Philosophy, politics, and psychology Developments in philosophy during this period also reinforced the secular progression. During the scientific revolution and the early Enlightenment, religion still had a hold on philosophers but this was rapidly changing. In preference to biblical Christianity, Enlightenment deists like Voltaire argued in favor of a “rational religion” or a “natural religion”, one that is compatible to the rational apprehension of the order of nature, the requirement of a first cause, but also the West’s encounter with other religions and cultures which suggested a universal sensibility to religion as a common human experience. In this context, Christianity could not longer hold center stage. Newtons’ cosmic architecture demanded a cosmic architect but the attributes of such a God could only be derived from an empirical examination of his creation, not from dogma or pronouncements of revelation. Early religious conceptions - primitive, biblical, ad medieval – were merely infantile steps towards a more modern understanding of a rational deity presiding over an orderly creation.
But even this rational reconceptualization of God was soon to lose philosophical support. Descartes had God’s existence proven not by faith but by reason, yet reason could not indefinitely sustain God’s certain existence, as Hume and Kant culminating the Enlightenment, suggested in different ways. Much as Ockham warned four centuries earlier rational philosophy could not presume to pronounce on matters that transcended the empirically based intellect (reason). Locke had followed Bacon in rooting all knowledge of the world in sensory experience, and subsequent reflection on that experience. Locke’s own inclinations were deist, and he retained Descartes certainty that God’s existence could be logical proven from self-evident intuitions. But the empiricism Locke championed necessarily limited reason’s capacity for knowledge to that tested in experience. As successive philosophers drew more rigorous conclusions from the empiricist basis, it became clear that they could not make justifiable assertions about God, the immortality of the soul, and human freedom all of which transcended human experience.
Hume and Kant (in the 18th c) systematically refuted rational philosophical arguments for God’s existence, pointing out the unwarrantability of using causal reasoning to move from the sensible to the super-sensible. Only the realm of concrete particulars registered in the senses offered valid ground for philosophical conclusions. Hume who was entirely a secular thinker and unequivocal in his skepticism, the matter was simple enough: To argue from problematic evidence of the senses to the existence of a good and omnipotent God is philosophically absurd. But even Kant, though highly religious himself and intent on preserving the moral imperative of Christian conscience, nevertheless recognized that Descartes’ had stopped short in his philosophical skepticism with his dogmatic assertion that God exists as derived from the cogito. For Kant, God was thinkable but unknowably transcendent. God was thinkable (noumenal) in our reflection on our inner sense of moral duty, but God could not be known. Neither reason nor observation could give us any direct knowledge of God. Man could have faith in God, he could believe in the soul’s immortality and in his own freedom, but he could not claim that these “thinkables” were rationally certain. For the rigorous modern philosopher, metaphysical certainties about God etc., were spurious, lacking sound basis in verification. The inevitable outcome of empiricism and critical philosophy (Kant) was to eliminate any theological substrate from modern philosophy.
At the same time, the bolder thinkers of the French Enlightenment (philosophes) tended towards not only skepticism but also atheistic materialism as the most justified of scientific discoveries. Diderot, the chief editor of the Encyclopedia which was the Enlightenment’s greatest project of cultural educational, showed in his own life the transition from religious belief to deism to skepticism and finally to materialism jointly with deistic ethics. La Mettrie, the physician, portrayed man as a purely material entity, an organic machine whose illusion of possessing an independent soul/mind was produced simply by the interplay of material components. The ethical consequence of materialistic philosophy was of course hedonism and La Mettrie did not fail to advocate hedonism. The physicist Baron d’Holbach was similarly a materialist, declared religious belief an absurdity in the face of experience and, given all the evil in the world, claimed that any God must be deficient in power or else in justice and compassion. On the other hand, the seemingly random occurrence of good and evil in the world was entirely in accord with a materialistic, mechanistic universe; what is necessary is atheism in order to destroy religious fantasy that endangered the human race. We need to bring back reason, nature and experience.
It was the 19th c that would bring the Enlightenment secular progression to its logical conclusion in Comte, Mill, Feuerbach, Marx, Haeckel, Spencer, Huxley, and in a rather different spirit, Nietzsche, all sounded the death knell of religion. The claim was that the Judaic-Christian religion was a product of man’s own creation and this need for that creation had dwindled with humankind’s maturation. History could be understood as a progression from a mythical- theological stage, through a metaphysical and abstract stage, to its final triumph in science which is positive and concrete. “Positive” in the sense that it is only this perceptible world and man in it that is demonstrable, sensible, and real. All metaphysical speculation about higher spiritual realities is nothing but idle intellectual fantasy and a disservice to humankind. The task of this age is to humanize God who was a mere projection of human inner nature. One could, as Kant did, speak of the “unknowable” behind the phenomenal universe but that was the extent. Science held the universe and man in it to be “natural” and coming to terms with “nature” as science does is the only hope for humankind. Of course, the question remained as to what or who initiated this whole phenomenal universe, but intellectual honesty precluded any speculation in this regard. The answer to the question was epistemologically beyond man’s ken and given that there is yet so much to be known, beyond his current interest. With Descartes and Kant the relationship between science and religion was effectively attenuated and by the late 19th c even this attenuated relation was absent.
