The transitions in the conditions of belief that culminated in the new idea of society constituted as individuals, and the growing sense of a “disenchanted” world, brought about a considerable shift in the both the practice and understanding of Christianity among the élites of the eighteenth century. The “buffered self”, which was a key requirement for disenchantment, gradually served to drive towards an idea of a “buffered world”. This lead to new ideas about God which marked a radical break from earlier theology, and the arrival of a new outlook often referred to as “Deism”.
The move towards Deism was in effect a narrowing of the purposes of divine providence. The basic idea in Deistic theology is that rather than God being constantly and actively intervening in the world, the natural order was created by God for our benefit, and our commitment in return was simply to flourish in order to fulfill God’s plan. This was an significant shift from earlier theology, which may also have recognised this facet, but which also expected more – God’s purposes were inscrutable, but they included our love and worship of him (for whatever reason), and thus immediately placed upon us a demand that went beyond human flourishing.
The theology that emerges in the eighteenth century shows a profound anthropomorphic shift: any sense of further purpose becomes eclipsed by the concept that what we owe to God is simply the realisation of his plan, which is to say, the achievement of our own good. With the shift in the social imaginary towards the notion of society constituted as individuals, this meant that by committing to a moral order of mutual benefit, we were doing what was asked of us by God. This was the rise of Providential Deism, a theology which believed that the natural order of things had been established for our benefit – even though it was up to us, as the inhabitants of the resulting world, to co-operate towards our own flourishing.
The anthropocentric shift towards a belief in the primacy of the order of mutual benefit also brought with it a transformation in the view of the world towards an idea of impersonal order. Previously, the orthodox Christian conception was of “God as an agent interacting with humans and intervening in human history”. Via Deism, this was to change towards the notion of “God as architect of a universe operating by unchanging laws, which humans have to conform to or suffer the consequences”.
We can see the extent to which these new theological beliefs changed the attitude towards religious practice by looking at what were considered “dangerous” expressions of religion in the eighteenth century:
Three kinds of dangerous religion were categorized as “superstition”, “fanaticism”, and “enthusiasm”. The first designated the enchanted dimension of religion, the rites and cults and practices which partook of magic in their understanding… ‘Fanaticism’ designated the kind of religious certainty that seemed to the agent concerned to licence going well beyond, and even committing gross violations against the order of mutual benefit. While ‘enthusiasm’ meant the certainty that one heard the voice of God, and could act on it, without having to rely on external authority, ecclesiastical or civil.
Now, the Deist theology was largely the domain of elites at this time, but it was still creating profound shifts within Christianity, including what Taylor terms “the decline of Hell”, which is to say a growing reluctance to accept traditional beliefs about God as an implacable source of punishment. The old juridical-penal doctrine – that by sinning we offended God’s honour and thus he was obligated to punish us – began to be seen as quite repulsive by the intellectuals of the Enlightenment.
Indeed, this hostility towards the older, orthodox interpretations of Christianity allows for the creation of radical new ways of approaching both religion and morality, and this in turn created conflicting philosophical tensions. Thus we see philosophers such as David Hume (pictured above) pulling away from Christianity, which he was greatly hostile towards, and dismissing notions such as miracles on an a priori basis (a leap of faith away from orthodox religious thought). Hume in turn inspires Immanuel Kant, considered to be the greatest philosopher of the modern age, who remains a Christian but radically reformulates what this means and develops the idea of reason as the basis for morality. Kant sees this as founded in God – reason is God-given, if you will – but this new viewpoint still marks a significant step away from older notions of morality being prescribed by God. Now, what is moral can be derived intellectually.
Thus a massive shift in horizon occurs: humanity is now seen as forming societies under the modern moral order of mutual benefit, fulfilling their purposes by using what Nature provides by exploring the impersonal order with the aid of disengaged reason. This is wholly new epistemic predicament. And we can see how this shift opened the door for what Taylor terms “exclusive humanism”, which is to say, the acceptance of the kind of view of the world closely related to that espoused by Providential Deism, in which human flourishing is the highest good which we co-operate towards, but without reference to God or any kind of higher reality. (It can be argued that calling this “atheism” places the emphasis in the wrong place: it implies a necessary opposition that obscures what is actually of value about this kind of belief system).
This was no trivial change in perspective! As Taylor notes:
A standard subtractionist story would convince us that once the old religious and metaphysical beliefs withered away, room was finally made for the existing, purely human moral motivation. But this was not the case. It may seem to be, because the locus now of the highest moral capacities was identified as in “human nature”. And that links up with centuries of non-exclusive humanism, and in particular with the moral theories that came down to us from the ancients… But it is already evident that, in one sense, this modern humanism is different from most ancient ethics of human nature, in that it is exclusive, that is, its notion of human flourishing makes no reference to something higher which humans should reverence or love or acknowledge. And this clearly distinguishes it from, say, Plato, or the Stoics.
Furthermore, the emergence of exclusive humanism wasn’t something that was inevitably going to come about – we have no reason (beyond a leap of faith) to believe that under different circumstances this would have occurred. The new system of belief abandons all notions of transcendence (of a reality beyond that of everyday experience) in preference for a view of the world as entirely immanent. Taylor stresses that this development of exclusive humanism should be surprising:
So exclusive humanism wasn’t just something we fell into, once the old myths dissolved, or the “infamous” ancien régime church was crushed. It opened up new human potentialities, viz. to live in these modes of moral life in which the sources are radically immanentized. The substraction story doesn’t allow us to be as surprised as we ought to be at this achievement – or as admiring of it; because it is after all one of the great realizations in the history of human development, whatever our ultimate views about its scope or limitations.
And this amazing achievement originated from religious motives, it grew out of Providential Deism, which drove a process between (say) 1650 and 1800 which allowed freedom to emerge as a value in itself – something which came to be seen as a crucial feature of any acceptable political system. That religion was intimately connected with this process can be seen from the fact that one of the primary forms of freedom that was valued during this transition was in fact freedom of belief. This can be clearly discerned in the early days of the American Republic, particularly in Thomas Jefferson’s push for “a wall of separation between Church and State” – not to protect the citizens from religion, but to prevent the government from interfering with the citizenry’s right to determine their own manner of worship.
Thus, while emergence of this new perspective is open to interpretation in many different ways, one of the most common ideas concerning the origin of exclusive humanism is demonstrably false: it did not originate out of a conflict between religion and science. Although Galileo's story in the 17th century had already foreshadowed it, this battle had yet to begin in earnest.
Next week: “Religion” versus “Science”