Get access

Religion and the Enlightenment(s)



This article focuses on the ‘relationship’ between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ in the ‘Enlightenment’. It shows through a ‘historiographical’ survey of the last half-century how our understanding of the ‘Enlightenment’ has evolved, and with it the assumptions pertaining to the relationship between religion and science have undergone a series of revisions. From seeing the Enlightenment as a single-minded project aiming to rid the world of organized religion and its concomitant superstitions to appreciating the multifaceted nature of the century with its local variations has made historians question the very idea of an Enlightenment. The old consensus narrative invoked by a ‘rise of modern paganism’ theory along with a tendency to view the secularizing effects upon society as inevitable have by now ceased its hold over the ‘historical imagination’. The situation was remarkably different in country to country: In France, ‘Materialist’‘philosophes’ such as Voltaire, d’Holbach, and Diderot launched a vituperative campaign to erase what they saw as the infamy of organized religion. Across the channel, however, the situation was far from that polarized. In Britain, a number of the most prominent ‘natural philosophers’ of the day were actually devout believers despite their scientific interests. From seeing the ‘Enlightenment’ as a ‘teleological project’ which apotheosis was ‘secularizing’ eighteenth century society, we now have a much more nuanced and complete picture of the ‘long eighteenth century’ and its relationship between science and religion. It has thus been suggested that there were several enlightenments spread both in terms of geography and time. Portraying a spectrum of Enlightenments, either compartmentalized in a national context or thematically distinguished – recent revisionist literature has come a long way from the old consensus thesis.