Of course, there were many other non-epistemological factors contributing to the secularization of the modern mind: political, social, economic, and psychological. Even prior to the industrial revolution had demonstrated science’s superior utilitarian value, other cultural developments had recommended the scientific view over the religious. The scientific revolution was born amidst the immense turmoil and the destruction of the wars of religion that followed the Reformation, wars in the name of divergent Christian absolutism that had caused over one century of crisis in Europe. As a result many doubted the integrity of Christian understanding and its ability to foster relative peace and security in Europe, let alone universal compassion. Lutheran, Zwinglian, Calvinist, Anabaptist, Anglican, Puritan or RC they broke up any sense of religious universality and created space for a less controversial, subjective, and more rationally persuasive belief system. Thus, the neutral and empirically verifiable world view of secular science soon found an ardent reception at least among the educated classes – one that could cut across political and religious boundaries. Just as the last revulsions of post-Reformational bloodshed were being expended, the scientific revolution was approaching completion. The final decade of the Thirty-Years War (1638-1648) saw the completion of Galileo’s Dialogue concerning two new sciences and Descartes’ Principle of philosophy, as well as the birth of Newton.
Political circumstances also played a role in the modern shift away from religion. For centuries there had been the fateful association of the hierarchical Christian worldview and the established social-political structure of feudal Europe centering on the authority of God, pope and king. By the 18th c this association had become mutually disadvantageous. The growing implausibility of religion and the injustices of the political order combined to produce the image of a senile syste, that demanded revolt for the good of humanity. The French philosophes – Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet and their successors – saw the church and its wealth as allied with conservative forces of the ancient regime. To the philosophes, the power of the organized clergy posed the obstacle to progress in civilization. The issue of economic and social exploitation, censorship, intolerance, and intellectual rigidity was all attributed to the dogmatic pretensions and vested interests of the ecclesiastical establishment.
Voltaire has seen and admired first hand the consequences of the Enlightenment religious toleration which along with the intellectual clarifications of Bacon, Locke, and Newton he presented to the continent for emulation. Armed with science, reason, and empirical facts the Enlightenment saw itself as engaged in a noble struggle against the conflicting forces of the medieval church and tyrannical political structure and corrupt privilege. The cultural authority of dogmatic religion was seen as inherently inimical to personal freedom and unhampered intellectual speculation and discovery. Hence, the religious sensibility – except for a rationalized form of deism – was antagonistic to human freedom. [The composition of the clergy in France also played a complex role in these developments. The clergy’s upper ranks were typically occupied by the aristocracy’s younger sons whose entire lifestyle was indistinguishable from that of the aristocracy. The church seemed less interested in salvation than in the maintaining the orthodoxy of political advantage. Further complicating this was the fact that the clergy began to embrace Enlightenment rationalism thereby strengthening the forces within the church. See The Columbia History of the World, Ed. P. Gay and J. A. Garraty, Harper & Row, 1972.] Yet one philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserted a very different view. Like the others he argues with critical reason and reformist zeal, yet the Enlightenment progress they celebrated was to him a great evil. Man suffered from civilization’s corrupt progress that alienated him from nature, from simplicity, sincerity, quality, kindness, and genuine understanding. Besides, Rousseau believed that religion was intrinsic to the human condition. He contended that the philosophes exaltation of reason has in fact neglected man’s actual nature, his feeling, depth of impulse and intuition, and spiritual hunger that transcended all abstraction. Rousseau had no love for the church or clergy and he rejected all forms of worship as absurd. Yet he understood that the mediation of theological dogma, priestly hierarchies, and hostile sectarianism, humanity could learn to worship the Creator by turning towards nature – for it is in nature that there was sublimity. The rationally demonstrable God of the deist was unacceptable for the love of God and the awareness of morality dependent on feeling not reason. The deity that Rousseau recognized was a God of love and beauty whom the human soul could know from within. Reverent awe before the cosmos, the joy of meditative solitude, the direct intuition of moral conscience, the natural spontaneity of human compassion, and the theism of the heart – it was these that constituted the true nature of religion.
