The Disenchantment of the World, Part 4: The Enlightenment


On this rather elliptical path towards looking at religion as role-playing, we’ve looked at the religious milieu of the ancient Greco-Roman world, the origins of monotheism, and why it replaced paganism.  Many aspects of pagan belief remained, of course, under a (sometimes extremely thin) Christian veneer, and sometimes more or less openly as various types of folk practice and superstition.  Still, Christianity was on the whole dominant for nearly a millennium and a half after it conquered pagan Rome.  What struck a blow from which Christianity has never completely recovered, and which began the disenchantment of the world in earnest, was the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment is the period beginning at about the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th Century in which a new focus on reason and secularism began to be manifested in Western and Central European society, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe.  It’s always hard to give a concise definition of a complex phenomenon such as the Enlightenment, but the following points can serve as a beginning.  The Enlightenment was characterized by

  1. An emphasis on human reason, as opposed to Divine revelation.
  2. A focus on science and the scientific method.
  3. A call for political and social equality:  that is, democracy over monarchy, the intrinsic equality of all classes and nationalities, and even the beginnings of equality between the genders.
  4. A call for political and religious liberty:  Established religions were to be opposed, freedom of religion and association were promoted, and people were to be free to change their governments if need be.
  5. A desire to put human reason and science to work in improving human society, especially by rationalistic and technocratic means.
  6. An emphasis on the individual over the collective.
  7. A suspicion of organized religion and a tendency towards Deism and anti-clericalism.
  8. Optimism and (to some extent) utopianism as to the prospects of improving society; and a tendency to view the past as primitive, superstitious, and obscurantist, and the future as the realm of glorious possibility.

I think those points are a fair outline of the Enlightenment worldview.  It’s very clear from points 1 ,2, 5, and 8 why the Enlightenment resulted in so much disenchanting of the world; but before I go on with that, I think we need to look at the context of the Enlightenment, lest we misunderstand what followed.

The Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517, ushered in a period of almost two hundred years of religious warfare in Western and Central Europe.  There were the Wars of Religion in France, between the Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots; there was low-grade conflict in England as the throne shifted back and forth between Protestants and Catholics, punctuated by the bloody English Civil War; and there was a wide array of wars on the Continent.  The worst of these was the Thirty Years’ War, from 1618 to 1648, in which most of the Continental European powers were involved.  It began as a conflict between Catholic and Protestant states in Germany, but spread to engulf most of Central Europe.  Ironically, over the course of time, alliances shifted, with Protestant states sometimes allying with Catholic states against other Protestant states, and Catholic states sometimes allying with Protestant states against other Catholic states.  By its end, the Thirty Years’ War claimed somewhere between three and eleven million lives, through direct war casualties and associated famine and plague.  Some parts of Central Europe lost nearly a third of their population.  In a sense, the Thirty Years’ War was the first taste of world war.

The Thirty Years’ War was finally ended by the Peace of Westphalia.  An important principle to come out of this was the doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio–“Whoever’s region it is, [let it be] his religion.”  In other words, every state would take as its official religion the religion of its ruler.  Thus France remained Catholic (narrowly–Protestant King Henry IV, after much conflict, converted to Catholicism, with his famous–or infamous–remark, “Paris is well worth a Mass!”), Great Britain remained Protestant, specifically Church of England, the Scandinavian countries became Lutheran, the various German states split between Catholic and Lutheran, and so on.  This secured the peace, and set the religious complexion of Europe for the next several centuries.  In the long run, though, it set the stage for the Enlightenment, which in turn set the stage for the decline of Christianity in all its forms.

By the 18th Century, the last religious wars were tapering off and Europe was exhausted by them.  The intelligentsia had become disgusted with organized religion.  The religion of Christ was theoretically a doctrine of Divine love in which all members are to be as brothers and sisters to each other, taking care of “the least of these”.  This members of this faith, though–or at least those who claimed to represent it on Earth–had just completed two centuries of vigorously massacring each other with wanton abandon.  When it had become clear that neither the Catholic nor Protestant side could prevail, the same representatives, who had previously fought so that truth (as they saw it) could prevail, cynically ditched truth for a scheme where the ruler would impose his faith on everyone else.  Who could blame anyone for skepticism about the institutional church in any of its manifestations?  Meanwhile, there was the stirring of what would become a trickle and then a flood of new scientific understanding of the world and inventions that were byproducts of that science.  The disillusionment with the Christian religion, coupled with the vast progress being made in the natural and applied sciences, served to turn the emphasis of the educated classes away from traditional faith and toward logic, reason, and empiricism.

