Religion reigned for many centuries in Europe. Since its triumph as a domineering religion of the Late Roman Empire, Christian dogmas and premises determined the political and social life of Europe right up till the Age of Enlightenment. However, the intensive development of science prompted people to question the tenets of religion and the social order that grew to become unbearable. In Sources of the Western Tradition, Marvin Perry offers excerpts from the writings of the writers and philosophes from that time to let students get a taste of primary sources and the original ideas. Although the Age of Enlightenment introduced changes in many spheres of human life such as politics, literature, philosophy, and others, it was made possible due to a triumph of reason and science over faith and religion.
For a long time Europe placed God and religion at the centre of its political and social order. Kings and the Church ruled over the nations in a tight union. A dominant religion ousted and oppressed all the other religions and denominations. For example, the Catholic Louis XIV announced Protestantism illegal and it led to the prosecutions of the French Protestants. In Denmark, the ruling religion was Calvinism and non-Calvinists could be announced heretics and thrown into prison without a trial. Furthermore, Catholic countries used to take Jewish children away from their families and baptize them. Any attempts to think outside the accepted religious dogmas were nipped in the bud.
Under the oppression of clerical absolutism, people were discouraged to think independently and come their own conclusion. Even scientific discoveries were questioned and could be rejected by clericals, as was the case with Giordano Bruno and his theory of the round Earth. However, the Age of Scientific Revolution eventually firmly introduced the idea that as much as the Universe has order and structure, everything in society and its political and social order should have them.
There were many drawbacks and weaknesses in the Europe of the late seventeenth century, but religion received a prevailing number of attacks from the philosophes. They viewed religion as a source of prejudice, superstition, and narrow-mindedness. One of the most ardent critics of religious dogma and fanatism was Voltaire, French philosopher and freethinker. Denouncing fanatism that led to witch trials, prosecutions, and cold-blood killings of those who think and believe differently, Voltaire reminds in his writings that the Christians first of all should be tolerant because people of any ethnicity and nationality are created by God. Voltaire writes: “Tolerance has never brought civil war; intolerance has covered the earth with carnage”. Voltaire was a man of great wit and he always pointed at inconsistencies or a lack of logics in the claims of the clergy. For example, he aptly remarked that if they take it as “a crime not to believe in the dominant religion” than it is an accusation against Christians first of all, because this is the way their religion was established and eventually rooted.
However, all these attacks on religion do not necessarily mean that the leaders of the Enlightenment were atheists. For example, Voltaire believed in God as a creator of the wisely built Universe but he opposed those manifestations of religion which were not logical or defied common sense. For example, Voltaire believed that witch hunts and slaughters of believers of another faith were the examples of ugly excesses of religious fanatism. Voltaire mockingly shows the pettiness of the fanatics’ claims saying that they accuse others of: “[speaking] disrespectfully ten years ago of Tobit’s dog, which [they] asserted to have been a spaniel, while I proved that it was a greyhound. I will denounce you as the enemy of God and man!”. This way Voltaire highlights how petty and insignificant are the quibbles and quarrels among the Christians.
It is not difficult to understand why people of that time were so prone to the tenets of religion. It prohibited free thinking and strictly limited people’s life. From some perspective, it is easier for people to do as they are said that to find their own path in life. The Enlightenment attempted to make people free and show them that no one had the right to think for them. All people are to think for themselves and be their own masters. Immanuel Kant expressed the philosophy of the Age of the Enlightenment best of all in his work “What is Enlightenment?”. Kant highlighted that with the age of reason people have no excuse for being immature, which is not using one’s own intellectual powers to make decisions about one’s life. To this effect, Kant urged people to stop relying on books (meaning the Bible), clergymen, doctors, and so on. Despite the obvious difficulty that maturity entangles, people are encouraged to exercise the power of their own thinking and reason from now on.
The free thinkers of the Enlightenment applied the measure of reason and scientific logics to the traditional religious dogmas such as the Virgin Birth, the identity of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and so on. In “The Age of Reason,” Thomas Paine stated that as he has no proves of the resurrection of Christ or the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception “without any cohabitation with a man” other than other people’s testimonies, he is not able to believe them. He calls all stories in the Bible “hearsay upon hearsay” and argues that it is impossible to believe them as they are not told by the direct participants but only from the reported words of other people. Besides, Paine adds that all the events described in the Bible happened to the Jews and they insist that they are “not true”. Moreover, it is impossible to believe these stories. From the tenets of logics Voltaire also attempts to understand the concept of the Trinity and fails. To this effect, Voltaire concludes that it is impossible to understand and all unrest and religious wrestling the Christians take upon themselves is in vain: “The Christians tricked, caviled, hated, and excommunicated one another, for some of these dogmas inaccessible to human intellect”.
Thus, the philosophes of the Enlightenment rejected God’s will as a preliminary condition of the political and social order and instead relied on reason. They believed that proper education will guide people and help them build their inner strength and understanding of what they should do and how they should live their lives. In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke argued that there is no point in pondering over purely theological issues. Rather people should exercise their minds in solving practical issues and striving to make their lives happier. Locke stated that a human being is tabula rasa, “white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas” and it depends on people’s education what ideas and concepts would be planted in their minds. Rejecting the Christian concept of original sin, Locke believed that people are not born sinful. Rather they become so under the influence of their environment, which again stressed the importance of education and the circle.
Inasmuch as the Christian thought permeated all the spheres of people’s life, Denis Diderot criticized its sexual prudence and the consequential sexual deviations in “Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville” arguing that the Christian sexual mores go against people’s natural inclinations and nature. Through the words of Tahitian Chief Orou Diderot writes, “I find these strange precepts contrary to nature, and contrary to reason … contrary to the general order of things”. Knowing to which indecencies the vow of chastity pushes clergy and how common people might find it difficult to stay faithful to only one person throughout all their life, Diderot sums up the Christian sexual mores as the ones which “reduce human beings to a worse condition than that of the animal”.
These kinds of thinking eventually resulted in the formation of a secular society in Europe. People found it possible to gather outside of churches and the development of sciences created new places for socialization and discussion of new ideas initiated by the Enlightenment such as educational institutions. The ideas advocated by Voltaire, Diderot, Locke, Paine, and Kant became the basis for the free and secular society. The Age of Enlightenment signal the new period when religion was not blindly followed and obeyed but where people believed they had right to choose what to believe and how to worship. Together with the growing literacy of common people the ideas of the Enlightenment became more wide-spread. In terms of happiness, the Age of Enlightenment allowed people to be happier, which does not mean that all people used this possibility but at least they could agree and come to understanding that sin is not inherent to their natures and their brain power could be spent for solving pragmatic, everyday tasks such as how to live their lives happy and fulfilled.