Enlightenment Roots – Religion

The only crime that can truthfully be alleged against Voltaire is his attacks on religion. If he had been a true philosopher he would never have spoken on such matters, for, even if his attacks were based on truth, religion is necessary to morality, without which there can be no happiness. 
(Casanova’s memoirs, Adventures in the South, Chapter IV)

By the eighteenth century, Christianity, in its various forms, had been the overwhelmingly dominant religious tradition in Europe.  If we take 25 years as a generation length then for over fifty generations, a huge span of time, it had become entrenched into every aspect of society and a part of every individual’s mental landscape, down to their very perception of reality.  To get some perspective on how massive a length of time that is (at least in human terms) let’s go back to Queen Victoria’s accession to the thrown in 1837, a period of roughly seven generations into the past from now.  The United Kingdom was the largest and most industrialised economy in the world whose empire would continue to expand for at least another half century.  The nation states of Germany and Italy did not exist.  The first successful surgical procedure performed with anaesthesia had yet to take place.  Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ and Karl Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ had yet to be published.  Only around one in five adult males could vote in the UK.  In France, it was even less: 0.7% of the French population were eligible to vote.  In the UK, a five-year old could expect to live until the age of 55.  Yet, for seven times the length of that period, the colossal religious, intellectual, political and cultural force that was Christianity had remained intact.

Stretching back a thousand years prior to the rise of Christianity, the cultures of the Mediterranean that were to culminate in the glories of Ancient Greece were dominated by polytheistic religious traditions centred upon Zeus and Mount Olympus, traditions which were to be adopted pretty much wholesale by the Romans.  Meanwhile Judaism, the progenitor of Christianity, originated in the Middle East sometime around the thirteenth century BC.  It was not until the fourth century AD, under Emperor Theodosius I, that the monotheism of Christianity, in the version of the Nicene Creed (the basis of the Catholic Church), was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire, building upon Emperor Constantine’s edict of toleration in 313.  As it spread throughout Europe, and as its own ideas and theology evolved, Christianity drew upon these older cultural and intellectual pagan traditions. The gods of older religions, for example, became absorbed into the Christian celestial hierarchy, morphing into angels and acquiring the role of servants to the single supreme God.  Spring and midwinter pagan festivals were similarly appropriated to do service in the Christian schema.  The ideas of pagan philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were used to add intellectual ballast to Christian theology.  Paralleling the organisational model of the Roman Empire, united under the rule of an Emperor, the Catholic Church was similarly to acquire a single ruling authority in the figure of the Pope along with many other of the structural and bureaucratic features of the Empire (including, of course, Latin).  As the Roman Empire in the west disintegrated in the fifth century, the papacy acquired increased political as well as religious significance.  With the donation of territory in the eighth century from the Frankish king Pepin III, which was to become the basis of the Papal States, it acquired secular power in its own right.  Conflicts in the eleventh century between the Greek church in the east and the Latin church in the west, partly over papal authority, lead to an east-west split and the establishment of the Eastern Orthodox church.  By the fifteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church was a long-settled religious and secular power at the heart of Western Europe.

There were two major threats to this religio-political monolith.  One was external: the Ottoman Empire.  The other was internal: the Protestant Reformation.  The external threat from the Ottomans was to continue as a serious menace until the end of the seventeenth century when it receded following the 1683 Battle of Vienna and the failure of Sultan Mehmet IV to capture what was the seat of power of the Holy Roman Empire.

More significant, however, in terms of the Enlightenment and challenging the status of the Catholic Church within Europe, was the internal threat of Protestantism.  The primary cause of the Reformation was the widespread concern regarding corruption, malpractice and the teaching of false doctrine within the Catholic Church, such as the sale of religious posts and the selling of indulgences which would exempt buyers from punishment for their sins (‘As soon as the gold in the casket rings,’ according to the notorious indulgence seller Joahnn Tetzel, ‘The rescued soul to heaven springs’).  Calls for ecclesiastic reforms and a return to Biblical values had been voiced in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century by figures such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus but it was not until the attacks upon the Church in the sixteenth century by Martin Luther was the Protestant Reformation proper set in motion.  For over a century Europe was to be mired in violent religious conflict.  These religious wars were not to be resolved until the peace treaties of Westphalia in 1648, in the teeth of opposition from Pope Innocent X, which recognised three separate Christian traditions within the Holy Roman Empire (Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism) and which led to the emergence of sovereign states as the dominant political model in Europe.  Both of these elements, inevitably, undermined the strength of the Catholic Church.

