The Enlightenment and Modernism

The What is religion? page of this site gives a very brief outline of modernity.  This page will provide you with a little bit more detail.  Remember, the OCR specification requires that you consider the challenge that modernity presented to Christianity and also the ways in which Feuerbach, Smart and Cupitt respond to that challenge.

The Enlightenment:

'The way Christians think about God, themselves and their world was permanently and irretrievably altered by an era in Western intellectual history commonly known as the Enlightenment, which marked the completion of the transition from the ancient to the modern eras.'

Twentieth Century Theology by Grenz and Olsen published by IVP p15

Modernity emerged out of the eighteenth century intellectual movement known as 'the Enlightenment'.  It was a broad movement both geographically (it covered Europe and America) and ideologically (it impacted upon philosophy, politics, theology, art, literature and contributed to events like the French revolution).  A huge range of different writers and thinkers may be counted among those who contributed to the development of Enlightenment thought.  These include John Locke, Voltaire, Immanel Kant, David Hume and many others. The Enlightenment marked the beginnings of a new paradigm in history as it was a move away from medieval modes of thought, study and politics and into a new age dominated academically by the scientific method and politically by the birth of modern democracy and the associated values.

The Age of Reason:

'Have courage to use your reason - that is the motto of the Enlightenment.'

(Immanuel Kant 'What is Enlightenment' 1784)

The Enlightement is also sometimes called 'the Age of Reason' as one of the key aspects of Enlightenment thought was an emphasis on the importance of applying rational thought to everything.  This was coupled with a confidence in the capacity of human reason to reach truth.

Murray Rae writing an introductory essay to modernity in The Practice of Theology (published in 2001 by SCM Press edited by Gunton, Holmes and Rae) says 

'While owing a great deal to classical Greek and Roman culture, modernity refers particularly to the world-view that emerged during the Enlightenment.  Whereas church and Scripture were regarded throughout the Middle Ages as the repositories and arbiters of truth, modernity urges individuals to think for themselves and to test all things against the authority of reason.'

Murray Ray goes on to say that initially the emphasis on reason did not have to be damaging to religion.  Some Enlightenment thinkers (like their medieval forebears) thought that reason and revelation would be in agreement.  

'Many early advocates of such an approach were in no doubt of the compatibility of reason with the truths of revelation, but as modernity took hold, appeals to revelation was viewed with increasing scepticism.  The success of science encouraged people to believe that the world was governed by rational universal laws, discoverable by the human mind.  Whether or not God was the author of such laws became increasingly irrelevant to their proper undertanding.'

Reason's challenge to Christianity:

The article on the Enlightenment in Blackwell's Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought (published in 2006 by Blackwell and edited by McGrath) says that we can identify several stages way the principle of reason was applied to Christianity.

  1. The first stage was the belief that as Christian beliefs were rational they should stand up to rational scrutiny.  E.g. John Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695).
  2. The second stage was the argument that Christian beliefs did not need to be revealed through the bible or religious experience because they could be worked out by reason. E.g. Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as Creation (1730)
  3. Finally reason began to be used to judge (and potentially reject) Christian beliefs. 

Specific Christian doctrines that came under attack from rational grounds included:

  • MIRACLES: attacked by David Hume who argued that miracles could never count as good evidence.  He wrote 'When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened’.
  • ORIGINAL SIN attacked by Voltaire and Rousseau who argued (against the traditional teachings of people like Augustine) that humans were born as a 'tabula rasa' ('blank slate') capable of turning out good or evil.
  • The AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE: attacked by various people through the gradual development of Biblical criticism.
  • The doctrine of GOD'S GOODNESS AND OMNIPOTENCE attacked by people like Voltaire who wrote his satirical novel Candide after the devastating Lisbon earthquake which killed upwards of 10,000 people.
  • The SUPERIORITY OF CHRISTIANITY challenged by the concept of a 'natural religion' based on the principle that knowledge of morality and knowledge of the divine architect of creation were accessible to all people through reason.


The medieval theologians did not reject reason but they thought that it would only confirm that which was found in scripture.   Furthermore, they believed that reason could get things wrong and thus scripture provided a safer route to true knowledge.