Rousseau set forth an immensely influential position beyond those of church orthodoxy and the skeptical philosophes by combining the religiosity of the former with the rational reformism of the latter, yet critical of both because one threatened narrowness of dogma and the other the abstractness of reason. Herein lay the seeds of contradictory developments. As Rousseau affirmed man’s religious nature he also encouraged modern sensibility in its gradual departure from Christian orthodoxy. He gave rational support to the lingering religious impulse of the modern mind, yet in doing so he asserted the Enlightenments’ undermining of the Christian tradition. Rousseau’s embrace of religion whose essence was universal rather than exclusive, whose ground was in nature and human subjective emotions and mystical intuitions rather than Biblical revelation, initiated a spiritual current in Western culture that would lead to Romanticism and eventually to existentialism.
Thus, whether it was the anti-clerical deism of Voltaire, the rational skepticism of Diderot, the agnostic empiricism of Hume, the atheistic materialism of Holbach, or the natural mysticism and emotional religiosity of Rousseau, the 18th c saw a decline in the influence of Christianity in many progressive Europeans. By the 19th c both organized religion and the religious impulse itself had been subjected to Karl Marx and astute social political critique, as well as a prophetically directed impulse in a revolutionary direction. Marx’ reductive analysis that all ideas and cultural forms were merely materially motivated, specifically in the class struggle, also included religion beliefs and ideas. Despite their high-minded dogma the church seldom seemed to concern itself with the plight of the poor. This seeming contradiction Marx suggested what inherent to the church’s character, for the true role of religion was to keep the lower classes in order. The social opiate of religion in effect served to maintain the ruling class to keep the masses from rebelling against exploitation and injustice which was everywhere by giving the masses a false sense of security of divine providence and the false promise of eternal life. Organized religion according to Marx served as one element in the Bourgeoisie’s control of society in its own interest. To speak of God and to lull the proletariat into complacency was to betray humankind. Any genuine philosophy of action, Marx held, must begin with human need, and to address human need one must first rid oneself of delusion – and religion was such a pernicious delusion.
Of course there were more moderate voices as well. 19th c liberalism also argued for the reduction of organized religion in the political and intellectual life of Western society and did so by promoting a pluralism of freedom of belief consonant with social order. Liberal thinkers of religious persuasion recognized not only the political necessity of freedom of worship, or not, in a liberal democracy, but they also recognized the religious necessity of such freedom. To be constrained to be religious, let alone a particular religion, could scarcely be a genuinely religious approach to life. In such a liberal and pluralistic social milieu, a more secular sensibility became commonplace. Religious tolerance eventually became religious indifference. Fewer and fewer people found the Christian faith compelling. Liberal utilitarians and radical socialists appeared to offer more programs for human betterment than traditional religions. Nor was the tenor of materialism unique to Marxism, for while capitalism had earlier aligned itself with Protestant sensibilities, the capitalist societies’ increasing preoccupation with material progress could not but help depreciate the urgency of the Christian salvational message and the spiritual enterprise in general. Thus, while religious observances continued to be widely upheld as a pillar of social integrity and civilized values these observances was often indistinguishable from the social conventions of Victorian morality. [Those who tried to serve both God and Mammon soon discover that there is no God] The Christian churches where themselves unwittingly contributors to their own demise. The RC and its counter-Reformational response to the Protestant heresy had reinforced its conservative structure and so left itself unable to respond to changes in the modern era. While RC maintained its strength among the vast number of faithful, it did so at the cost of its appeal to modern sensibility. Conversely, the Reformational response to RC had established a more anti-auythoritarian and non-centralized structure casting off institutional dogma for the literal truth of Scripture, but in doing so it tended to fray out in ever diversifying sectarianism while leaving its later membership antithetical (under the influence of scientific discoveries) to Scriptural literalism – and consequent secularism. In both cases Christianity lost much of its relevance and by the 20th c not only had many left their traditional Christian heritage but the church waned in cultural importance.
Christianity not only experienced itself as a divided but as a shrinking church in the face of the onslaught of secularism. The Christian church suddenly found itself as it did at its inception (one faith among many) in a large, sophisticated, urbanize environment: a world ambivalent about religion in general and distanced from the Christian revelation in particular. The enmities between RC and Protestantism, and between the multiple branches of the both, were now secondary to the growing secular world which became dominant. In fact, even kinship with Judaism which had been rejected by Christendom was now warmly acknowledged. In the modern secular world all religions have more in common than they have in dispute. There was a general view that this was the last remnant of Christianity and that soon it would disappear (as would all such irrationality).
