The Church and the Enlightenment
On the Origins and History of Western Secularism
by Philip Trower
I am sure we all have a fairly good idea what the Word Enlightenment means when it is spelt with a capital E at the beginning — that is if we paid adequate attention during our history lessons or lectures at college.
We are talking about the movements of ideas which came to dominate men’s minds during the 18th century, reaching an explosive climax in the French Revolution. But that as we know was not the end of the business. Historians may restrict the name enlightenment to the opening 18th century phase of the phenomenon. But under different forms and names, the same ideas remained very much alive after the Revolution and have exercised an ever growing influence right down to our own day until they have completely transformed the way most western men and women think about and understand themselves and the purpose of their existence.
We are all familiar with these ideas even if we do not assemble them in our minds as a creed. They can be classified as belief in perpetual progress towards some ideal state of natural happiness; belief in liberty, equality and brotherliness as the primary and indispensable ingredients of that happiness; belief in democracy as the infallible means of securing them; belief in the power of unaided human reason to resolve all human problems and ensure that the rights and dignity of all are respected; evil is chiefly due to ignorance and can therefore effectively be overcome by the right kind of education. These ideas are now so deeply embedded in western thinking that they tend to be accepted as more or less self-evident truths without history or mystery like two and two equalling four.
But are they, either in whole or in part? Let’s take a closer look at them
A New Arrival
There are two facts about the enlightenment which it is essential to grasp if we are fully to understand it. The first is that 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 A.D. A new world religion was born.
Clearly there were and are great differences. Islam had one and only one founder and its first converts were desert tribesmen. The enlightenment, on the other hand, as a coherent body of ideas, was the work of a succession of men of letters, and its first converts were nobles and sophisticated city-dwellers.
Nevertheless, the title ‘religion’ can, I believe, be justified in so far as the teachings we are considering provide their own particular explanation of the meaning and purpose of human life and our final destiny as a race; in so far as they present those teachings as the sole path to happiness for everybody; and in so far as they are spread by a high proportion of their followers with missionary zeal. The word ‘enlightenment’ alone speaks volumes. Before it all was darkness.
All this was recognised by Blessed Paul VI 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 mean of course that there had been official representatives of secular humanist societies debating with the bishops in St Peters. 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 or are not 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.
The words liberalism, secularism, secular-humanism, socialism and communism are simply names for the new faith’s main denominations (with free-masonry as the survival of an early 18th century form). Their members may differ about how the final goal is to be reached. But they are at one about 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 many people is still seen in that light, for a core of committed believers man rapidly replaced God, if not as an object of worship, 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 an abstraction called Humanity against whom it is possible to commit crimes.
For the greater part of the 18th century this unbelief was of a straightforward no nonsense kind. Religion is just superstitious rubbish promoted by priests for their personal advantage and only fit for servants and peasants. The sooner it is done away with the better. But in the following century after passing through the tortuous
tunnel of German romanticism and philosophy, a more ‘mystical’ atheism emerged, owing its origin mainly to the German philosopher Feuerbach (1804-1872).
According to Feuerbach, man invented the idea of God before he was old enough to realise that what he had imagined to be the attributes of a Supreme Being — omnipotence, omniscience, absolute goodness — were really in latent form, his own attributes. Man will never fully flourish until God, or the notion of God, has been wiped from the slate of men’s minds. It is this which Pope Paul seems to have had in mind when he spoke of the religion of man aspiring to be God.’
We are now so used to atheism as a socially acceptable idea that it is difficult for us to realise what a new and unusual phenomenon modern atheism is. There have no doubt been atheists or small groups of atheists, either of the parish pump or academic kind from the time parish pumps and academics first entered history. But never before has the world known powerful and committed groups of atheists not only believing they have the one true remedy for all the sorrows and problems of mankind, but bent on converting the great mass of humanity to their viewpoint by reason, persuasion, or if necessary force. Nor have we ever before had nations and societies in which the bulk of the population have become unbelievers, at least in the sense that religion makes little or no impact on the way they think and live.
One of perhaps the most penetrating observations about this phenomenon can be found in St John Paul II’s Sign of Contradiction , a series of sermons preached during a Lenten retreat to the papal household while he was still Archbishop of Cracow. When, the Pope remarks, the devil told Adam and Eve that they would become like God if they ate the forbidden fruit, our first parents did not really believe him, nor until recently did any of their descendents when subject to the same temptation. The proposition too obviously violates common sense. Only in the last 200 years has the devil found men and women really prepared to take him at his word.