Reason challenged many traditional Christian doctrines. The medieval world valued faith as a great virtue and taught people to show obedience to church and scripture.  They believed that ultimately true knowledge would be found in the revealed world of God.  During the Enlightenment this was subverted and many people began to associate pure faith with unintellectual superstition.

Few writers in the eighteenth century were openly atheist. The majority condemned superstition, fanaticism and clericalism yet held views which we might regard as deistic (for explanation on deism and relevant quotations see the summary).

Yet, even if the prominence of reason did not immediately overthrow religion the balance of power between the two had shifted. Before the Enlightenment Scripture was seen as something which would confirm or deny things worked out through reason.  St Anselm had said

'I believe in order that I might understand'.

The Enlightenment thinkers saw things differently and thought that reason should be used to confirm or deny faith.  That meant that if religious faith and rational thought should ever find themselves in conflict (as would happen during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) then it would be reason and not faith that would be given the upper hand.  

Coupled with this shift in the relative merits of reason and faith came a re-evaluation of the relationship between God and man.

'This era brought an elevated status to humans and an elevated estimate of human capabilities. The Enlightenment placed humans, not God on center state in history.  In contrast to medieval and Reformation thinking, which viewed people as important largely insofar as they fit into the story of God's activity in history, Enlightenment thinkers tended to determine the importance of God in terms of his value for the story of their own lives.'

Twentieth Century Theology by Grenz and Olsen published by IVP

The idea of fallen humanity dependent upon God for salvation and even for knowledge was rejected and instead God became answerable to man.

The success of science:

Confidence in the superiority of reason was further reinforced by the successes of science.  

The 'scientific revolution' had taken place before the Enlightenment roughly between 1550-1700 and it had challenged some of the traditional views held by many Christians.  The suggestion that the earth was not the centre of the solar system (proposed by Copernicus in 1548 and supported by Galileo's observations published in 1632) seemed to challenge the central importance given to earth in the creation account. The discovery of things like the circulation of blood (by Harvey in 1628) made the human body a less mysterious thing and perhaps more akin to a machine than a divine creation.  Newton's laws of motion 1687 did the same for the universe by providing account of the way the world worked.

Understanding the world led to the possibilities of controlling it.  In America Benjamin Franklin invented the lightening rod in 1749 enabling the 'act of God' of a lightening strike to be avoided.  In 1796 Edward Jenner tested his theory of vaccination and in doing so provided people with an alternative to prayer and pilgrimage in the fight against disease.  Eleven years previously William Withering had published his Account of the Foxglove explaining its use in treating dropsy and suggesting its use in the treatment of heart complaints (for which it is still used today).

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries scientific discovery continued, notably evolution discovered by Charles Darwin published in 1859, Louis Pasteur's discovery in 1861 that disease is caused by germs and James Maxwell's discovery of the laws governing electromagnatism in 1873. Technological development progressed with steam power and inventions like the spinning jenny leading to the industrial revolution.

These discoveries and inventions challenged Christianity by:

  • Demonstrating the successfulness of the scientific method (and thus the validating belief in the superiority of reason over faith).
  • Led to the questioning of specific doctrines (such as creation)
  • Provided rational explanations for things previously attributed to God's action (e.g. by explaining the apparent 'design' in the world or by explaining the reasons for disease).  
  • Made the church/God appear less necessary in every day life (by providing solutions to problems like illness).

The scientific method was celebrated as being the exemplary way of gaining knowledge.  This led to the development of reductionism and materialism, both of which provide their own challenges to Christianity.


Murray Rae highlights reductionism, as one of the main features of modernist thought.

'The high value placed upon rationality and scientific experiment is accompanied in modernity by a habit of mind called reductionism, whereby a true explanation of reality is achieved by breaking it down into its smallest parts and identify the laws by which those parts are related to each other.'

A reductionist understanding of human beings would be one which explains the physical body in terms of tissue, cells, minerals and ultimately elements and atoms.  A reductionist account of human behaviour would explain actions in terms of chemical reactions in the brain and neural activity.  This challenges the traditional Christian accounts of human beings as creatures made in God's image and possessing free will.

