The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, is often considered an era of tolerance and religious freedom following dominance by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. But was the Enlightenment anti-religious? How did the radical change in thinking about faith evolve? Why?
The Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, was an intellectual and cultural movement in the eighteenth century that emphasized reason over superstition and science over blind faith. Using the power of the press, Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Voltaire questioned accepted knowledge and spread new ideas about openness, investigation, and religious tolerance throughout Europe and the Americas. Many consider the Enlightenment a major turning point in Western civilization, an age of light replacing an age of darkness.
Several ideas dominated Enlightenment thought, including rationalism, empiricism, progressivism, and cosmopolitanism. Rationalism is the idea that humans are capable of using their faculty of reason to gain knowledge. Empiricism promotes the idea that knowledge comes from experience and observation of the world. Progressivism is the belief that through their powers of reason and observation, humans could make unlimited, linear progress over time. Finally, cosmopolitanism reflected Enlightenment thinkers’ view of themselves as citizens of the world and actively engaged in it, as opposed to being provincial and close-minded. In all, Enlightenment thinkers endeavored to be ruled by reason, not prejudice.
Adapted from “The Great Awakening and Enlightenment” by OpenStax. Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/us-history/pages/1-introduction
What were the arguments against the Catholic Church?
During this time, “the Church” referred to the Catholic church. According to Peter Benson in “The Dialectics of Faith & Enlightenment” for Philosophy Now, “though Faith considers its transcendent God to be immune from the criticisms of the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment itself was skeptical, rather than rejecting the existence of such a Being. Enlightenment thinkers tended towards agnosticism rather than atheism. Often, like Rousseau, they believed in some kind of supreme Being, but wanted to dismantle the restrictive social structures of religion. Their real quarrel was with the Church and the priests, whom they took to be deliberately deceiving the people, keeping the population in their lowly place with religious hocus-pocus.”
According to Aatif Rashid, “The Catholic Church cemented its power in the 11th century with the investiture controversy. Until the 11th century, church officials were appointed not by the pope but by kings who took bribes, a practice known as simony. Pope Gregory VII banned simony in 1075, and when Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV continued the practice, Gregory excommunicated him and declared his rule illegitimate, and in doing so instigated a rebellion against him by German princes. Without the pope’s spiritual authority, Henry’s power was considered meaningless.”
So the leaders of powerful countries lost power over church officials, and the popes gained power.
Benson, Peter. “The Dialectics of Faith & Enlightenment.” Philosophy Now: a Magazine of Ideas, Philosophy Now, 2022, https://philosophynow.org/issues/37/The_Dialectics_of_Faith_and_Enlightenment.
Rashid, Aatif. “Synonym.” Classroom.synonym.com, Leaf Group202, 2020, https://classroom.synonym.com/.
What are the key characteristics of the Enlightenment, and how do they impact faith?