Providing a full exposition of the classical philosophical and sociological theories of religion, this book covers the major thinkers from the time of the 18th century Enlightenment through the 20th century. It discusses virtually all classical works, providing chapters on each participant in either historical or chronological order, so that readers understand how insight developed through time. For those involved in religious study and the philosophical and sociological implications of religious writings.
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This chronologically organized book offers readers the opportunity to examine the development of religious thinking from the 18th-century Enlightenment through the 20th century. The contributions of all of the major social thinkers are considered in this thoughtful and integrative look at the classical roots of religious thought.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It was in the course of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that social thinkers began to study religion from a rational, scientific, and critical standpoint. The thinkers of the Enlightenment held firmly to the conviction that the mind could comprehend the forces of nature and that humans could control those forces and employ them for their needs. Reason became the deity of these philosophers, who were enormously inspired by the scientific achievements of the preceding centuries, notably by the discoveries of Newton based on logic and empirical evidence.
Science in the hands of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton had revealed the workings of the natural laws in the physical world. This suggested to social philosophers that perhaps similar laws might be discoverable in the social and cultural world. The French thinkers, called philosophes, therefore proceeded to analyze all social, political, and religious institutions, subjecting them to merciless criticism from the standpoint of reason. For the philosophes, institutions were reasonable only so long as they harmonized with human nature, only so long as they promoted the perfectibility of the individual. Unreasonable institutions prevented human beings from realizing their potential. The philosophes therefore waged an intellectual war against the irrational, employing criticism as their primary weapon. They fought against superstition, bigotry, and intolerance; they condemned censorship and demanded freedom of thought; they attacked the privileges of the monarchy and the feudal classes and their restraints upon the commercial and manufacturing classes; and they endeavored to secularize ethics and morality. In a word, their faith in reason and science led them to be humanitarian, optimistic, and confident.
To appreciate what was distinctively novel about the Enlightenment as an intellectual movement, we need to see how it contrasted with the medieval outlook. The medieval aim in seeking knowledge was to discover God's intentions for his creation. Even the most rational of the medieval thinkers conceded that there were sacred areas into which they must not venture, spheres in which revelation, faith, and ecclesiastical authority offered the answers and gave the orders. Scientific curiosity as applied to those spheres was an unwelcome intrusion into holy ground. It was this inviolable domain of the sacred that distinguished the Middle Ages at their most scientific and skeptical moments from the later ages of criticism. The medieval mind was dominated by the church, literally, intellectually, and emotionally. In contrast to the medieval era, the thinkers of the Enlightenment regarded all aspects of human life and works as subject to critical examination.
In their attitude toward religion as toward other institutions, there was diversity among these thinkers. One must not think of the Enlightenment as a monolith. Some of these thinkers were, ostensibly, agnostic. Montesquieu, for example, argued that if there is a God, he must necessarily be just. For Montesquieu, a "law," whether in nature or in society, referred to "the necessary relations deriving from the nature of things." It followed, for Montesquieu, that "justice is a true relation between two things: the relation is always the same, no matter who examines it, whether it be God, or an angel, or lastly man himself."1 Aiming thus to secularize ethics and morality, Montesquieu continues: "Thus if there were no God, we would still be obliged to venerate justice, that is, we should do everything possible to resemble that being of whom we have such an exalted notion and who, if he exists, would necessarily be just. Free though we might be from the yoke of religion, we should never be free from the bonds of equity" (106).
Others among the Enlightenment thinkers were thoroughgoing materialists and atheists. Baron d'Holbach, for instance, contended that the unavoidable verdict of common sense upon religious views is that they have no foundation; "that all religion is an edifice in the air; that theology is only the ignorance of natural causes reduced to system; that it is a long tissue of chimeras and contradictions" (.141). For Holbach, there is only one criterion by which to assess a system of morals, and that is whether it conforms to human nature and needs. If it conforms, it is good; if it fails to conform, it should be rejected as contrary to the well-being of our species. Hence, for Holbach, there is no reason to suppose that an atheist cannot have a moral conscience.
La Mettrie was another materialist and- atheist who published a book entitled Man a Machine. "The human body," he proposed, "is a machine which winds itself up" (205). Employing this mechanistic metaphor, La Mettrie held that all talk about a soul separate from the body is nonsense. Without food the soul pines away and dies together with the body.
But there were also prominent Enlightenment thinkers who retained a religious outlook. In a letter to Ezra Stiles, a fellow member of the American Philosophical Society and president of Yale College, Benjamin Franklin stated his own personal creed: "I believe in one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this" (166).
Thomas Paine also retained a personal religious creed, the essentials of which he stated in The Age of Reason:
I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond
I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious
duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make
our fellow-creatures happy . . . .
