The Enlightenment proves to be an important period in recent history for those interested in the Science-Religion debate. It was a movement that first came into fruition within 17th and 18th century Europe. Most notably associated with this movement were the French philosophers Voltaire, Rene Descartes, and Denis Diderot who all helped in spreading the Enlightenment’s ideas.
According to theologian and professor Tina Beattie, “The Enlightenment is a broad term which refers to a range of political and intellectual transformations in European and American society in the eighteenth century… Not only did this involve a dramatic transformation in Christian cosmology, but perhaps more importantly it set in motion a gradual shift away from the authority of religion to the authority of science in the production of knowledge” (1). Philosopher Mitch Stokes similarly explains that, “We might even summarize the Enlightenment the way philosopher Karl Popper did: as liberation, that is, “self-emancipation through knowledge.” But what exactly were the shackles? In a word, religion. Not that all Enlightenment thinkers were atheists; many were deists (of course, many were still Christians). But a sizeable portion of them saw organized religion as oppressive and overbearing, an intellectual dictatorship, and so they sought the freedom to think for themselves” (2).
Thus according to the Enlightenment ideals it was as the only reliable source of knowledge. Truth would now be discovered not through reflection on God’s universe but rather through an increasing emphasis on the power of reason to order and control the material world. This “signalled the end of the conjoined power of Christianity and the European monarchies, the birth of Western democracy and the rise of the modern nation state. It paved the way for the nineteenth-century triumph of science over religion, and it still provides the foundations for the scientific rationalism of today’s new atheists” (3).
The Enlightenment ideals of science trumps religion continues today. For example, several influential atheists are part of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), the largest atheist advocacy group. According to FFRF their aim is to protect “the constitutional principle of the separation of state and church.” One way to support this cause is to buy a bumper sticker with their slogan “In Reason We Trust” on it. Members of this group include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne, Steven Pinker, Rebecca Goldstein, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Moreover, another group called the Academy of Humanism is an organization of unbelievers “devoted to free inquiry in all fields of human endeavor.” They claim to be “committed to a scientific outlook and the use of scientific methods in acquiring knowledge.” Notable members include (past and present) Richard Rorty, Lawrence Krauss, Dawkins, Pinker, Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Hitchens, Antony Flew, J. J. C. Smart, and Philip Kitcher.
Although this influence still seems to exist today we note, explains Beattie, that “dusk is falling on the Enlightenment era, not least because of the emergence of a plurality of religious and cultural narratives which challenge the hegemony of the Western intellectual tradition” (4).
1. Beattie, T. 2008. The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion.
2. Stokes, M. How to be an Atheist. p. 26 (Scribd ebook format)
3. Beattie, T. 2008. Ibid.
4. Beattie, T. 2008. Ibid.