Consider: Do you think that science provides only a 'reductionist' account of reality?  Do you think it leads to a 'true explanation of reality'?  


Materialism is what the IGCSE termed 'physicalism' i.e. the belief that only physical things are real. Scientists investigate what can be observed and measured. However, religion is traditionally concerned with the spiritual (non-material) aspect of the world associated with ideas like 'soul' and 'afterlife'.  

'In the Age of Reason, the earlier emphasis on final causes (the telos, or purpose, of objects) gave way to the mathematical, quantifying view of the scientific enterprise pioneered by Galileo (1564-1642).  Precise methods of meausrement and the acceptance of mathematics as the purest mode of reason formed the tools for the proper approach to the study of natural processes.  Observers described phenomena in terms of laws of nature that yielded quantifiable results.  Its adherence to this method meant that the Enlightenment mind treated as real only those aspects of the universe that are measurable'.

(Twentieth Century Theology, by Grenz and Olsen published by IVPp19)

In the twentieth century scientific materialism contributed to the rise of a movement which became known as logical positivism.  The logical positivists said that the only meaningful statements were those which were either

  • True by definition
  • Verifiable through empirical evidence

The first category (true by definition) included things like mathematical statements (2+2 = 4) or statements in which the conclusion was a logical derivative of the initial terms (i.e. 'a bachelor is an unmarried man' in which the term 'bachelor' necessarily includes the idea that he is unmarried).  The second category (verifiable through empirical evidence) included scientific type knowledge which could be tested through measurable means.

Logical positivism implied that all religious and ethical language was meaningless as it was not true by definition nor could it be verified through reference to physical evidence.

Consider: Do you think that only physical things are real?  Are there some 'real' things that cannot be investigated using scientific methods?  Can you see any problems with logical positivism?

Other challenges to Christianity deriving from Enlightenment thought:

All the challenges so far derive in one way or another from the emphasis on the primacy of reason and the scientific method. Enlightenment thinkers also contributed to changing ideas about social hierarchy, politics and morality which challenged aspects of Christianity.

The political challenge to the church:

‘Nor did the individual keep any longer to his subordinate place in a divinely inspired hierarchy, in which kings and noblemen had been placed above him’.  Instead people chose to obey goverments whose duty it was to serve the people.'

The Portable Enlightenment Reader  ed. Isaac Kramnick

In the medieval world many people believed that those in power were given it by God (divine right of kings).  God chose the position that people would occupy in life and therefore people should be satisfied with their lot.  The Church as the guardian of God's message was expected to be involved in matters of state and of government and priests as God's representatives had considerable power and authority in society.

During the Enlightenment many writers advocated equality and democracy and challenged the concept of a ruling aristocracy.  They largely rejected the idea that the Church should be involved in state affairs and one of the outcomes of the French Revolution was the creation of a secular state.

Consider: Many people would say that the value of religion is that it provides ethical guidance.  If this is true, then should religion have a say in the ruling of a country?  Consider also whether it is good for religion to be associated with government or whether it is better for it to be independent.

The challenge to Christian superiority:

Tolerance was a key Enlightenment virtue and thinkers like John Locke actively preached religious tolerance.  In the eighteenth century it was a comparatively unusual idea (though not without precedent).  Most Christians at the time believed that Christianity was superior to non-Christian religions which they viewed as (at best) in error and (at worst) an instrument of the devil.  

Consider: How far should religious tolerance be take?

The development of individualism:

A final Enlightenment idea to consider is individualism.  In his introduction to The Portable Enlightenment Reader Isaac Kramnick says that

‘Profoundly radical individualism at the heart of Enlightenment thought’

‘No longer was there assumed to be a Christian conception the good life of the moral life, which the church and state defined and to whose common values it led all men and women.  The Enlightenment assumption was that each individual pursued his or her own happiness and their own individual sense of the good life - so long, that is, that in doing this they did not interfere with other people’s life, liberty of pursuit of happiness.’

The Portable Enlightenment Reader ed. Isaac Kramnick, Penguin 1995.

