The Enlightenment and Religion: The Myths of Modernity

The Enlightenment and Religion: The Myths of Modernity

The Enlightenment and Religion: The Myths of Modernity

The Enlightenment and Religion: The Myths of Modernity

Synopsis

This title offers a critical survey of religious change and its causes in eighteenth-century Europe, and constitutes a radical challenge to the accepted views in traditional Enlightenment studies. Focusing on Enlightenment Italy, France and England, it illustrates how the canonical view of eighteenth-century religious change has in reality been constructed upon scant evidence and assumption, in particular the idea that the thought of the enlightened led to modernity. For despite a lack of evidence, one of the fundamental assumptions of Enlightenment studies has been the assertion that there was a vibrant Deist movement that formed the "intellectual solvent" of the eighteenth century. The central claim of this book is that the immense ideological appeal of the traditional birth-of-modernity myth has meant that the actual lack of Deists has been glossed over, and a quite misleading historical view has become entrenched.

Excerpt

In historical studies and indeed most fields of the humanities, the terms modernity and Enlightenment are so frequently linked that either term almost automatically evokes the other. It has become an accepted commonplace, part of the historical canon, that modernity began in the Enlightenment. This begs the obvious but yet problematic question: what was the general character of the intellectual phenomenon we term the Enlightenment?

Since the end of the 1960 and 1970s, Enlightenment studies has, albeit rather slowly and unevenly, moved from a rather narrow preoccupation with a few leading intellectuals, to an acceptance that the Enlightenment was in fact a much broader phenomenon. It is now increasingly recognized that the Enlightenment was as diverse in its protagonists as it was geographically and chronologically disparate. Neither was there unity within the Enlightenment on perhaps the central plank of Enlightenment doctrine, the role of reason in the future of civilization. From the mid eighteenth century we see – especially in France and England in the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau and David Hume – a growing rejection of the simple panacea of reason in favour of the equal recognition of the role of the 'passions' in human conduct. This growing rejection of the rather restrictive notion of reason as the fundamental attribute of the human mind also coincided rather paradoxically with what historians have termed the High Enlightenment, but is more aptly known in literary studies as the Age of Sensibility. It is, therefore, not without difficulty that reliance on reason can be cited as an easy key to investigating the broad intellectual manifestation of the years c. 1690–1790 that we have termed the Enlightenment.

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