So what was the relationship between Protestantism and the Enlightenment?  To what extent did it establish the pre-conditions that allowed Enlightenment ideas to take root?  Crucially, the Reformation, vitalised by Gutenberg’s printing press, cleared a space for new thinking.  For a thousand years the Catholic Church had been the supreme moral authority of Western Europe, interpreting and pronouncing upon the will of the Lord.  Underpinned by courts, universities and churches, manned by an army of lawyers, theologians and priests, its comprehensive network of dioceses and parishes ensured that the doctrines of the Church found their way into every corner of Christendom and were enforced.  There were few aspects of a person’s life or understanding of the world that were not in some way mediated by its teachings and operations: What constituted sin?  How should a sin be punished? Did animals possess souls?  How was the universe created? Why did fire travel heavenwards?  When could or couldn’t you eat meat?  And all of this was reinforced through decorative art, music, festivals and sacred rituals, brim full with messages and symbolism; ever-present ingredients of the daily rhythms and routines of life.  This ubiquity is what Protestantism dismantled.  Its theology undermined the doctrinal positions of Catholicism, most notably as a mediator between man and God, while the establishment of Protestant states limited the Church’s territorial reach.

Central to the Reformation was its understanding of the relationship between man, God and salvation.  For Martin Luther, man was irredeemably corrupted.  Immediately, therefore, the role of any Church was circumscribed and subverted.   Much of the operation of the Catholic Church was based upon directing men and women to paradise and diverting them from the torments of hell.  It did this by divining the intentions of the Almighty which, in turn, enabled it to identify what was sinful, what was virtuous and how to cleanse the spirit.  If no amount of worldly intervention was going to make a ha’penny worth of difference in the salvation stakes then one of the central functions of the Catholic Church was now redundant.  Salvation, for Luther, was to be obtained through faith alone.  You could not reason your way to heaven.  The gap between man and God was too great.  God had, however, gifted individuals a soul, and through their soul, according to Luther, they had direct access to their Creator.  There was no middle man.  The relationship between any individual and God, therefore, became a deeply personal affair and an individual’s actions rested on the dictates of their own conscience (although the tension between individual conscience and external authority was never to be easily resolved).  Consequently, the private and the religious spheres were to be separated from the public and the secular.  An example of how this shift of perspective played out in the everyday world can be seen in economics.  Previously, as with every other aspect of human affairs, economic activity was perceived to have spiritual ramifications, notably contract and property law.  If a contract was deemed not to be just and equitable then it could not be enforced.  In the new Protestant world, however, there was no such constraint.  Individual accrual of wealth was not, in a spiritual sense, a moral concern.  From the Protestant perspective, the wealthier someone became, the better.  They could then use their wealth to help those in need.  It was a matter of individual conscience to decide, not the Church or State. The Enlightenment was thus a beneficiary of both the increased scepticism of authority (intellectual and institutional) and of the increased freedom from political and religious restraint that Protestantism precipitated.  It is of no surprise, therefore, that some of the most radical and influential ideas out of which the Enlightenment grew were authored by thinkers who were least under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church: Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Isaac Newton and John Locke were all English; Baruch Spinoza was Dutch; and even Rene Descartes, who was French, spent much of his working life in the Netherlands and Sweden for fear of the attentions of the Papal authorities.  The fates of those scholars who were under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church and were deemed not to the toe the line, such as Giordano Bruno (who was burned at the stake) and Galileo (who died after eight years under house arrest having been found guilty of heresy), serve to reinforce the point.

The principle of freedom of individual conscience and the questioning of authority that characterised the Reformation challenge to the Catholic Church, however, was to become a more generalised feature of the Enlightenment itself.  How could any claim to knowledge or truth be justified, not merely the claims of the Catholic Church?  It was for good reason that ‘Nullius in verba’ (‘Take nobody’s word for it’) was the motto of the Royal Society.  Authority and tradition were no longer adequate.

