Assess the significance of the role that the Enlightenment attributed to God

Authors Avatar

Assess the significance of the role that the Enlightenment attributed to God

Assessing the role of God in Enlightenment thought is not an easy task, the main reason being that the majority of the great Enlightenment thinkers did not actually address (or attack: the two verbs at this time being synonymous) the issue of God specifically (the notable exceptions being the atheists d'Holbach and Jacques-André Naigeon). What the philosophes did address and attack was organized religion, usually Catholicism (although Christianity as a whole was fiercely criticized). In order therefore, to discover their perception of God, it will be necessary to examine their arguments concerning religion.

However, even this is not as simple as it appears. The Enlightenment was a very broad movement which included thinkers of differing beliefs and ideas and therefore, there was no uniform consensus on the subject - some (such as d'Holbach) were atheist, others deeply religious (notably Rousseau), whilst the majority were deists of one kind or another (deism was a movement that ran parallel to the Enlightenment although it had originated prior to it). Clearly though, the majority of the philosophes were religious, which is significant - the Enlightenment did not attack God nor did it attack religion (as Nicolson puts it, "it was not faith that they attacked, but superstition: not religion but priesthood.") yet this was supposedly a movement that advocated rationalism, reason and knowledge, ideas which are not, to my mind, compatible with religion. It would seem therefore that the Enlightenment's stance on religion was social rather than theological. This then would explain the crusade that was waged against Christianity (the famous écrasez l'infâme). To the philosophes, Christianity was a social institution which was the antithesis of everything that they stood for. As Porter writes, for Diderot, Voltaire et al. "emancipation of mankind from religious tyranny had to be the first blow in a general politics of emancipation."

The changing perspective of religion was undoubtedly influenced by the changing philosophical and scientific atmosphere of the Eighteenth century. The decline of Cartesian philosophy and its views of the universe and society, to be replaced by Newton had a tremendous impact on the Enlightenment (as did the work of other great English thinkers, especially Bacon, Hobbes and Locke). It seems in hindsight that conflict with Christianity was inevitable, as scientific knowledge increased, yet the sheer ferocity of the attack that followed merely reinforces the idea that the conflict was more than simply science against faith. It is easy to see why Newton appealed to the philosophes - the idea that nature could be explained through science but (on a metaphysical note) that even science could not discover all causes and affects and Newton's own (deist) belief that God personally intervened to regulate nature - all could be incorporated into a rationalist faith. The impact of Newtonianism is apparent. For Voltaire, (who has been described as a Newtonian deist) "the whole philosophy of Newton leads of necessity to the knowledge of a supreme Being, who created everything ..."

Join now!

The influence of English thought on the Enlightenment was not confined to science. The deist movement, which was a significant component of Enlightenment thought, had originated in England in the Seventeenth century, around the time of the Civil War and had a vigorous following, its chief propagandists being Hobbes, Locke, Paine, Toland, Tindal and Collins. As with their French contemporaries, they used reason and rationalism against the Church, writing books which criticized all aspects of Christianity. The interesting thing to note is the chronology - was the social and political atmosphere of the Civil War and its aftermath a direct ...

This is a preview of the whole essay