Enlightenment the Religion of Reason

Proposals to ground religion, not on the specific claims of one historic tradition or another but rather on universal reason, found a ready audience among Europeans wearied by a century of confessional strife. The analogy with science was powerfully suggestive: just as there is a natural science based on universal mathematical laws that are transparent to reason, might there not be a natural religion likewise knowable by all without regard to time, place, or historical tradition? As the seventeenth century unfolded, a number of thinkers answered this question in the affirmative. An early example appears in the work of Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), a veteran of the Thirty Years War and brother of the poet George Herbert. Seeking a common basis for religion that could be acknowledged by all human beings, Lord Herbert concluded from his study of ancient and modern religion that God had endowed his human creatures with certain Common Notions (notitiae communes) that are sufficient to ground the essentials of religious faith in all times and places. There are five such innate ideas, he contended: (1) that God exists, and (2) ought to be worshiped, (3) that virtuous living is the best way to honor God, (4) that all people abhor evil, and (5) that there will be rewards and punishments after death. This teaching, put forth in his book De veritate (1624), has earned him the label "Father of Deism," a movement that ignited a religious controversy that was to dominate England for the next century and more.

The Deist Controversy sprang from the tension between a universal natural religion and the specific teachings of the historical traditions, called positive religions by the Enlightenment rationalists.3 Even if philosophers like Descartes or Herbert of Cherbury could succeed in making room for a kind of general theism, the specific claims of Christian (and by implication, other) revelation would still need to be brought into harmony with the world-view of modernity. This question focused attention on the Bible, whose meaning and status has been one of the most persistent and controversial issues of modern theology. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain this issue divided religious rationalists into two camps: rational supernaturalists, who acknowledged the importance of reason but affirmed the necessity of revelation as well, and the Deists, who either rejected revelation outright or reduced it to a mere accommodation to the masses of the same rational religion obtainable by philosophers through reason. The position of those who argued for the necessity of revelation is epitomized by the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), widely known for his empiricism and for his contributions to modern theories of toleration and individual liberty, but also the author of the classic work of rational supernaturalism, The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). The book's argument presupposes Locke's tripartite distinction among propositions "above, contrary and according to reason." The latter two cases present no difficulties, since any claim that is contrary to reason is false on its face while claims shown to be in accord with reason are obviously true. The heart of Locke's argument for Christianity, however, is that it teaches essential revealed truths that are above reason, and thus neither contradicted nor supported by it. Primary among them is Jesus's claim to be the Messiah. Locke argues that we are justified in accepting this central Christian doctrine "above reason," since it is warranted externally by the fact that Jesus fulfilled prophecies and performed miracles. Such "outward signs" confirm the reasonableness of Christianity.

Locke's opponents, who came to be called Deists, denied the possibility of suprarational truth and insisted accordingly that genuine religion be purged of all mystery. The two most important Deists were John Toland (1670-1722), author of Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), and Matthew Tindal (1655-1733), the Oxford scholar who in 1730 published Christianity as Old as the Creation, destined to become known as the "Deists' Bible." Toland's subtitle tells it all:... a Treatise Shewing, That there is nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, Nor Above it: And that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call'd a Mystery. Christian revelation, he argues, can be shown to agree in all its essentials with natural religion (for which no revelation is necessary). "What is once reveal'd," he maintains, "we must as well understand as any other Matter in the World, Revelation being only of use to enform us, whilst the Evidence of its Subject perswades us" (Toland 1969:146). Revealed and natural religion thus differ only in form and not in content. Deism culminates in Tindal's claim that, since biblical revelation merely recapitulates natural religion, Christianity is "as old as the creation." Once again the subtitle gives the gist: ... the Gospel, a Republication of the Religion of Nature. The warrants for believing the propositions of Christianity are thus not external, as in Locke, but internal: "there can be no other Distinction between Morality and Religion, than that the former is acting according to the Reason of Things consider'd in themselves; the other, acting according to the same Reason of Things consider'd as the Will of God" - a distinction that effectively reduces religion to morality and later provides Kant with his definition of religion (Tindal 1967:298).4 Joseph Butler (1692-1752) wrote the most telling rejoinder to the Deists in The Analogy of Religion (1736), in which he argues that nature is not nearly so uniform and rationally accessible as the proponents of natural religion assume but is, rather, as ambiguous and recalcitrant as revelation. But this argument proved to be a two-edged sword, for though it convinced some to accept revealed mystery it provoked others - like David Hume - to reject both Deism and rational supernaturalism.

The philosophy of Hume (1711-76) marks the end of an era in religious thought, for his devastating attacks on miracles and the fulfillment of prophecy undermined the external warrants on which the rational supernaturalists based their case. But his equally compelling critique of the argument from design, the favorite prop of the Deists, represented the end of their appeal as well. The effect of this double assault was to undermine the common assumption of both sides, the rationality of religious belief. Hume thus drives a wedge between faith and reason, challenging his contemporaries either to acknowledge that religion is based on a wholly irrational faith (a position he claimed not to oppose) or to abandon it altogether. His challenge was heard in far-off Königsberg, where Kant credited Hume with awakening him from his "dogmatic slumbers."

Before turning to the culmination of the Enlightenment in the thought of Immanuel Kant, we need to look briefly at the quite different situation that obtained in France. The French Enlightenment differed from its British and German counterparts primarily because the relationship of modernity to the past was fundamentally different in France. King Louis XIV (1643-1715) set out to unify the French nation and culture under the banner of the Counter-Reformation, which entailed the suppression of Protestantism by force, most dramatically in the destruction of the Huguenots through exile, repression, and conversion. The French state remained the dutiful servant of the Roman Church until the Revolution of 1789. This situation helps to explain why even so bitter an enemy of the Church as Voltaire, on his deathbed confessed to a priest and issued a written apology. (Under prevailing law, bodies of those who died refusing the sacramental ministry of the Catholic Church were to be dragged naked through the streets and thrown unburied on the dump; and despite his confession, Voltaire narrowly escaped this fate when he died two months later.) The French philosophes, though they borrowed arguments from the English Deists, were thus far more outspoken in their rejection of superstition and religious persecution. The epitome of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire (1694-1778; born François Marie Arouet), often sought to disguise his true views, but he was evidently a Deist, who relied on the argument from design and appealed to the analogy of the watchmaker God. But he reserved the most scathing of his rapier prose for attacking the Church, delighting in the motto écrasez l'infâme ("crush the infamous thing"). Voltaire was the mentor and inspiration for a group of younger French intellectuals who called themselves "the philosophers" and came to typify the Enlightenment in France. The most visible fruit of their work was the Encyclopedia (Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 28 volumes, 1751-72), under the editorship of Jean d'Alembert (1717-83) and Denis Diderot (1713-84), which was marked by a militant atheism and materialism. Thus under Louis XIV both the Church and unbelief paradoxically flourished (Hirsch 1949, vol. 3:60).

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