The Christian Component
I now come to the second of the two facts about the Enlightenment which I said we must grasp if we are fully to understand it. When its ideas and values have not had atheism grafted onto them, they can, taken as a whole, be classified as a kind of Christian heresy.
It’s teachings either have their origins in Christianity, like the idea of raising up the poor and lowly, or have always had a prominent place in the Christian scheme of things, like the notion of human brotherhood. Collectively these ideas 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.
Take for example the doctrine of perpetual progress. In all other civilisations, or those sufficiently advanced to have a philosophy of time and history, both have been seen as following a cyclical course. Whatever has happened once will after the passage of enough time, happen again, and these recurring cycles will repeat themselves ad infinitum. Only in the Jewish-Christian scheme of things have time and history been presented as one-directional and culminating in a state of perfection.
We can find other examples of Christian influence on Enlightenment thinking in the political and social fields as well. The emphasis on constitutional government and 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. Equally we can see the seeds of representative government in the medieval parliaments and French States General.
The Habeas Corpus Act of 1769 also had its origin in medieval England, and Benjamin Franklin tells us that his contributions to the United States constitution were influenced by his conversations with the Paris Benedictines. We can even see at the roots of Marxism a distorted attempt to realise the principle which the Church in its social teaching now calls the universal destination of earthly goods, i.e. the earth’s goods are meant for everybody — not just privileged minorities; they are to be equitably if not equally shared. The Magnificat has even been rifled to justify putting down the mighty from their seats.
This is what makes the whole Enlightenment package so singularly difficult to handle. It is not something totally alien as paganism largely was. In consequence only too many of today’s Christians seem to believe that except about God and Christ and perhaps the 6th and 9th commandments, they and their secularist neighbours are on the same wave length in regard to more or less everything else.
What they fail to see is that, when wrenched from their Christian context and raised to the status of absolutes, notions like liberty and equality no matter how good in themselves, can receive a quite different significance and even become appallingly destructive. Outside the context of a world designed by a Creator for a purpose, it is impossible to make a harmonious whole of them.
Take individual liberty for instance. If it is represented as the highest good how can it fail to endanger social cohesion and consideration for others, which, together with self-control I would say are the three prerequisites for anything approaching what can be called civilisation. On the other hand we know from experience that attempts to establish absolute equality threaten even legitimate liberties. In fact, of course, liberty and equality are not the highest goods. The highest goods are truth and goodness.
This why Chesterton and Georges Bernanos could speak of the modern world being full of Christian 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.
Some remarks by Pope John Paul II on one of his last visits to Poland help to 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 speech he spoke of a spiritual disorientation caused by various liberal and secular tendencies, and the need to defend human freedom in a social context permeated by ideas of democracy inspired by liberal ideology.”
From the Church’s standpoint one could say that as guides to human living and human endeavour, the enlightenment project and its creed are defective in two ways: they are defective because of what they exclude, and they are defective in giving first place to secondary goods.
How it All Began
I want now to take you back in time to look at the way the ideas we have been examining originated and have since developed and interacted. We can find adumbrations of what was to come as early as the renaissance. But for the sake of simplicity we will take as our starting point the period following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which brought the 17th century religious wars to an end.
We are immediately conscious of being in a new spiritual climate. It is like the stillness after a storm. People have time to reflect. In particular there is a weariness about religious issues. Was it all worthwhile? Can’t men live in peace even if they differ about religion? Surely they can agree about the existence of God and the laws of nature, since these are truths open to reason, and leave it that.
Through improved means of communication the mood spreads across Europe to Russia in the east and across the Atlantic to the New World in the West.
I am talking of course about the thinking, reading and writing classes. The great bulk of men and women are as yet untouched by this change of mood. But for men and women of the type I have in mind thinking reading and writing are their life’s blood.
In Catholic Europe, Jesuit education has long made entrance to this aristocracy of intellect much easier for bright boys from poor families. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) is an example. A Protestant pastor’s son, he studied philosophy under the Jesuits of Toulouse for a while. Then through his literary journal, News of the Republic of Letters and his Historical and Critical Dictionary, he helped to turn what had been a mood into a movement and give it international cohesion. He was not alone. The proliferation of periodicals like Bayle’s had an effect not unlike that of the Internet today. It put people with ideas living at a distance from each other in touch in a way that had not existed before.
As a result the sense of lassitude dissolved to be replaced by a rapidly growing self-confidence. The achievements in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and physics of men like Descartes, Leibniz, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, and Newton had begun to reverse the backward looking mentality characteristic of the renaissance period. From now on western men and women took to seeing themselves as superior to the Greeks and Romans rather than as their perpetual pupils, and to direct their thoughts towards a future full of new possibilities instead of towards a past which might be rivalled but never surpassed. The idea of building a perfect world, a utopia, which St Thomas More and the Italian Dominican Campanella had played with a century and a half earlier, increasingly seemed to be a possibility.
