“The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason) is an era from the 1650s to the 1780s in which cultural and intellectual forces in Western Europe emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority. It was promoted by philosophes and local thinkers in urban coffee houses, salons, and Masonic lodges. It challenged the authority of institutions that were deeply rooted in society, especially the Catholic Church; there was much talk of ways to reform society with toleration, science and skepticism.
Philosophers including Francis Bacon (1562–1626), René Descartes (1596–1650), John Locke (1632–1704), Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), Voltaire (1694–1778), David Hume (1711–1776), Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794), Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), and Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) influenced society by publishing widely read works. Upon learning about enlightened views, some rulers met with intellectuals and tried to apply their reforms, such as allowing for toleration, or accepting multiple religions, in what became known as enlightened absolutism. Coinciding with the Age of Enlightenment was the Scientific revolution, spearheaded by Newton.” Here.
The focus of this essay is really on the roots of religious fundamentalism in our modern world, rather than on the philosophical and cultural movement that today we call the “Age of Enlightenment”, or just “The Enlightenment”. My belief is that you can’t understand today’s Fundamentalist Religious fervor among some, without understanding why it came about and why to me at least, represents a regressive movement in human history.
“In his essay What is Enlightenment? (1784), Immanuel Kant described it simply as freedom to use one’s own intelligence. More broadly, the Enlightenment period is marked by increasing empiricism, scientific rigor, and reductionism, along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy.”
Kant’s essay to me sums up both the promise of “enlightened” thinking and the danger it represented to those narrow religious thinkers unable to conceive of a sea change in human thought. I see a link in the rise of extreme Fundamentalist religious with the “Enlightenment” because its premise of intellectual freedom deeply threatens those who cling to their religion as a way of guiding them through this uncertain life we all lead.
When it comes to Christian Fundamentalism there are two great streams. The earliest of these two strains is Evangelicalism, which has it roots in the 18th Century. The second stream, Dispensationalism, arose in the early 19th Century. The former “Evangelicals are Christians who believe in the centrality of the conversion or “born again” experience in receiving salvation, believe in the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity and have a strong commitment to evangelism or sharing the Christian message.”Dispensationalism consists of a distinctive eschatological end times perspective, as all dispensationalists hold to premillennialism and most hold to a pretribulation rapture.” For the most part these two threads merged in the 20th Century and make up what is today known as Christian Fundamentalism. I believe it is no accident that Christian Fundamentalism arose following “The Enlightenment”, in fact I think the “threat” to religion posed by “The Enlightenment” was the direct cause of the rise of Fundamentalist movements in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It was the new perspective bought by “Enlightenment” philosophers that threatened certain Christian religious establishments, causing some believers to move to new extremes. As I will show this was not only a Christian phenomenon.
Fundamentalist Jewish thought also arose in the 18th Century as a result of the effect of the “Enlightenment” on Jewish philosophers. There are many strains within it but in essence they are of quite similar beliefs, with the distinctions hinging on points of theology and in the various charismatic leaders they follow. You can find some of the distinctions both here and also in Hasidic Judaism. Thus in what we call the “Western Cultural Tradition we see again a reaction to the intellectual fervor of and the excitement of ideas brought about by the Age of Enlightenment. To me this is because this new approach, hinging on a new, more scientific way of thinking, shook the faiths of those who would prefer to have their lives shaped by doctrinaire religion.
Via the long history of empire and imperialism characterized by European powers the people of Islam have often been characterized as being backward intellectually. This is really the result of ignorance of history an prejudice. Some of the great thinkers and philosophers of human history have followed Islam. In that sense Islamic countries were not immune from the spreading “virus” of “Enlightenment” thought. Wahhabist Islamic thought kick started an Islamic fundamentalist movement and was a product of the 18th Century. However, it was a strain of thought developed by followers of Sunni Islam. The modern Fundamentalist strain of Shia Islam began its growth in the early 19th Century.
So I believe I have shown that to a great extent three of the World’s major religions developed austere, Fundamentalist strains as a reaction to an expansion of the horizons of human thought. Were it my purpose to discuss the entire parameters of World religious fundamentalism I would also include religious thought in the Eastern World, in Hindu and Buddhist thought, of which there also are sects and examples. However, my purpose is really to discuss the that belief common to all fundamentalist thought today, which is that enlightened thinking represents such a threat to many religious believers, that not only will they refuse to entertain it, but that they will become even more extreme in their belief systems to combat it in their communities.
Religious fundamentalism’s reactions to the modern way of thinking ushered in by the Age of Enlightenment, brings to mind two dangers to us all. Those “leaders” of religion, the clergymen, the elders and the politicians who feed off of its sustenance, take advantage of its rigidity of thought, to exert control over the sheep to be fleeced in their flocks. Their control is based upon enforced conformance to their preaching and concomitantly on the intellectual passivity of their followers. Enlightenment urges humans to question premises, to look to established facts for guidance and most of all to think for themselves. Freedom of thought and belief is a most dangerous concept to those who make their living off of religion and to those too threatened by the modern world to allow any variations in their beliefs. The natural result of this way of thinking is the Duggar incident, where rather than actually dealing with a molestation problem in their family, they worked to protect the molester and cover up the incidents. Their posture of religious belief, subsumed their duties as parents. This is an aspect of how unquestioning religious belief produces more harm than good.
The other point I’m trying to make in this piece is that many people aren’t aware that this, fundamentalist reaction to modernity, is a rather recent development in the history of their ancient religions. Fundamentalist thought, rather than being the standard of religious belief, is actually radical and extreme. Those that follow mainstream religion are often awed by the supposed greater piety and religious practices of fundamentalists. They hesitate to criticize the excesses of fundamentalism, wrongly thinking that these fundamentalists are practicing the “true faith.” In reality Fundamentalism is an adverse reaction towards humanity’s struggle to advance beyond its most primitive stages of social evolution. It is retrograde and it is dangerous. I have no problem with those who are religious. In my opinion they need to understand though that these supposedly more pious people in their midst, do not represent the “old time religion”. They are in fact are relatively recent in time and represent expressions of fear and will to power, rather than deeply held needs to connect with their God.
… for their eyes are blind and cannot see; their minds do not discern. …. Daniel 12:10