Godless Liberals: The Myth of the Secular Enlightenment


Editor’s Note: Dr. Sorkin’s new book, The Religious Enlightenment, was reviewed in Saturday’s New York Times

In the current presidential campaign, religion and religious belief appear to be playing as large a role as they did in the last two presidential elections. Obama’s efforts to cleanse the Democratic Party of its supposedly anti-religious bias and show that belief can have a place in it by softening the Party’s platform on such key issues as abortion, alluding to the Bible, speaking in biblical cadences and referring to his own faith, and perhaps even in his choice of Joe Biden, a Catholic, as his running mate, have been countered by McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin, who seems to be in the process of quickly recapturing and energizing the religious right with her own, and her daughter’s, “pro-life” choices. Though Karl Rove no longer sits in the White House or directs campaign strategy, his legacy survives.

These appeals to religion are of course rooted in the rough and tumble of daily politics. Republicans want to continue to break the large umbrella alliance of Catholics, blacks, Jews and unions on which the Democratic Party has relied for a majority ever since the New Deal. Democrats want to win back some of the groups that have defected and also make inroads into the Republican strongholds of the suburban and ex-urban megachurches.

Yet lurking just beneath the surface of this struggle, or perhaps informing it without usually being articulated, is the presumption that there is a fundamental opposition between the secular and religious in American politics and life, that the separation of Church and state is designed to expunge religion from state and politics rather than to find a mutually enriching manner for the two to coexist, and that this fundamental opposition can be traced back to the “Enlightenment.” The Enlightenment as the source of secular culture and secular politics is the great specter of twenty-first century American politics. There is a presumption, apparently shared by all points on the political spectrum, that the Enlightenment was exclusively secular. The image is, as RD managing editor Evan Derkacz recently put it, that “the Enlightenment was essentially a bunch of proto-Marxist rebels who longed to sit at cafes and discuss Dawkins’ latest book.” There is also a strong sense that there was something conspiratorial about the Enlightenment and that its contemporary adherents continue to be conspiratorial—that they aim to impose their radical secular views on everyone else by whatever means.

There are, of course, good reasons that so many people hold this view of the Enlightenment as the source of secularism (there are few, if any, good reasons to see it as being conspiratorial). Scholars propagated such a notion for a long time, and it was the view that was taught in American colleges and universities. Certainly since WWII, the main scholarly books that students read on the European Enlightenment offered just such a view e.g., Ernst Cassirer’s magisterial The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932; translated 1951), Paul Hazard’s European Thought in the Eighteenth Century (translated 1954) and Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment (1966-1967). This view of the Enlightenment had an admirable pedigree. Cassirer (1874-1945), Hazard (1878-1944) and others championed the Enlightenment as a counterweight to the fascist ideologies that wreaked havoc on Europe and many other parts of the world during the 1930s and 1940s. For them the Enlightenment guaranteed that there was in fact an alternative to the horrors they had witnessed and thus the promise of a brighter future. Peter Gay (b. 1923), an émigré from Nazi Germany, not only championed the Enlightenment in opposition to the Nazism he had experienced firsthand, but also saw it as inspiring the American liberalism with which he had come to identify. His two-volume history, a bestseller that won the National Book Award, appeared at the apogee of 1960s liberalism. His idealization of the Enlightenment of Hume and Voltaire as the seedbed of modern liberalism was the equivalent, in realm of cultural history, to modernization theory—that all societies everywhere were moving toward urbanism, industrialization and democracy—that then ruled the social sciences.

It takes a long time for such a powerful, regnant and, one should add, cogent view first to crack and then to crumble. Yet the view of the Enlightenment as a purely secular phenomenon has indeed cracked and crumbled. Since the 1980s such notable historians as J.G.A. Pocock (Johns Hopkins), Dale Van Kley (Ohio State University), Derek Beales (Cambridge University) and Jonathan Israel (Institute for Advanced Study) have conducted a long-term campaign against it. They have taken issue with individual aspects. Pocock, for example, has argued repeatedly and eloquently against the notion of a single, secular Enlightenment, proposing the notion of a “family of Enlightenments” and demonstrating the importance of what he called the “Protestant Enlightenment” in England, Holland and Switzerland. Dale Van Kley has restored religion, and particularly Jansenism, the major Catholic reform movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to our understanding of the French Enlightenment and the origins of the French Revolution. Beales has shown the centrality of the Catholic Enlightenment to such an epitome of “enlightened absolutism” as Joseph II in the Habsburg monarchy (not to mention his mother, Maria Theresa), and has also recovered the vibrant intellectual and artistic life of Europe’s Catholic monasteries, many of which were plundered and destroyed during and after the French Revolution. Finally, Jonathan Israel has offered a monumental and encyclopedic synthesis of the Enlightenment that recognizes the religious beliefs of its central figures.