I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by
the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by
the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind
is my own church. (175)
If we compare the forms the Enlightenment assumed in Britain, America, Germany, and France, there can be no doubt that it was in France that the conflict of the Enlightenment with the Establishment became the most intense and dramatic. Typically, it was the French philosophe who was most uncompromising in his opposition to the old regime—the monarchy, the nobility, and the church. The philosophes tore down the old regime intellectually, thus paving the way for its actual destruction by the revolution of 1789.
In France more than elsewhere the struggle between the philosophes and the old regime became especially harsh. The issues were not only social and political but also religious. Indeed, often the religious issues were the most salient. In mid-eighteenth-century France two bitterly opposed camps confronted one another. On the one side stood the authoritarian and intolerant Catholic Church, and on the other stood the predominantly irreligious philosophes.
It is in this context that the writings of Rousseau on religion stand out as distinctive and extraordinarily significant. Most of Rousseau's friends among the philosophes were anti-Christian deists or even atheists. The atheists, as we have seen, proposed that one can reject the belief in God and yet possess a conscience and conduct oneself in accordance with the basic ethical and moral principles. The materialists and atheists denied the existence of an ethical Deity and Teacher but nevertheless accepted the moral principles that originated in the belief in such a Deity. Rousseau, however, discerned certain disturbing implications in the more extreme materialist views: Do not such views carry with them the danger of leading to a moral vacuum or to moral relativism? If we may state what disturbed Rousseau in the words of a later thinker, it would be: "If God is dead, is everything permitted?" This is, of course, the question Dostoyevsky addressed in criticism of the proto-Nietzschean characters he had created in his great philosophical novels. So it was in opposition to the extreme materialist views of his time that Rousseau sought to clarify and formulate his own religious outlook.
Rousseau's writings on religion deserve special attention for another reason. Although he shared certain Enlightenment principles, he also anticipated several key ideas of the so-called Romantic-Conservative Reaction. This was an early nineteenth-century intellectual movement that emerged as a critical response to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The Romantic thinkers turned away from what they considered the naive optimism and rationalism of the eighteenth century. They did so not only by recognizing the irrational factors in human conduct but also by assigning them positive value. Tradition, imagination, feeling, and religion were now regarded as natural and positive. Deploring the disorganizing consequences of the French Revolution, the Romantic and Conservative thinkers attributed those consequences to the folly of the revolutionaries who had uncritically accepted Enlightenment assumptions and had attempted to reorder society according to rational principles alone.
In reaction to the eighteenth-century exaltation of reason, the nineteenth century therefore extolled emotion and imagination, leading in that way to a great revival of religion, poetry, and art. Moreover, in opposition to the Enlightenment's elevation of the individual, the Romantics elevated the group, the community, and the nation as the most highly valued concepts. Historic memories and loyalties were viewed as binding the individual to a nation, a category now raised to a position of supreme importance. Gone was the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment. Increasingly, the nineteenth century turned to the investigation of the origins of existing institutions rather than to their transformation according to rational principles. A historical outlook emerged in which more than ever before institutions were regarded as the product of slow, organic development, and not of deliberate, rational, calculated construction.
Although the Romantic movement was evident throughout Europe, its form varied from one country to another. In England and especially in Germany, the movement reflected a strong national reaction to the radicalism of the Enlightenment as it manifested itself in the Revolution and Napoleonic expansionism. In general, the Enlightenment conception of a rational, mechanistic universe was now rejected. In every area of culture—literature, art, music, philosophy, and religion—an effort was made to free the emotions and the imagination from the austere rules and conventions imposed during the eighteenth century. In religion, the importance of inner experience was restored; in philosophy, the mind was assigned a creative role in shaping the world.
This movement, beginning with the writings of Rousseau and Hume and developing further with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, expressed a shift in emphasis from the mechanistic universe of Newton to the creative character of the personality. The aim of this movement was to liberate the mind from the purely rationalist mode of thinking. Rousseau was a pioneer in that regard. He was less inclined than most of his colleagues among the philosophes to counsel the reconstruction of society in accordance with abstract, rational principles alone. Inner moral will, conscience, and conviction were for him also important for human liberation.
The foregoing historical background will prove to be useful in our later discussion of Hegel and his critics. Indeed, because Hegel, the Left-Hegelians, Marx, Nietzsche, and Max Weber were German intellectuals, we shall need to provide more background, showing how the Enlightenment and the Romantic Reaction expressed themselves in the German context. First, however, we need a full exposition of Rousseau's religious philosophy, which is important not only in its own right but also because it profoundly influenced Hegel and other thinkers considered in later chapters.
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