The intellectual class of Enlightenment Europe did not abandon faith altogether.  Rather, there was a movement, both in Catholic and Protestant countries, towards various forms of Deism.  Deism must be distinguished from theism, though both terms come respectively from the Latin and Greek for “god”.  All the various flavors of theism posit a God (or gods) which are personal, anthropomorphic to some extent (at least as we relate to them), and who are active in the world–i.e., they not only create the world, but they interact with humans, hear prayers, give revelation, and so on.  The Deist conception of God (for all forms of Deism, as far as I know, are monotheistic.  You might say that the doctrines of Epicurus were a sort of poly-deism; but that would be a stretch)  is very much different.  A Deist would say that God creates the world and then lets it continue to run according to the laws with which He endowed it, having no further interactions with it.

Several corollaries flow logically from this.  If God lets the cosmos alone after having created it, then good fortune is not a sign of His favor, nor calamity a sign of His displeasure.  Shit just happens.  If God does not interact with the world, it further follows that He doesn’t send special revelation to prophets and holy people.  Thus, no scripture is Divinely ordained–at most, world scriptures are the speculations of man in search of God.  This is why Deist Thomas Jefferson felt free to cut out the parts of the Bible he didn’t care for, while the learned of Europe became fascinated with the newly available Hindu, Buddhist, and Confucian scriptures which were just beginning to trickle into the West.  After all, if God does not reveal things directly, no religion has any claim to greater validity than any other.  Contra those who loudly claim that America was founded as a “Christian nation”, the Founders–largely Deists or Deist sympathizers–were adamant that no religion get special treatment in the new republic.  This follows with perfect logic from Deist thought.

If God, to use the common Deist metaphor, winds up the cosmos and lets it go its merry way with no further interactions, then it would also seem that He does not answer prayer, nor does He reward or punish people for their behavior.  Even Deists such as Jefferson and Voltaire were not quite willing–at least publicly–to go that far.  Such men, despite their supposedly egalitarian philosophies, tended to view the unwashed masses as needing simple doctrines to keep them in line.  They themselves, as intellectuals, as philosophes, had no such need of church attendance, Bible stories, and threats of hellfire and damnation, of course!  But those commoners–you never know about them….  It is said that once a friend of Jefferson saw him on the way to church, and gently ribbed him about it, whereupon Jefferson replied that he had to set an example.  It is said of Voltaire that he and some of his fellow philosophes were at dinner once, discussing their religious–or irreligious–beliefs as the servants came to and fro.  At one juncture, when the servants had left the room, Voltaire hissed at his fellows, “Don’t talk that way around the servants!  Do you want them to slit our throats in our sleep?”  In other words, skepticism and ridicule of organized religion was fine for the well-educated man of means; but it the hands of the rank-and-file, it was toxic.  Thus, the apostles of Enlightenment egalitarianism showed themselves as every bit as much elitist and hypocritical, in their own way, as the monarchs whom they deposed.

It’s also worth pointing out that the intellectuals of the Enlightenment were inconsistent in their own beliefs in another way.  While they denied any involvement of God with the cosmos after its initial creation, they insisted, for the most part, that God was indeed perfectly good (despite apparently having abandoned the cosmos and its creatures to their own designs); that He had implanted a natural understanding of morality in humankind, and that people could easily access this natural goodness if they just put their mind to it; that anyone could plainly see the existence of God from the magnificence of the universe He created; and that the soul was immortal and would return to the good God who made it (whether that included malefactors, or whether there’s a hell, is something they were fuzzy on).  From the perspective of pure logic, it’s hard to see how a God who creates the cosmos but can’t be bothered to fool with it thereafter would care about human morality, either, or bother to implant natural law in human minds, or lift a finger to restore them after death.  It’s hard, in fact, to look at the cosmos and declare the Deist deity unambiguously good, for that matter.  Probably this was a sort of leftover of Christian doctrines on the afterlife with a soupçon of morality and afterlife for the benefit of the masses.  In later centuries, intellectuals tended to discard even the rather thin gruel of Deism for agnosticism or outright atheism–but that was still in the future.

