Did the Enlightenment negate God?

I’d argue no… in fact, I’d argue that the Enlightenment, while enforcing rational investigation into the nature and existence of God, did God a favour. Although the Enlightenment was great at showing us our human limitations, it brought us no closer to God than any other religious faith. And really… didn’t the Enlightenment just trade one religion for another (Mnotheism for Scientism)?

The Enlightenment is seen as the “Age of Reason”, which has led to the diminishment of church authority in the political and academic realms of society. The Enlightenment marked the transition from medieval “faith” to modern “knowledge”. Enlightenment thinkers concerned themselves with “rational thought”, which led to scrutiny of all things within the natural world. A newfound skepticism arose during this period. Questions of worldview (metaphysics) and what we can know as humans (epistemology) came to mark this period. From Descartes’ “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) to Kant’s “Metaphysics of Morals”, the Enlightenment saw a great deal of thought pertaining to the nature of our world and our place within it.

In previous generations, education and religion typically ran hand in hand, with one defending the other. Following the development of the printing press and the revolt of the Protestant Reformation, the church’s hold on academic thought dissipated significantly. Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) scientific method provided an early framework for later Enlightenment thinking. Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique continued this tradition. And, Voltaire’s wry caricatures of the religious leaders of his day (Candide is a great read in this regard) lent more fuel to the anti-religious fire that was burning during this time.

There was a tremendous focus on the material world during this time. Rational thought tended towards that which could be measured (empiricism) or explained (rationalism). It was important to be able to explain events within the limitations of the natural world, as opposed to the traditional spiritual explanations given by the church. This led to great debates on the nature of miracles (see Hume’s “On Miracles” in particular) and the value of religion in personal life.

While skeptical thought did negatively impact the church, it did not disprove the necessity and value of religious belief, nor did it supplant it with anything other than a new religion, namely “scientism”. I find it ironic that the last of the Enlightenment giants, Emmanuel Kant, offered a newfound explanation for God through his idea of moral justification. So much for the skeptical death of God provided by his contemporaries…

By Todd Dow

Author, Geek, CF fundraiser & Cancer Survivor. My family, baseball, infosec, privacy & devops are a few of my favorite things.

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