Renaissance, Science and God: Paradox of Modern Western Education—IV Enlightenment and Religion

The rationalism of the Enlightenment created a wave of social unrest in France which swept away the political power of the Catholic Church
"The rationalism of the Enlightenment created a wave of social unrest in France which swept away, along with many other things, the political power of the Catholic Church with the main aim to establish a reason-based order instituting the ideals of liberty and equity."
"The rationalism of the Enlightenment created a wave of social unrest in France which swept away, along with many other things, the political power of the Catholic Church with the main aim to establish a reason-based order instituting the ideals of liberty and equity." Special arrangement


he 18th century marks the beginning of Enlightenment, a movement of reason and individualism, rejecting tradition and religion. One of the French revolution thinkers D’Alembert characterises the Enlightenment as “the century of philosophy par excellence”, because of the tremendous intellectual and scientific progress of the age.

Immanuel Kant identifies Enlightenment with the undertaking to think for oneself what to believe and how to act. Understanding that the Middle Ages, with the Church having dominance over everything else, was the period of cultural decline, dominated by strict religion, war, famine and disease, the Enlightenment stressed upon that man can attain freedom and happiness only through reason. It was all about to challenge the old and construct the new.

The rationalism of the Enlightenment created a wave of social unrest in France which swept away, along with many other things, the political power of the Catholic Church with the main aim to establish a reason-based order instituting the ideals of liberty and equity.

There may be so many benefits in Enlightenment as a process of social and psychological development, but what we are concerned about here is that how this process paved way for future secular developments in the West and then in the rest (as they put it) and how the later developments shaped the worldview of the modern man and then finally we got the modern secular-materialistic education system.


Alongside the rise of the new science, the rise of Protestantism in western Christianity also played an important role in generating the Enlightenment.

In the 16th century a branch of Christianity separated from the Catholic Church because Martin Luther, a 16th-century monk and theologian, and other Protestant reformers adopted the belief that salvation is attained only through faith in Jesus and his atoning sacrifice on the cross (sola fide), while Catholicism taught that salvation comes through a combination of faith and good works. This difference started a reformation movement of the Orthodox Christianity which later gave rise to Protestantism as the third major force within Christendom, alongside Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

What is interesting to note here is that Protestantism and Enlightenment had one thing in common — individual liberty with respect to questions of faith against the patriarchal authority of the Church. Basically, the assertion that the “freedom of conscience” is necessary for human dignity, so important to Enlightenment thinkers in general, comes from the same Protestant attitude.

But there is a very important difference between Protestantism and Enlightenment. Protestantism initiates a crisis of authority regarding religious belief and bases itself upon the authority of scripture. But in the Enlightenment, the authority of scripture is strongly challenged, especially when taken literally. With the development of science Protestant Christianity had to face further challenges vis-à-vis the centrality of the scripture. A literal version of the Bible became increasingly untenable in light of rational scientific approach.

Authors such as Spinoza asserted that the Bible contains many contradictions, and thus asserted that it cannot be accepted as a source of knowledge. However, he tried to present ways of interpreting it according to its spirit, rather than its letter, in order to preserve its authority and truth. This again contributed to the rational approach of Enlightenment.

Enlightenment and religion

Although some Enlightenment supporters claim that it is not essentially against religion but it is against some features of religion, such as superstition, enthusiasm, fanaticism and supernaturalism, yet one of the reasons for the Enlightenment thinkers to declare the organized religion as a problem was the bloody drawn-out wars between the Christian sects.

Voltaire has his own problem with religion. His problem seems to be with a religion that claims to be rational and natural. Voltaire basically wants hits the Catholic Church in France.

Religion during the age of Enlightenment assumed new forms. In fact, the Enlightenment created a new religion which should be termed as Enlightenment religion. There are four characteristic forms of Enlightenment religion: deism, religion of the heart, fideism and atheism.


Deism is the belief in the existence of God solely based on rational thought without any reliance on revealed religions or religious authority. Deism emphasises the concept of natural theology (that is, God’s existence is revealed through nature). So, it is the form of religion fitted to the new discoveries in natural science. Hence, it rejects the divinity of Christ, as unacceptable to reason.

In deism God, arrived at through empirical argument and referred to as the Supreme Reason, Prime Mover or Original Architect, is often perceived as distant and unconcerned with the daily struggles of man, and thus as not answering the human needs, a concept fundamentally against religion, which holds that God is not only the Creator but He continuously concerns for His creation and listens to the pleas of man.

Religion of the Heart

Religion of the Heart is founded on natural human sentiments, rather than on the operations of the intellect or in metaphysical or natural scientific problems of cosmology. Man has no need to be taught about God by some external element like a Prophet. These are artificial forms of religion. On the other hand, when he reflects on his own situation in nature, his heart adores the supreme power. So, the dictates of nature are sufficient for teaching what natural religion means—that which is grounding in natural human sentiments, rather than in reason.


Fideism is a view of religious belief that holds that faith has nothing to do with reason. Faith actually justifies itself on its own grounds. It is a view which maintains that religious faith maintains its truth over against philosophical reasoning, which opposes but cannot defeat it. An apparent consequence of fideism is that all religious thinking becomes equal. The major monotheistic religions become on par with obscure fringe religions, as neither can be advocated or disputed.


In simple terms Atheism denies the existence of God. In this way it is as dogmatic from the very outset as religion itself. Atheism is more present in the French Enlightenment than elsewhere. It holds the view that the problems of nature whatsoever must be solved within natural processes themselves not in a supernatural being.

Atheism (combined with materialism) in the French Enlightenment is perhaps most identified with a deterministic and materialistic metaphysics which was developed by Baron d’Holbach (a prominent social figure of the French Enlightenment who made significant contributions to the European Enlightenment in science and religion) against organized religion.

Unlike most Enlightenment thinkers d’Holbach holds that morality does not require any religion, in the sense that morality requires belief in a transcendent law-giver and in an after-life. He makes the case for an ethical naturalism, an ethics that is free of any reference to a supernatural grounding or aspiration. he presents an ethics in which virtue consists in enlightened self-interest. As said above, the metaphysical background of the ethics d’Holbach presents is deterministic materialism.


With its emphasis on the imagination and emotion, Romanticism emerged as a response to the disillusionment with the Enlightenment values of reason and order in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

While Enlightenment can be termed as the age of reason, romanticism is focused on human emotion. Enlightenment contradicted the dark ages while romanticism opposed enlightenment. philosopher David Hume said that “reason is the slave of the passions.” That took reason to its ultimate skeptical end.

In English literature Romanticism is a movement characterized by a celebration of nature and the common man, a focus on individual experience, an idealisation of women, and an embrace of isolation and melancholy.

To be continued…

Dr Nazir Ahmad Zargar, Coordinator, Department of Religious Studies, Central University of Kashmir.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not refl ect the views of GK.

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