With the breakdown of a single supreme religious authority how did thinkers begin to address issues of religious truth?  As we have seen above, Luther rejected the power of human reason as an adequate tool to comprehend the Almighty.  This chimed in well with other currents of intellectual scepticism, both contemporary and ancient.  During the sixteenth century there had been a revival of the classical scepticism that had originally been formulated in Ancient Greece almost two millennia earlier by philosophers such as Pyrrho and his adherent Timon.  Such scepticism doubted the possibility of ever obtaining certain truth.  For example, if a person were to make a truth claim a sceptic would ask, ‘what is your criterion for truth?’ and if a criterion was supplied then they would ask ‘what is your criterion of truth for your criterion of truth?’ and so on.  For scholars such as Luther a person could only know God through faith.  Such doctrine, that knowledge of God depended upon faith or revelation, was to become known as ‘fideism’ from the Latin for ‘faith’ (‘fidem’).  Throughout the period of the Enlightenment fideism was to be an influential current of thought and a powerful corrective to any claims that religious knowledge could be based upon reason or empirical evidence.

Amongst the most powerful champions of fideism was Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662) a brilliant mathematician and scientist who abandoned his academic career to devote himself to religion.  Pascal was a Jansenist, a movement within French Catholicism that argued salvation could only be achieved through faith and God’s grace.  He argued that man was intellectually flawed, hopelessly in thrall to his passions and emotions, bound by contradictions and insufficiently equipped without God’s intervention to comprehend the perfect being that was the Creator.  Pascal notes in his influential work ‘Pensées’: ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing’ (published posthumously in 1669).

Of a very different ilk was Pierre Bayle (1647 – 1706), a Calvinist who advocated the primacy of faith over reason and whose 1697 ‘Historical and Critical Dictionary’ (a work in excess of six million words, ninety-five percent of which comprised the footnotes) was the most widely owned book in private libraries in France in the 18th century: ‘…a hodge-podge encyclopedia of intellectual curiosities, serious argument on a variety of topics, salacious stories, exacting textual scholarship, and much more…’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  Belying its rather sedate title, Bayle’s dictionary (which was to be an important influence on d’Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopédie) was profoundly subversive.  Using the form of a dictionary he was able to defend himself from charges of blasphemy or heresy by claiming that he was simply relating the words of others (notably, those of classical scholars), although this didn’t prevent the work from being proscribed by the French authorities.  He used the dictionary as a way of intellectually dismantling doctrines, ideas and claims to knowledge, thereby demonstrating the futility of using reason to search for truth (in particular, religious truths).  In a discussion on ethics, for example, he cited the case of King David.  He pointed out that based on any human measure of goodness King David was profoundly immoral and yet, paradoxically, he was beloved of God.  It was clear, therefore, that man was incapable of fathoming the mysteries of God through reason alone and must rely upon faith and conscience.  Bayle notes: ‘Philosophy at first refutes errors. But if it is not stopped at this point, it goes on to attack truths. And when it is left on its own, it goes so far that it no longer knows where it is and can find no stopping place’.  The ‘Historical and Critical Dictionary’ was to become a treasure trove for eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophes.

Perhaps the greatest Enlightenment sceptic of them all was David Hume (1711 – 1776), Scottish philosopher and historian.  Writing in the aftermath of the phenomenal achievements of Newton, at a time when there was growing optimism as to what the power of human reason and natural philosophy (ie science) could achieve, Hume’s scepticism, like Bayle’s before him, powerfully demonstrated the limitations of what could be known although, unlike Pascal and Bayle, Hume was not a religious man.  Unlike rationalists, such as those Parisian philosophes like Diderot who attended the salon of Baron d’Holbach, Hume argued that human behaviour was governed by passion, not reason.  Furthermore, he argued that causality could never be proved with certainty.  His most important work on religion was ‘Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’ unpublished while he was alive on the advice of his friends who feared what the consequences might be for him (he was already suspected by many of atheism).  In ‘Dialogues’ Hume demolishes claims that the existence of an omnipotent and beneficent God can be supported by evidence from the natural world.  He pointed out that God’s flawless perfection, infinite goodness, immutability and eternal being were, in fact, directly contradicted by what we could see around us.