During the Enlightenment period itself, such Deist and rationalist attitudes remained mostly at the level of the more rarefied intelligentsia.  The mass of people were too busy with the burdens of daily life to spend much time on theological reflection; and as is often the case, ideas that begin at the elite level take some time to percolate downward.  Still, the path was set.  As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the ideas of the Enlightenment spread more widely, as country after country either deposed monarchs altogether, or neutered their authority.  Meanwhile, industrial capitalism, as Marx later pointed out, disrupted all traditional social arrangements, as former peasants began to move to the cities, seeking work in what Blake referred to as “dark satanic mills”.  In the Victorian Age, there was a revival of religion, partly as a drive to–well, actually act like Christ in serving the poor; and more cynically, to give the poor more discipline, so that they’d be better–and more productive–members of society.  The die had been cast already, though.

With each country having its own state church, religion came to be seen as almost a department of government–and afforded about as much respect at you’d expect, given that view (look at British satire of the Church of England in the 19th and early to mid 20th Centuries).  The moralizing of Victorian religion did serve a useful purpose; but it cemented in people’s minds that Christianity was only about morality.  This came back to bite Christianity–after all, if non-believers or the unchurched can prove by their actions to be equally moral, and if purported Christians, by their actions, can prove themselves equally immoral, then if Christianity is just about morals, then what good is it?  This took awhile to play out; but over time, people began to question Christian faith for just  this reason.

Meanwhile, in America, with no state religion, the field was wide open, and America became a religious marketplace.  All the churches of the Old World ended up here; but new churches, denominations, and sects started growing like weeds.  We think of the 1960’s as the time of religious ferment, hippies, communes, and fascination with Eastern spirituality; but such varied sects as Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, and Christian Science, to name a few, began in the early 1800’s; communes such as the free-love Oneida Community popped up everywhere; and worthies such as Emerson and Thoreau were already turning to Hindu thought in the pre-Civil War era.  On the one hand, with no established church, Americans were more religious by and large than Europeans, whose membership in their state churches was automatic.  Also, there have been upturns in religious enthusiasm–the Great Awakening, various revival eras, and the period of mass increase in church attendance in the post-World War II era.

On the other hand, the overall direction has been towards more religious diversity, less influence by traditional Christian churches, and, in this century, a huge dropoff in church attendance.  Part of this dropoff has in fact been fueled by religious diversity.  If you live in a country or a community in which you rarely see members of other churches or faiths, it’s easy to think of them as evil, wicked heathens/Jews/Papists/Prots/whatever.  When you live in a country such as ours where you may have friends and coworkers that are heathens/Jews/Papists/Prots/whatever, and see up close that they are people just like you, with the same hopes and fears, successes and triumphs, and such, it’s much harder to write them off as evil, benighted souls doomed to perdition.  Which is what some would call “religious indifferentism”, and decry on the grounds that it weakens faith in the One True Religion (whatever one holds that to be).  I think diversity is a good thing, but traditionalists of various stripes are in fact correct that religious diversity does tend to lead to religious indifferentism, which does tend to weaken faith.  If, for example, I see that Stanley, my Jewish friend, and Anthony, my Catholic friend, are just as decent as I am, then I’m going to see it as less vital to preserve the purity of my Presbyterian practice.  After all, Stanley and Anthony sure don’t seem like the kind of people to split Hell wide open, protestations of my strict Calvinist pastor aside.  If Pastor Bob is wrong about that–and he must be, because Stanley and Anthony are nice guys, right?–then he might well be wrong about other things, too.  Such as that I’m going to hell if I don’t go to church.

Back in Europe, the First World War–then known as the Great War–smashed the comfortable illusions of unending optimism and progress that had been humming along merrily from the Enlightenment through the early Industrial age.  Once more, the supposedly Christian states of Europe had ripped each other apart, using new methods of modern, industrial warfare that caused carnage the like of which had never been seen before.  Christianity, weakened by the Enlightenment but slightly fortified by the Victorian Age, wobbled.  The horrors of the Second World War seemed, as it were, a deathblow.  In the sixty years since then, Christianity in Europe has gone into a precipitous decline that shows no signs of ending anytime soon.  Meanwhile, the U. S. came into WW I at the tail end, and did not suffer combat on its home territory.  We were more deeply involved in WW II, of course; but once more, aside from Hawaii, those back home did not see the horrors of war experienced by the Europeans.  This, plus the huge postwar economic boom in the U.S., insulated us from many of the factors operative in Europe.  A religion in Europe declined, America remained seemingly strong in faith, becoming the most religiously observant industrial nation in the world.

