There are two facts about the Enlightenment which it is essential to grasp if we are to understand its true historical significance. The first is that, regardless of how it began, it became far more than just another movement in the history of ideas, like the Romantic movement. What happened in the drawing rooms, libraries and coffee houses of 18th century Europe resembled in at least one crucial respect what happened in the deserts of Arabia in the 7th century AD. A new world religion was born.
Clearly there were and are great differences. Islam had one, and only one, founder. The Enlightenment, on the other hand, as a coherent body of dynamic ideas, was the work of a succession of men of letters, and its first converts were nobles and sophisticated city-dwellers. Islam's converts were in the main desert tribesmen.
Nevertheless, the title "religion" can, I believe, be justified in so far as the teachings we shall shortly be examining in greater detail provide their own particular explanation of the meaning and purpose of life and our final destiny as a race; they present those teachings as the sole path to salvation as well as universally valid for all peoples; and they are spread by a high proportion of their adherents with missionary zeal.
That we are truly dealing with a religion was recognised by Pope Paul in his closing speech at the Second Vatican Council. "At the Council," he said, "the religion of God made man" had encountered "the religion of man aspiring to be God." He did not of course mean that there had been official representatives of secular humanist societies debating with the bishops in the Council Hall. He was referring to the fact that much of the Council's work was directed towards showing how far the doctrines of the Enlightenment are compatible with Catholic belief. There was an implicit recognition on the part of the Council that the cult of "man aspiring to be God," as Pope Paul put it, is now the Church's main intellectual and spiritual rival, beside which Islam pales into insignificance.
Liberalism, 4 secularism or secular-humanism, socialism, communism are merely the new faith's main denominations (freemasonry being a survival of the original 18th century form). Their adherents may differ about how the final goal is to be reached (is the principal instrument of salvation to be politics, revolution, social engineering, improved education, extra productivity, mind manipulation, or genetic tinkering?) and about which of the ingredients of happiness matter most (liberty, equality, fraternity, human rights, an abundant cash flow or sexual licence?) But they are at one as regards the new message of salvation itself: paradise in this world, brought about mainly or entirely by human effort.
Although this new "faith" was not initially regarded as incompatible with belief in God, and in the eyes of multitudes of Westerners is still seen in that light, for a core of committed believers, man rapidly replaced God, if not as an object of worship, then at least as worthy of a quasi-religious veneration. There may no longer be a God whom one can offend by sin, but there exists Humanity against which it is possible to commit crimes.
For the first hundred years or so, this unbelief was of a straightforward rationalistic kind, the atheism of sceptical 18th century French abbés as it remains for a large part of the unbelieving West. Religion is just superstitious nonsense fit only for servants and peasants and promoted by priests for their personal advantage; the sooner it is done away with, the better. But after passing through the sombre tunnel of German romanticism and philosophy, of which Marxism and Nazism have been the principal political offshoots, a more "mystical" atheism emerged, owing its origin mainly to the German philosopher Feuerbach (1804-1872). It is this which Pope Paul VI seems to have been referring to when he spoke of "the religion of man aspiring to be God."
According to Feuerbach, man invented the idea of God before he was old enough to realise that what he imagined to be the attributes of a Supreme Being — omnipotence, omniscience, absolute goodness — were really, in latent form, his own attributes. Man will therefore never fully flourish until God, or the notion of God, has been wiped from men's minds. God, or the idea of God, is man's natural enemy. Human progress therefore demands war to the death against Him or It. Feuerbach was the father of what can be called Promethean atheism. 5
We are now so used to atheism as a socially acceptable profession of belief, that it is difficult to realise what a unique phenomenon modern atheism is.
There have no doubt been atheists since the beginning of history — whether parish-pump atheists or sophisticated intellectuals like some of the ancient Greek philosophers, or, in China, 12th century Sung mandarins. But never before have there been committed groups of atheists believing that they have the one true solution for all the sorrows and problems of mankind, and bent on converting the great mass of humanity to their viewpoint by reason, by persuasion, or if necessary, by force. Our atheist brethren will no doubt cry out against this description. But if they look at the historical facts, how can they refute it? There can be no question that the vast majority of atheists genuinely want to benefit their fellow men. What they can't or won't admit to is that they are apostles of a missionary world-view bearing most of the marks of a religious "faith." Atheism, as we have noted already, is not a necessary component of that faith. But after three centuries, sad to say, it has become the culturally strongest component! 6
The second of the two facts which I said it is necessary to grasp if we are to understand the full historical significance of the Enlightenment, is that this new "world religion" is in its deepest roots and in many of its practical objectives a Christian heresy.