It was deism, however, that dominated the religious convictions of Enlightenment thinkers and many amongst the educated public.  Central to deism was a belief in freedom of thought and a rejection of those traditions of religious beliefs based upon revelation and particular providence (ie the idea that God directly intervenes in the affairs of man, in contradiction to the laws of nature), in particular the Judeo-Christian tradition.  This latter aspect has been labelled negative deism, characterised by attacks on the veracity of the scriptures, Biblical prophecy, the immorality of the Judeo-Christian God, particular providence (for example, claims for the existence of miracles and the efficacy of prayer) and the power, privilege and abuses of the priestly caste. Positive deism, on the other hand, asserted that man could know God according to his creation.  God’s relationship with man was through nature and the laws of nature which it was possible for human reason to understand. ‘Positive deism posits the existence of a universal God acting through universal providence (laws of nature) and known by universal faculties (sense experience and reason) in a universal medium (nature)’ (Alan Kors, ‘The Birth of the Modern Mind’).  Already, in the early seventeenth century, Descartes had provided proofs of God’s existence by means of logical deduction.  However, it was natural philosophy and the work of Newton, promulgated across Europe by enthusiasts such as Voltaire and Madame du Chatelet, which caught the imagination.

One particularly important variation of deism was reflected in the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  In works such as ‘Emile’, he celebrated what was natural, primitive and sincere in man and execrated the artificiality and decadence of civilization.  As Europe reeled from the horrors of the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, Rousseau concluded that its cause was down to the folly of man living in cities.  A difficulty for many with regards to deism was its coldness.  The God of the deists was very abstract and impersonal.  Rousseau challenged this.  His deism was intensely emotional, prefiguring Romanticism in discovering the presence and spirit of God in beauty and nature.  Although not part of the intellectual mainstream in France, Rousseau’s ideas proved to be enormously popular and his writings generated a large and devoted following.

As well as Rousseau, Voltaire and Madame du Chatelet, others during this period who have been considered deists or, at least, have held beliefs compatible with deism, have included Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Benjamin Franklin, William Hogarth, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Gottfried Leibniz, Abraham Lincoln, James Maddison, Adam Smith, Matthew Tindal, George Washington, James Watt, Moses Mendelssohn, Thomas Paine and William Wollaston.  There were also very influential precursors of deism such as Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Baruch Spinoza.

A third current of thought that addressed religion was atheism.  Although atheism exercised the thoughts and passions of many, atheists were, in fact, few in number.  Voltaire himself, that scourge of religion and all the abuses that stemmed from it, was not an atheist.  Those who were prepared to champion atheism tended to be figures of the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment such as Denis Diderot and his friend and salonnière Baron d’Holbach.  In 1770, d’Holbach published ‘System of Nature’ which put the case for atheism unashamedly.  Strikingly, d’Holbach argued that morality did not require the existence of God but arose as a consequence of the mechanisms of the material world.

It was perhaps in France where the culmination of forces unleashed by Protestantism, the collapse of the supremacy of Catholicism in Europe and the struggle for intellectual, religious, political and moral legitimacy that characterised the Enlightenment reached its most dramatic conclusion.  In the eighteenth century, France was the most populous nation in Europe and its leading military power.  It was governed on the basis of an absolute monarch whose rulership was justified according to divine right and was tied to a social order in which the Catholic Church was at its very heart.  Not for nothing was the Church designated as the First Estate (the Second being the nobility and the Third all the rest).  More than any other institution in France, it was the Catholic Church that was subject to unrelenting attack by those such as Voltaire who were inspired by the values and ideas of Enlightenment thought.  Clearly, there were many causes of the French Revolution but the undermining of the legitimacy of the Catholic Church was undoubtedly one of them.  By the end, so weakened had this legitimacy become that the Jacobins were able to implement a campaign of dechristianisation, sweeping away Catholicism altogether and temporarily instituting their own state religion.

Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the revised unabridged Arthur Machen English translation (Gutenberg project)

Dave Thompson (2018)


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