By now we have reached the early 18th century. Up to this point the flow of new notions had been changing men’s way of thinking by a process of what one could call quiet interpenetration or osmosis, with England and Holland providing much of the input. There had been no single directing or driving force behind them. It could equally have been compared to a gentle rain falling on a flower bed full of seeds waiting to germinate. All this, however, changed with the arrival on the scene of the men we know as the French philosophes, a term we associate with the names of Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert, and from now on France will take the lead.
From Faith and Reason to Reason Alone
The French philosophes were brilliant writers and publicists rather than philosophers whose historical importance lies in the fact that they turned what had been a movement into a cause, which is something very different. For them the new ideas that had been taking shape were not to be left to make their own way as best they could. They were to be actively promoted. This was achieved chiefly through the plays, tales and poems of Voltaire and Diderot’s encyclopaedia. Hence the name encyclopaedists for the group as a while. Soon there would scarcely be a gentleman’s library between St Petersburg and Lisbon whose shelves their volumes were not adorning. They became for the European gentry and upper middle classes what volumes of the Church Fathers had long been for Europe’s monks in their as yet unrifled or unsacked monasteries.
Simultaneously, in the Catholic Church, or in religion as such, the philosophes found an enemy to be overcome, something which is always helpful to the advancement of causes.
This first phase in the development and spread of enlightenment ideas was optimistic and relatively a-political. If there was to be an object of worship it was Nature. In these early years Nature was to be seen as by and large beneficent. There was admiration for the English constitution and later for the American colonies in their war of independence. There was also, not without good reason, criticism of the existing French social set-up. But the philosophes were not averse to absolute monarchs provided those monarchs had the right ideas and carried out reforms which the philosophes approved of. Confidence was momentarily shaken by the Lisbon earthquake of 1751 — how can a beneficent nature let her children down so badly? — but it was soon recovered, lasting till the eve of the Revolution. However, before we come to that, events take a new turn with the arrival in Paris in 1741 of the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Just how momentous the influence of this immensely gifted vagabond was to become — just how bizarre the disparity between the kind of person he was and the society he mesmerised into drawing up its own death warrant — all this, through familiarity, is no longer easy to appreciate. It is as though a 1960s hippy had wandered into a meeting of the Royal Society and been unanimously elected president. However I only want to make one point about him here. It was Rousseau who did most to politicize the enlightenment project. From a cause he turned it into a political undertaking with a quasi-religious dynamism. After the publication of his Social Contract, justly described as the revolution’s Bible, politics, including if necessary revolution, came to be seen as the main highway to the earthly paradise rather than reason and education.
As for the revolution itself and the subsequent Napoleonic period we can see their role in the history of enlightenment thinking as experimental and missionary.
Paris under the revolution became a kind of laboratory for testing what happened when Rousseau’s principles were applied to governing fallible and not all that reasonable human beings. Meanwhile the revolutionary and later the Napoleonic armies were carrying the notions of liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy with missionary zeal far and wide across Europe to men and women of every social strata. Not to see a resemblance to an Islamic jihad is surely next to impossible.
But to keep our sense of balance we must remember what I said about this new religion being a Christian heresy and therefore containing Christian components. Around 1805 Pope Pius VII, the Pope who crowned Napoleon emperor and was later imprisoned by him, confirmed that the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity rightly understood, all have a place in the Christian scheme of things.
A final point about the revolution, before moving on. When it was over the ideas that partly provoked it and subsequently shaped it, emerge in two conflicting forms; a libertarian form favoured by the new politically and economically dominant middle-classes which gives birth to classical liberalism; and an egalitarian collectivist form appealing to the new industrial underdogs.
The libertarian form gives birth to classical liberalism, the egalitarian form to socialism and communism, which are as much products of the enlightenment as the libertarian forms. Consequently, our new religion of man aspiring to be God’ will from now on be at war with itself, at least on the political level. Sometimes it will be a cold war, sometimes a hot war. From time to time there will even be truces and temporary mergings of objectives. But these can never be lasting because the basic principles and aspirations of the members of the two sides are irreconcilable. Which is to have first place? Liberty? Or Equality. And is utopia to be reached by limiting or enhancing the powers of the state.