Taken individually, its teachings either have their origins in Christianity, like the raising up of the poor and lowly, or, like the brotherhood of men, have always had a prominent place in the Christian scheme of things. Collectively, they are the product of 2000 years of a Christian way of looking at the world. It is impossible to imagine them occurring in the form they do in any civilisation or culture so far known to history other than a Judaeo-Christian one. Nor have they in fact done so. They can be accurately described as "secularised Christianity," or a falling away from Christianity while at the same time carrying bagfuls of the total Christian patrimony along with them. This is especially true in the political and social fields where the emphasis on constitutional government or the rights of man and his dignity represent a recovery of topics and themes well known to the Middle Ages, but swamped by the late Renaissance cult of fame, Glory, and princely absolutism — a development which helps to explain the Catholic Hilaire Belloc's otherwise surprising enthusiasm for many aspects of the French revolution. 7
This is what makes the whole Enlightenment "package" so singularly difficult for the Church to handle. It is not something totally alien as paganism was. We have all been influenced by it to some degree, while many Christians seem to believe that, except for disagreements about God and Christ and perhaps the sixth and ninth commandments, they and their secularist or secular humanist counterparts are on the same wavelength in regard to more or less everything else. About not a few things, they may well be. Unfortunately, only too many tend to be children of the Enlightenment first and Christians by way of addition. They fail to see that, when wrenched from their Christian context and raised to the status of absolutes, the notions to which the children of the Enlightenment give priority, such as liberty and equality, no matter how good in themselves, can receive a quite different significance and even become appallingly destructive — like crates in a ship's hold that have broken loose in a storm and go crashing against each other until they are smashed to pieces. Outside the context of a world designed by a Creator for a purpose, it is impossible to make a harmonious whole of them. 8
Some remarks by Pope John Paul II on one of his last visits to Poland show the extent to which the doctrines of the Enlightenment are, from a Catholic and Christian standpoint, a confusing blend of benign and toxic elements. "In the name of respect for human dignity, in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity," he exclaimed in one of his speeches, "I cry out, 'Do not be afraid! Open the doors to Christ'" However, in another address he was moved to talk of the need to defend human freedom "in a social context permeated by ideas of democracy inspired by liberal ideology" and of a "spiritual disorientation" caused by "various liberal and secular tendencies."
This is why Chesterton and Bernanos could speak of the modern world being full of Christian virtues (or ideas) gone mad, and why the Church's attempts to recapture these Christian runaways and relocate them in their proper context is proving so taxing.
It also explains Pope Paul's warning to well-intentioned humanists. Paul VI was the most sympathetic and sensitive pope so far to the good present in Enlightenment principles. But, he told his hearers, they would only continue to live while attached to the parent bush (Christianity). Detached from it, they would eventually die.
One could perhaps sum up the Catholic and Christian position thus. Viewed from the perspective of the sum total of human goods the Enlightenment creed is defective in two ways as a guide to human living and human endeavour: it is defective because of what it excludes; and it is defective in giving first place to secondary goods.
A third characteristic of the Enlightenment is more generally recognised. All religions have their more fervent and less fervent members. But apart from that, the ideas we are considering have, right from the start, been embodied in two contrasting forms: a strongly dogmatic European form, with republican France for its showcase, and a milder and looser Angie-Saxon or Anglo/North-American form, with the United States as its most dazzling shop window. While atheism and its promotion have always been high on the agenda of the dogmatic form, the Anglo-Saxon form has never been regarded as irreconcilable with belief in God or Christianity. There have always, of course, been plenty of adherents of the European form in Anglo-Saxon countries, and followers of the Anglo-Saxon form in Europe. 9 Nevertheless, the distinction remains valid and is of the first importance for understanding the history of the last two centuries and the entanglements in which it has involved men.
With regard to toleration, on which the Enlightenment has always laid so much stress and which we all value when it is to our advantage, two things can be said. No society has ever tolerated everything; what distinguishes societies and civilisations from one another is what they do and don't tolerate. Secondly, it is a universal weakness for people who are, or see themselves as the guardians of some body of belief or opinion, to regard the ideas they are upholding as their personal property, to interpret any attack on or criticism of those ideas as an attack on themselves, and to react accordingly. Pope Urban VIII's relationship with Galileo is an obvious example. But the weakness is not confined to Christians or religious people. To illustrate the point, here is an admission by a distinguished palaeontologist:
Finally, there is the widely assumed connection between the Enlightenment or its associated atheism and the development of modern science and technology. But this popular idea is a case of post hoc, propter hoc ("what happened first must necessarily be the cause of what happened second"). The foundations of Western science were laid by men who were nearly all Christians of some kind. If, from the 18th century on, more and more scientists have become atheists, we can see this as an effect rather than a cause of scientific advance. The more successful and powerful we become, the harder it is to keep a sense of proportion about ourselves.
It is equally illusory I believe, to think that, without the Enlightenment, we in the West would not enjoy the social and political advantages that we now do. Indeed we might well have reached them by a less tortuous and painful route.
With these generalisations in mind, we can now look briefly at the way that the ideas we are considering have developed and interacted over the last 300 years. I shall not be dealing with personalities, nor shall I be trying to assess how much good or harm each denomination has done in its efforts to realise its goals. My purpose in this chapter is simply to show how they came into existence.
It is a familiar story, but I hope to throw a light on it that brings out features which you had not perhaps noticed before.
6. Perhaps one of the most penetrating observations about modern atheism can be found in Pope John Paul ll's Sign of Contradiction, a series of sermons preached during a Lenten retreat to the papal household when he was still Archbishop of Cracow. When, the Pope remarks, the Devil told Adam and Eve that if they ate the forbidden fruit they would become like God, our first parents did not really believe him, nor when the temptation has been repeated down the ages have any of their descendants. The proposition too obviously violates common sense. Only in the last 200 years has Satan found men really prepared to take him at his word.
7. Benjamin Franklin, for example, tells us that his contributions to the United States' constitution were influenced by his conversations with the Paris Benedictines. We can also trace a connection, via Descartes, between 18th century rationalism and medieval scholasticism.
8. In spite of often noble intentions. vastly more people have been killed in the wars and revolutions of the last two hundred years which sought to establish one or other of the principles of the Enlightenment as a panacea for all human ills, than in all the religious wars and crusades since the time of Constantine (e.g. the death toll for communism has been estimated at between 50 and 100 million persons), if only because in the past populations were so much smaller.
9. John Stuart Mill is an example of an Englishman committed to the European form (see his letters to Auguste Comte on the difficulties of preaching Comte's positivism in England). while Chateaubriand and still more de Tocqueville are representatives of Anglo-Saxon liberalism in France.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018
Family Publications has now ceased trading. The copyright has reverted to the author Philip Trower who has given permission for the book to be placed on this website. Further corrected chapters will be added as time permits.