Building on these works, I have recently argued that the time has come to discard the still popular, if threadbare and outmoded notion of an exclusively secular Enlightenment. The time has come to let go of this false specter and to recognize that the Enlightenment was a spectrum of opinion that included a distinctly religious Enlightenment.

All of the religions participated in, and contributed to, the making of the religious Enlightenment. Its creators all shared the same motivation: they wanted to articulate a version of their religion that could support a religiously plural society. That was, after all, the challenge that faced Europe after the end of the religious wars and throughout the period from the Glorious Revolution in England (1688) to the French Revolution (1789). How could members of different religions live in harmony and peace in a shared society and build a common polity? Religious Enlighteners renounced polemical sermons and disputation literature and instead devoted themselves to arguing for toleration of other religions on religious grounds.

Time and again our current notions of toleration have wrongly been attributed to secular thinkers and a secular Enlightenment. In fact, religious thinkers—Protestants, Jews and Catholics—played a key role in imagining a tolerant but also a believing society. The religious Enlighteners saw no tension or contradiction between fervent belief and a fervent commitment to toleration. For them the two went hand-in-hand. They made use of the most potent ideas of the time, the natural law theory that recognized the autonomy of individuals, but they used a religious version of it. They started not with the idea of individuals as thinkers, political beings, or property owners, but with individuals as members of churches (or, for that matter, synagogues). As members of churches individuals were endowed with the right of freedom or autonomy: they could, and should, be taught, consoled, and exhorted yet they were not to be coerced in any manner. Freedom and toleration in the church were to be the basis for freedom and toleration in society.

Perhaps the foundational characteristic of the religious Enlightenment was that its members advocated a new idea of “reasonableness.” They did not espouse a notion of “rationality” that excluded belief. That was a myth scholars who championed the myth of a secular Enlightenment disseminated. Instead, the religious Enlighteners developed an ideal of “reasonableness” that included belief. Reason for the religious Enlighteners was entirely compatible with the authority of scripture, revelation and miracles. They would not accept truths contrary to reason, but they did acknowledge revealed truths and mysteries “above” reason. Similarly, they recognized the validity of testimony and of verifiable traditions in interpreting scripture.

While endorsing reason and revelation, the religious Enlighteners also embraced the latest in philosophy in science. They accepted the heliocentric universe and Newtonian physics. They used the philosophies of Locke and Descartes, Leibniz and Christian Wolff. In fact, they welcomed the new philosophy and science as a means to rearticulate their faith. They did not, however, treat the Bible as a source of science, since they understood it to be the source of salvation. They acted on the saying that Galileo had made famous: “the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

The religious Enlighteners have largely been forgotten by history. They have been written out of the canon of the secular Enlightenment and have therefore escaped the attention of historians and literary scholars. Yet figures as Bishop William Warburton (1698-1779) in England, Jacob Vernet (1698-1789) in Geneva, Siegmund Jacob Baumgarten (1706-1757) in Prussia, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) in Berlin, Joseph Eybel (1741-1805) in Austria and Adrien Lamourette (1742-1794) in France were well-known and important figures in their day. In fact, most of them were public figures who were known not only, or not just, as theologians but also as writers on politics, history, literature and aesthetics. The religious Enlighteners saw no contradiction between writing about belief and writing about supposedly secular subjects. For them all those subjects belonged to the purview of the Enlightenment.

Moreover, the religious Enlighteners were not isolated individuals but members of identifiable movements in their respective religious traditions. Moderation in England, “enlightened Orthodoxy” in Calvinist Geneva, the “theological Enlightenment” among German Lutherans, the Haskalah in the German-speaking lands, and reform Catholicism in Austria and France, were all substantial movements of religious renewal and reform that had a significant impact on their respective traditions and on the larger society, since all of them gained a form of state sponsorship.

While a revision of our understanding of the Enlightenment might seem an interesting academic exercise, it is in fact highly relevant to contemporary politics. If we can exorcise the abiding specter of an exclusively secular Enlightenment, we can begin to overcome the false polarity of secular liberalism versus faith-based conservatism. We will be able to see that liberalism can equally be faith-based, and that many contemporary debates can be conducted both without and within the realm of faith. We will also be able to see that the so-called “culture wars” were waged on same fallacious grounds of an anti-religious Enlightenment. In short, recognizing the existence of the religious Enlightenment can change the nature of current political and cultural dialogue by liberating us from a specter that haunts our culture.