Very soon, moreover, classical liberalism begins to take two recognizably different forms as well; in France, and the rest of once Catholic Europe a strongly dogmatic, anti-religious, missionary form; and in the Anglo-Saxon world on both sides of the Atlantic a milder more pragmatic shape. Anglo-Saxon liberalism, moreover, has never been irreconcilable with belief in God and Christianity. Simplifying a bit, we can see Voltaire and his friends as fathers of European liberalism and the 17th century English philosopher John Locke as the ancestor of the milder Anglo-Saxon form.
The two libertarian forms have never been openly at war with each other, and there have always been adherents of the European form in Anglo-Saxon countries and vice-versa. Nevertheless the distinction, I believe, remains valid and is important for understanding much of the history of the last two centuries, as well as making life easier for historians, teachers and school children when it comes to explaining or understanding how politicians and statesmen all calling themselves liberals have often taken conflicting stances.
1815 - 1917
The next stage in the life of our new religion or proto-Christian heresy could be called the first great liberal age. In both its dogmatic and pragmatic forms, liberalism appears to be the main force with a future, while nearly everywhere conservatism and tradition are on the defensive.
In the names of liberty and democracy things good and bad are swept away, and others good and bad are introduced to replace them. Inevitably interests and aspirations sometimes clash. ‘Free trade, a panacea for some liberals, is anathema to others. Likewise free love. There is much championing of the rights of minorities and subject groups of which the abolition of slavery is an obvious high point. Likewise the beginnings of universal suffrage and free education. In foreign affairs, energy is directed towards undermining long-established empires by encouraging national liberation movements. At the same time, as the century goes on, not all liberal regimes will be averse to acquiring colonial possessions outside Europe.
By the end of the century there can have been few areas of the western world where enlightenment principles or values in their liberal form had not to some degree penetrated and influenced public thinking.
However with the First World War and the Russian Revolution classical liberalism meets it’s Gotterdammerung. Its cultural influence and intellectual prestige pass to its egalitarian socialist and communist rivals with their collectivist theories of government, politics and social life. Equality comes before liberty. These for the best part of a century had been living a largely underground life, erupting from time to time in revolutionary outbursts that were quickly suppressed. However, after 1918 and the Russian revolution they can live openly in the daylight with Marxism rapidly occupying top place as a political and intellectual force.
From the late1920s on, the reaction of many western liberals to their newly-empowered egalitarian rivals is not unlike that of moths to a flame or rabbits to a cobra. Some are attracted, others repelled. But the common roots and underlying unity of purpose linking all the off-shoots of the Enlightenment produces that curious phenomenon so characteristic of the 20th century down to the collapse of the Soviet Union; devotees of freedom who can see no enemy to the left, or people who call themselves liberals adulating or making excuses for two of the socially and psychologically most devastating tyrannies, whether Russian or Chinese, known to history.
Taking the century as a whole, we can see it, in the first place, as the period when enlightenment ideas replace Christianity as the main cultural force shaping the way the majority of western men and women look at and think about life and things in general. As I have said, there are many enlightenment ideas which are not irreconcilable with Christianity. However by the end of the century, Christianity as an active cultural force will, at least in Europe, be a minority religion.
Or looked at from a different standpoint we can see it as the century in which one-party collectivist egalitarianism under the leadership of Soviet Russia shares world-wide clout and influence with common-sense liberalism or libertarianism of the Anglo-American kind. In the middle of the century they unite to crush their fascist or national socialist opponents. In the second half comes the stand-off of the “cold war”, until the Soviet Union collapses and communist China begins to adopt western liberal economic principles.
Meanwhile, as western economies started to revive during the late 1950s and early 60s and a decade or so later Marxist prestige began to decline, it looked as if the West as a whole was entering a new or second great liberal age.
But of what kind?
From Anglo-Saxon Liberalism to Secularism
At first glance, the student revolts of the 1960s and the opening phases of the sexual revolution leave the impression that the ghost of Bakunin, father of anarchism, had temporarily taken charge. However, when in the 1970s things started to settle down a bit and a significant part of the next half-generation decided that money-making was more enjoyable than lounging about taking drugs and cocking snooks at authority, it began to seem as if a revived Anglo-Saxon or common-sense liberalism was going to be the directing or guiding force of the coming age. And to some extent it has been above all in the United States. But in England and Europe, for the last two or three decades, things have begun to look different.
Dogmatic European liberalism or secularism, as we will from now on call it, has increasingly been supplanting the Anglo-Saxon kind.
With its antipathy to religion, missionary spirit, and determination to impose its own code of what it considers right and wrong, regardless of its once stridently proclaimed devotion to freedom of speech and expression, all the evidence suggests that it is moving towards making atheism the equivalent of a state religion. This, I believe, is the most significant development of the last 25 years. Political correctness is simply secularism’s new code of ethics or ten commandments which everyone must obey whether they agree with them or not.
