The religious faithful still ignore the Enlightenment. Thanks, Tom Paine.
If anyone needs a reminder of the power of supernatural religion over the conservative human mind, note that the European Intellectual Awakening of the 17the and 18e centuries – the Enlightenment – centuries later, is still a work in progress.
The movement, characterized by Age of Enlightenment in French (literally “century of the Enlightened”), “synthesizes” new radical attitudes about God, reason, nature and humanity into a world vision centered on man rather than on God, the Encyclopedia Britannica asserts.
“At the center of Enlightenment thought was the use and celebration of reason, the power by which humans understand the universe and improve their own condition. The goals of rational humanity were seen as knowledge, freedom and happiness, ”according to the online description of the movement in the encyclopedia.
Today, although more than two-thirds of the population of the United States claim to believe in divine beings and to be affiliated with Christianity, about a quarter of Americans are largely irreligious (many of them are atheists) and do not are affiliated with no faith group – and the so-called “nones” (those not affiliated with religion) are among the fastest growing religion-related demographics in the country. Western Europe is already much further along on the path to the total release of the supernatural faith.
This has not always been so, and in historical terms open religious doubt and infidelity is a relatively new cultural phenomenon. In fact, although religious skeptics and atheists have always existed in human societies, after the eruption of godlessness in ancient Greece and until the Enlightenment, divine religions for the vast majority of human beings on the planet were practically the undisputed end. all of existence. Non-believers and skeptics – the “heretics” in medieval parlance – have been for centuries, if not millennia, brutally persecuted and officially executed, often in a depraved manner.
So the Enlightenment provided an incredibly welcome window of opportunity for pan-European skeptics – who were legion, it turned out – to say what they really felt about the Christian faith which continued to fundamentally control not only their lives but also their thoughts across the continent.
Everything you need to understand how suddenly unleashed Enlightenment intellectuals felt when they read a few lines of the revolutionary American gadfly Thomas Paine scorched earth assault on institutional Christianity in its arguably atheist Age of Reason (which, today, is a bargain on Amazon at 99 cents for the Kindle edition). Paine was completely rampant in his fervor of denigrating Christianity.
In Part II, Chapter I (“The Old Testament”), Paine wrote:
“People in general do not know what wickedness there is in this so-called word of God. Brought up in habits of superstition, they take for granted that the Bible is true and that it is good; they allow themselves not to doubt it, and they carry their ideas of the benevolence of the Almighty in the book they have been taught to believe written by his authority. God’s goodness! it is quite another thing; it is a book of lies, wickedness and blasphemy; for what could be greater blasphemy than to attribute man’s wickedness to the orders of the Almighty?
In fact, in my opinion, Paine’s heavy beliefs are part of a 21 continuesst– century infatuation with religion, at least his quasi-deistic philosophy which saw God as an indifferent nature in the broad sense, and not as the divinity of the Bible who cares about everyone and cares for everyone very, very personally. But, still, an invisible divine.
If you read The age of reason, it is indistinguishable from atheism – a flawless and full-blown denigration of Christian theism and its foundational holy books, except that Paint incongruously also briefly pretends to believe in God. Somewhat.
“Paine almost immediately states in the book that he believes in one God, as evident to him in the majesty of the physical universe. Paine advocated a simple ‘deism’, a non-dogmatic belief in a creator God who deserves our private worship and expects us to be decent to one another, ”wrote Humanism Plus blogger JH McKenna, Ph.D., professor of history and religious studies at the University of California at Irvin, in a 2017 article titled “Thomas Paine Was Not ‘Filthy Little Atheist’” (reference to a quote from Teddy Roosevelt).
So Paine, like many religious skeptics and quasi-believers then and today, simply could not bring himself, publicly or privately, to reject the existence of some kind of divine power. He could console himself in the ageless dodge that nature is so surprisingly complex and majestic that it is incomprehensible that it was not created by some supreme Power beyond objective human confirmation.
After reading Age, I challenge anyone to explain how anyone can still convincingly believe in God who, as Paine does in the book, intellectually demolish every element of christianity, sacred or other. I am sure he was not alone in his time, and this hypothesis of divine actuality remains deeply rooted in the human family today, even if it is still definitely unverifiable.
Considering that reason, at the heart of the Enlightenment, objectively showed the intellectual unverification of supernatural claims, a would have thought the principles of the movement would logically have led to an even more secular future than that promoted by the Enlightenment at the time.
But no. Most of the billions of global representatives of our Homo sapiens (“The wise man”) species are always under the absolute sway of invisible, unfounded and unverified divinities.
Yet fortunately pessimism does not reign among modern laity, who still look to what until now have generally turned out to be windmills.
“The Enlightenment is always winning” is the confident headline in a June 17 article posted to the Freedom from Religion Foundation blog at the Patheos hub. Author James A. Haught asserts in the article that the Enlightenment “started the long-standing conflict that still drives much of politics” in the West. He claims that over the centuries the movement has won many battles against conservative and reactionary forces against its ideals, including successfully, for example, getting evolution taught in American schools.
However, evolution is only partially and often taught half-heartedly in some American schools today, so victory is only partial. Many Americans, perhaps a majority, still see evolution as a challenge to their belief in the inerrancy of the bible, and continue to fight tooth and nail for its inclusion in school curricula (and by subterfuge), as they have been doing for many decades since the “Scopes Monkey Trial” (if not before).
“Again and again, through recurring cultural battles, the progressive principles that began in the Enlightenment have prevailed,” opines Haught.
Maybe, but history also teaches us that all of this can be lost in the blink of an eye if a cataclysm like war or the plague descends upon humanity, and people rush to faith for comfort and hope, as Americans did after the War of Independence.
So let’s not do a victory lap just yet keep the good fight going.
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“Erudite but readable … very enlightening”
– Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion”, to the glory of “Holy Smoke”
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