Now, in this second decade of the 21st Century, we seem to be witnessing the end of American hegemony.  Like Britain a half century and more ago, we are losing our “empire”, with China positioned to become potentially the next superpower.  9/11 was a psychic shock from which Americans have not yet really recovered; we have been in state of war so long that within a couple of years young men and women enlisting in the military will be going to fight in conflicts that have been simmering to one degree or another since before they were born; and there has not been a clear and unambiguous economic recovery after the collapse of 2008.  Optimism seems a scarce commodity on the ground.  With all these factors and more in play, America, while still the most religious industrial democracy on Earth, is staring down the path pioneered almost a century ago by Europe.  Almost all Christian churches are losing membership–the more liberal “mainstream” churches more rapidly, but the more conservative churches also bleeding members.  The so-called “nones”–people of no religious affiliation (note carefully–“no religions affiliation” is not the same thing as “no religious belief“.  This is an important distinction we’ll come back to later) are a larger part of the population than ever, at nearly a fifth of the population at large, and over a third for the generations younger than forty.  What this bodes for the future, no one as yet can say.

Aside from religious decay, another effect of the Enlightenment was a further “disenchantment of the world”, to use Max Weber’s term.  Ghosts, witches, astrology, magic, folk medicine, and pretty much anything else that couldn’t be demonstrated by the rapidly advancing science of the age was dismissed as credulous folklore or ignorant superstition.  If you couldn’t see it, touch it, measure it, or mathematically quantify it, it wasn’t real.  Even in the church, scholars, mostly German Protestants, embarked on the long task of demythologizing Christianity and searching for the Historical Jesus.  What this amounted to in practice was tossing out belief in miracles and Scriptural inspiration, as it had previously been understood.  Ultimately even central doctrines of Christianity such as the divinity of Christ were questioned and sometimes discarded.  The epitome of this came with the “death of God” theology of the mid-20th Century.  As the 20th Century moved towards the 21st, many people of faith fought against despair at the thought of the decline of Christianity and Christian belief, while many atheists, secularists, and humanists rejoiced at the thought of the final victory of secularism and rationality over the dark forces of religion and superstition.

As it turned out, both sides were wrong.  The Roman poet Horace once said, “Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret,”–“You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, yet she still will hurry back.”  A famous quote misattributed to English writer G. K, Chesterton, but still a great quote for all that, is “When people lose faith, they don’t believe nothing; they believe anything.”  Between the two of them, Horace and pseudo-Chesterton explain a lot about the modern world.  Religion, as recent psychological, anthropological, and sociological research increasingly show, is hardwired into the human psyche.  Even young children, for example, tend to believe in a persistence of consciousness after death and what one might call, for lack of a better term, a supernatural aspect to reality.  Adults, no matter what their conscious religious beliefs–or lack thereof–still have a subconscious yearning for meaning.  Viktor Frankl would have said, in fact, that this search for meaning is one of the primary drives of human nature.  St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in Thee.”  Even the secular, the nonbelievers, those who do not belong to a formal religion, have, as it is sometimes put, a “God-shaped hole” in their soul.  We could use more neutral language and say a “spirituality-shaped hole”.  We have to believe in something–the question is, what will it be?

Thus, it’s not a coincidence that even as far back as the Enlightenment, there was the cultural movement we call Romanticism.  Romanticism rejected the excessively rational and logical aspects of the Enlightenment as sterile and failing to nurture the human heart and soul.  The Romantics idealized emotion, passion, and even irrationalism; and Romantic art was fascinated with the Medieval (especially Arthuriana), the mystical, the primitive (or at least what the Romantics perceived as primitive), and such.  Romantic currents continued to flow underground right up to the present, manifesting themselves from time to time in such diverse forms as the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Gothic genre of literature, interest in Eastern religions, fascination with occult and psychic research, orders such as the Golden Dawn, hippies, and neo-paganism, to name just a few.  Even such phenomena in the present day as the increasing spread of and fascination with conspiracy theories, the anti-vaccination movement, the resurgence of UFOlogy, and even wacky things like the renewed attention to the Flat Earth theory, all, in my mind, are symptoms of a deep dissatisfaction with what one might call “consensus reality“, and an inchoate yearning for more.

It is in this context that role-playing enters the field.  More to come!

Part of the series “Religion, Role-playing, and Reality



Posted on 31/05/2018, in Catholicism, Christianity, history, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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