But the Judaic-Christian tradition sustained itself. Millions of families continued to nurture their children in the tenets and images of the inherited Christian faith. Theologians continued to develop historically nuanced understanding of Scripture and church, and formulate more flexible and imaginative applications of religious principles to life in the modern age. The RC church began to open itself to plurality, ecumenism, and freedom in all matters of faith and dogma and worship. Efforts began to make God more immanent and evolutionary in character, more congruent with the current cosmology and intellectual trends. Prominent philosophers, scientists, artists, and writers found personal meaning and spiritual comfort in the Judaic-Christian framework. Even so the general cultural elite, and the whole of modern sensibility – of the religious child reared in skeptical and secular modern maturity – was largely otherwise.
The reason is that beyond the institutional and scriptural anachronisms discouraging the Christian faith was a more general psychological discrepancy between the traditional Judaic-Christian self-image and that of modern man. As early as the 18th-19th c the heavy taint of original sin ceased in an age of light and progress. Moreover, sin hardly could be reconciled with the scientific conception of man. The traditional image of the Semitic-Augustinian-Protestant God, who creates man too weak to withstand evil temptation, and who predestines the majority of humankind to eternal damnation with little consideration for their good works or honest effort at virtue, ceased to be palatable or plausible to sensitive members of modern culture. There was an internal liberation from religious guilt and fear (consistent with the secular worldview) just as there was an earlier external liberation from the oppressive church-dominated political and social structures. It also became clear that the human spirit was expressed in secular life, or it was not expressed at all, and so any division between secular and spiritual fell away with the result that both were impoverished. To locate the human spirit in this world rather than transcendentally, was to subvert that spirit altogether.
It was Friedrich Nietzsche’s “death of God” that culminated the long evolution in the Western psyche and foreshadowed the existential moods of the 20th c. With ruthless perceptiveness, Nietzsche held up a dark mirror to the soul of Christianity (Christianity’s attitudes and values opposed man’s existential situation, his body, the earth, to courage and heroism, to joy and freedom, and to life itself): “they would have to sing better songs to me that I might believe in their redeemer; his disciples would have to look more redeemed”. Many agreed. Nietzsche did not just reject religion as an illusion rather he proclaimed the demise of an entire civilization which had too long held man back from a daring, liberating embrace of life’s totality.
With Freud the modern psychological evaluation of religion achieved a new level of systematic and penetrating theoretical analysis. The discovery of the unconscious and of the human psyche’s tendency to project traumatic memories unto later experiences opened up a crucially new dimension to the critical understanding of religious beliefs. In the light of psychoanalysis the Judaic-Christian God became a reified psychological projection based on the child’s naïve view of its libidinally restrictive and seemingly omnipotent parent. Conceived in this way many aspects of religious behavior and belief appeared comprehensible as symptoms of a deeply rooted culturally obsessive-compulsive neurosis. The projection of a morally authoritative patriarchal deity could be seen as having been a social necessity in the earlier stage so human development by satisfying the psyche’s need for a powerful external force to undergird society’s ethical requirements. In having internalized those requirements, the psychologically mature individual could recognize projection for what it is and dispense with it.
An important role in the devaluation of traditional religion was also played by the issue of sexual experience. With the rise in the 20th c of a broadly-minded secular and psychological informed perspective, the long-held Christian ideal of asexual and anti-sexual asceticism seemed symptomatic more of cultural and personal psychoneurosis that of eternal spiritual law. Medieval practices such as mortification of the flesh were recognized as pathological aberrations rather than saintly exercises. The sexual attitudes of the Victorian era were seen as parochial inhibitions. Both the Puritan Protestant and the RC traditions continued restrictiveness in sexual matters, particularly its prohibition of contraception, and this served to alienate thousand from the fold. The demands and delights of Eros (pleasure of the flesh) made traditional religious attitudes seem unhealthily constraining. As Freud’s insights became part of the modern ethic of personal liberty and self-realization, a powerful Dionysian impulse arose in the West. Even for staid sensibilities it made little sense to repress part of our being human, our physical being, that was not only our evolutionary inheritance but our existential foundation. Modern man committed himself to this world with all the entailments of such a choice.
Finally, even the long schooling of the Western mind in the Christian value system served to undermine Christianity in the modern era. From the Enlightenment onward, the Western mind developed a social conscience, recognized unconscious prejudices and injustices, and won historical knowledge that all shed new light on the Christian religion over the centuries. The Christian injunction to love and serve humanity, it high value placed on the individual soul now stood in sharp contract to the long Christian history of bigotry, violent intolerance, forcible conversions, ruthless suppression of other cultural perspectives, persecution of heretics, crusades against the Muslims, oppression of the Jews, depreciation of women’s spirituality, exclusion of women from ecclesiastical office, association with slavery and colonialist exploitation, and all kinds of religious arrogance against those outside the fold. Measured by its own standards, Christianity fell woefully short of ethical greatness, and many alternative systems, from the Stoics to modern liberalism and socialism seemed to do as well.