’Holbach and he reaffirmed his position when he stated, “the philosopher who recognizes a God has on his side a mass of probabilities which are equivalent to certainty … the atheist has only doubts.” I would suggest that d’Holbach represented the Enlightenment taken to its extreme form – a belief in pure materialism, empiricism and sensationalism (the idea that we can only know what we can sense). It should be remembered that d’Holbach had criticized deism as merely being Christianity in a different form. This issue seems to me to be centred around whether or not “God is needed to provide a divine sanction for morality” (Voltaire) or if religion actually “extinguished happiness and peace in the very heart of man” (d’Holbach). Is this what worried the deists – no god, equals no morality and justice? It should be pointed out that d’Holbach was not the only disparate element in this conflict – Rousseau appears to take an ultra-deist stance, arguing in the Social Contract that since religion and society are inextricably bound, any citizen who does not practice any form of religion is unreliable and should not be tolerated (i.e. atheists), thus Rousseau seems to be arguing that society will always need religion. What makes this perspective ironic is that as they became older, both Diderot and Voltaire gradually shifted from deism towards either full-blown atheism or a form of agnosticism. Whether they finally succumbed to the continual advancement of science (which previously they had argued did not disprove God’s existence) or the obvious fact that the concept of bienfaisance was wrong (Candide was written to refute not only the idea that everything in society must be good since God created it but that everything was created for the benefit of man) I don’t know. What it says about the Enlightenment is also unclear – possibly that the growing realisation that the ills of society were not as easy to cure as previously imagined? What then was the significance of the Enlightenment’s treatment of religion? First and foremost it was an attack on state religion – the idea that the Roman Catholic church could outlaw other religions, had a monopoly on education, enforced rigorous censorship (Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique, which asked God, “creator of all worlds”, to forgive christians for their blasphemy, was condemned and burnt by the Church) laws and attempted to block the progress of knowledge (notably their treatment of Galileo) was anathema to a movement that advocated freedom in any form. It was therefore a political struggle – the dominance of the Church and the power it exerted over peoples’ lives and minds was unacceptable (thus the maxim of the philosophes was O tantum religio potuit saudere malorum: how great the evil which religion induces men to commit). Some have argued that the Enlightenment “decisively launched the secularization of European thought.” I would agree with this – the move from a monotheistic society to one which allowed deism and atheism to flourish must be seen as significant. It seems a strange coincidence that d’Holbach died in 1789, the same year the French Revolution occurred, a revolution which appeared to absorb his general philosophy on religion (especially the memorable Goddess of Reason) – does the French Revolution have the Enlightenment to thank for its own views on religion (or indeed the rest of society)? If you see the Revolution as enforcing Enlightenment ideals then you would have to agree. What stands out above all else is that the Enlightenment attempted and partially managed to remove the greatest block to freethought and progress — Christianity. It attacked superstition and ignorance, advocated (on the whole: I’m not sure if Rousseau can be classed as an Enlightenment figure) religious toleration and encouraged freethought and scientific progress – as mentioned earlier, the Enlightenment covered all aspects of life and aspired to apply the same tenets to all of them. To them religion was no exception and they regarded their religion as being the best it could be – free, rational and individualistic.BibliographyP.Gay, The Enlightenment: an interpretation. (Weidenfeld & Wicolson, London, 1967). N.Hampson, The Enlightenment. (Penguin, England, 1982). M.Hunter & D.Wooton (Ed.), Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992). H.Nicolson, The Age of Reason. (Constable and Co.Ltd., London, 1962). M.Perry, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe. (Houghton Mifflin Company, U.S.A., 1993). J.Plamenatz, Man and Society: Political and Social theories from Machiavelli to Marx Vol.2 (Longman, U.S.A., 1963). R.Porter, The Enlightenment. (The Macmillan Press Ltd., Hampshire, 1990). J.M.Robertson, A Short History of Freethought. (Swan Sonnenschein and Co.Ltd., London, 1899).