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.
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 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
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.
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.
Specific Christian doctrines that came under attack from rational grounds included:
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
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.
The idea of fallen humanity dependent upon God for salvation and even for knowledge was rejected and instead God became answerable to man.
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:
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
A final Enlightenment idea to consider is individualism. In his introduction to The Portable Enlightenment Reader Isaac Kramnick says that
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.
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
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.
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'.
During the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century two different types of response to modernity became apparent withing Christianity.
The introduction to Twentieth Century Theology begins with the following words
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.
Cambridge university page on the development of atheism. Link to the eighteenth century page here.