It may not be immediately apparent that individualism would be a challenge to Christianity.  However, religion is based on the idea of community and Christianity traditionally has valued virtues like humility and self-lessness.  The ideology of individualism and the accompanying sense of rights (perhaps in opposition to duties or responsibilities) had the potential to be harmful to Christianity.



Going further:

A separate page on deism can be found here with a bit more detail and some quotations.

Many Enlightenment thinkers were critical of elements of Christianity but did not - at least initially - reject belief in God entirely.  Many held that the order and purpose of the universe was intelligible precisely because it had been created by a divine 'architect' who was the author of the laws of nature.  They (like many Christian thinkers before them) believed that by studying the world they could gain some understanding of this divine being.  Thus knowledge of God was accessible to reason.  Similarly, many Enlightenment thinkers believed that morality was logical and thus the rational mind could know right from wrong.  'Natural Religion' was a term often used to describe the religious values that could be known by reason. Established religions like Christianity were viewed as perversions of natural religion and full of superstition and error.

To summarise, Deists generally rejected

  • The idea that God intervened in the world to answer prayer, perform miracles or in events like the incarnation.
  • Miracles like the resurrection were rejected as being contrary to common sense.
  • The idea of special revelation.
  • Exclusivist beliefs about heaven and hell.

Thus, although Deism did not entail a rejection of religious belief it did provide a serious challenge to Christianity by portraying it as a flawed version of natural religion.


As stated above, very few Enightenment thinkers were actively atheist but one notable exception was the Baron D’Holbach who said that ‘Theology is only the ignorance of natural causes’ .  His 1772 work Common Sense contained an all out attack on religion.

‘When we coolly examine the opinions of men, we are surprised to find, that in those, which they regard as the most  essential, nothing is more uncommon than the use of common sense; or, in other words, a degree of judgement sufficient to discover the most simple truths, to reject the most striking absurdities, and to be shocked with palpable contradictions.  We have an example of it in theology, a science revered in all times and countries, but the greatest number of men an object they regard as the most important, the most useful, and the most indispensable to the happiness of societies.  Indeed, with little examination of the principles, upon which this pretended science is founded , we are forced to acknowledge that these principles, judged incontestable, are only hazardous suppositions, imagined by ignorance, propagated by enthusiasm or knavery, adopted by timid credulity, preserved by custom, which never reason and revered solely because not understood.’


'The Enlightenment' and 'Modernity' are not exactly the same thing.  Modernity began with the Enlightenment but continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century whereas the Enlightenment period ended with the end of the eighteenth century.

However, whilst few Enlightenment thinkers were atheists, the way of thinking that began in the Enlightenment contributed to the development of atheism in others. Atheism was on the rise in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with many people coming to believe that belief in God was 'irrational' or that science had 'disproved religion'. 

Christian responses to the challenge of modernity:

During the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century two different types of response to modernity became apparent withing Christianity.

  • Firstly, there was an acceptance of some of the Enlightenment principles which led to increasing liberalism e.g. rejecting miracles and focusing on the ethical message of Christianity.
  • At the other end of the scale was hostility and complete rejection of modern thought evident within fundamentalism and (to a lesser extent) in traditionalism.

The introduction to Twentieth Century Theology begins with the following words

'The way Christians think about God, themselves and their world was permanently and irretrievably altered by and era in Western intellectual history commonly known as the Enlightenment....

...Christian faith since the Enlightenment has never been , and can never be the same.  So monumental is the importance of this era that there can be no simple going behind the Age of Reason.  Christians ignore the Enlightenment only to the peril of theology.  Ignoring the great changes it inaugurated can only lead to the privatization of faith, the "ghettoizing" of Christianity and the loss of the Christian voice in modern society.'

Twentieth Century Theology by Grenz and Olsen published by IVP p15

However, one could argue that the challenge to Christianity presented by modernity is so great that Christianity can have no possible effective response and the gradual erosion of faith is inevitable.

Go back to what is religion page.

Further reading

Cambridge university page on the development of atheism.  Link to the eighteenth century page here.