In England, for instance, we have had a growing number of cases of Christian women being dismissed from their jobs for wearing a small cross or crucifix round their necks while at work and their dismissal receiving approval from the judiciary. One is tempted to ask why if devout atheists have a supposed right not to be offended by seeing religious symbols in public places, devout believers should not have an equal right not to be offended by their exclusion?
It is the same with recent legislation in England forcing Christian institutions to embrace practices which go against the members’ consciences, such as collaborating in abortions or allowing the adoption of orphans by homosexuals. Both these are violations of a once fundamental enlightenment principle, the right of free association.
Vatican II and the Future
Were the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council mistaken then in trying to come to terms with the Enlightenment and its more dedicated adherents? There are Catholics who would say Yes, but I have to disagree. The work, I believe, was necessary for the sake of all those members of the Church who in many respects are children of the Enlightenment without knowing it. It has also been necessary for the waves of Catholic immigrants pouring into the western countries in search of jobs which their native countries are unable to provide. They too need to know how much in the countries of their adoption is due to Christianity and how much is not. We can, in some respects see the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (On the Church in the Modern World) as in some respects the offer of a peace treaty to the children of the Enlightenment or their cultural leaders.
And there is another consideration. Although secularists are increasingly influential throughout the West and are able to sway public policy and public opinion in a manner that should not be underrated, they are still only a minority, even a small minority. Of the millions of western or westernized men and women subscribing more or less consciously to enlightenment principles and aims by far the greater number are liberals of the undogmatic Anglo-Saxon kind, whether they live in England, North America, France, Spain of anywhere else.
Liberals of this kind have always been strong on works of philanthropy. They are par excellence the men of good will’ referred to so often in recent documents of the magisterium. Their main weakness has always been a defective or inadequate philosophy of nature and man, which leads them repeatedly to underestimate the obstacles to be overcome in the attainment of their goals. One could say that a good liberal of this kind wakes every morning in a state of frustration and disappointment on finding that the world is still such a long was from perfection. But they do really value being able to say what they honestly think, and with them discussion has always been possible, leaving aside the fact that they have always included a large number of Christians.
The point most needing clarification was the Church’s attitude to the enlightenment doctrine of perpetual progress culminating in an earthly utopia. The fact that the Church does not believe in such a possibility this side of the Last Day, given, among other things, that it presupposes the disappearance of sin, does not mean that she does not require her children to make this world as good a place as possible, given the existence of sin. Hence her emphasis since the pontificate of Pope John XXIII on the pursuit of Justice and Peace.
How then, we may wonder, are liberal ‘men and women of goodwill’ going to react as the rule of their one time secularist allies becomes more and more oppressive under a polished surface of good intentions and caring concern and increasingly incapable of handling the social problems which their religion of men aspiring to be God is already producing?
It is no longer a question of governments coping with unforeseen consequences, but of governments promoting policies and ideas regardless of the consequences. The family is not the only thing under attack. The moral and spiritual life of whole populations is being debauched, and I am not thinking at this point of the sexual revolution.’ I have in mind the preaching of politicians and public figures who have nothing more uplifting to offer than an ever higher quality of life (for many of us, it could be argued, the quality of life would be higher if it were lower) and a lopsided doctrine of human rights (which turns rights into wrongs and wrongs into rights). The two together, coupled with the unprecedented rain of riches and conveniences, seem to be making large swathes of the populations of the West as demanding as 18th century aristocrats and increasingly ungovernable.
Tell the young they are not going to have to answer for what they do in this life when they die and it surely stands to reason that many will decide to do whatever they can get away with. At the same time abolition of belief in a Creator is the greatest possible threat to human rights. A blind, mindless cosmic system can no more confer rights than a dormouse or hippopotamus can.
I am not envisaging the immediate collapse of western society. As long as it keeps economically afloat that seems unlikely. But I do see it set on a course that could end by being in its own way as spiritually and culturally damaging as the Soviet system. It will probably not be as painful, but seen in the light of eternity, it could be as harmful.
So there is hope that as secularists, like their forbears during the French revolution become more and more dictatorial, entangled, and at cross purposes in their efforts to make godless populations absolutely free, indistinguishably equal and enforcedly fraternal, genuine liberals will at last see the light and start opposing them. For their sake too, therefore, it has been necessary for the Church to come to terms with the Enlightenment. And the same can be said of secularists. We have to have their good in mind too. Anything that can make the path back to faith, reason and common sense easier for them is to be commended.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2017
Version: 18th December 2017