The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that began in England in the seventeenth century and then spread to other areas of Europe. The Enlightenment has often been viewed as a movement in which the human race awoke from its mental bondage and lethargy and entered into intellectual maturity. According to Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment was “the emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy.”
The foundation of the Enlightenment was the primacy of human reason. In contrast to earlier eras in which popes, priests, tradition, and holy books were the authorities, the Enlightenment stressed that human reason was the highest authority. In fact, a motto of the Enlightenment could be “Reason over revelation.” The Enlightenment stressed the overall goodness of people. While acknowledging that people could act wickedly, old views concerning original sin and the depravity of man were replaced with an optimistic perspective concerning the nature of man. Man could overcome evil on his own effort through reason and education.
Also characteristic of this new ‘Age of Reason’ was an optimism regarding the betterment of society. Reason, education, science, and technology were believed to be ushering in an era of “technological messianism” in which many of the world’s problems would be solved. The Enlightenment also stressed the equality of all persons believing that all people were endowed with natural rights. It also rejected the traditional view of the “divine right of kings” in which kings were viewed as possessing their authority directly from God.
The Enlightenment brought serious challenges to traditional religion, especially Christianity. Miracles and supernatural accounts were often rejected since they were viewed as being incompatible with reason. The Enlightenment also spawned the discipline of biblical criticism which became popular in the major universities ofEurope. As a result, the Bible was subjected to unrelenting and withering criticisms. For instance, traditional authorships of the Bible were often rejected and anything supernatural was dismissed or reinterpreted. While some Enlightenment thinkers still embraced traditional Christianity, the Enlightenment spawned a good share of atheists, agnostics and deists. For instance, David Hume’s atheism left no room for God or the miraculous. Immanuel Kant, while himself a believer in God, laid the philosophical basis for agnosticism by arguing that the noumenal (non-material) realm was totally unknowable by reason. Thus, nothing about God, the soul, or the afterlife could be known through reason. Deists like Thomas Jefferson believed that the existence of a creator was compatible with reason but this creator was not the Christian God and certainly not a being who cared about or dealt with humans. It was this stinging rejection and dismantling of traditional Christianity that led to the birth of liberal Christianity. The founder of liberal Christianity—Friedrich Schleiermacher—attempted to adjust Christianity in such a way that this religion could be palatable to modern man. In so doing, though, he rejected traditional Christian beliefs such as the virgin birth and the deity of Jesus Christ.
The beginnings of the Enlightenment are often linked with the views of John Locke and the English deists. This movement eventually spread to France in the eighteenth century and was developed in the writings of Voltaire and Denis Diderot. Eventually, the Enlightenment reached Germany and other parts of Europe. It is difficult to date precisely when the Enlightenment Era ended although some point to the French Revolution as the end of this movement. In today’s postmodern world several of the key assumptions of the Enlightenment have been rejected including high confidence in reason and the belief that reality made sense and could be truly understood.