A discussion of the Enlightenment's attitudes towards religion is necessarily a complex one and cannot be answered without reference to historical influences on the social situation in Europe, and contemporary political and scientific developments. Absolute rejection of the existence of a God on the part of Enlightenment intellectuals was rare, while the concept of man as innately reasonable lead to a rethinking of established religious doctrine and the role of the Church within society. Many intellectuals, who found that the doctrines of orthodox religion offended their reason, turned to 'natural' religions founded on the belief of a Deity as evidenced by nature, which the rational man could observe and study for himself.
The central feature of the Enlightenment is its questioning of social tradition and established order found within society, its heritage, principles and values. The Enlightenment placed as its foundational principles, firstly, the belief in the capacity of human reason to gain knowledge independent of any revealed truth (i.e. religion), secondly, the autonomy of the individual and thirdly, the belief in the human capacity and indeed its obligation to shape the future of society. None of these points are incompatible with established religion, indeed much of Enlightenment thought was directed at harmonising revealed truth (i.e. scripture) with rational knowledge. They are incompatible, however, with the idea that the only source of truth and knowledge comes through divinely inspired scripture . The Enlightenment was opposed therefore to the idea of Religion having exclusive access to truth. Many Enlightenment thinkers saw the two streams of knowledge, both religious and secular as being separate and independent from each other. This belief ushered in the new age of secularism .
The conception of the separation of the Church and the Secular was in many ways conceived in the earlier development of Absolutist monarchies. The establishment of Absolutist governments changed the way people viewed their societies, shifting the perception of the construction of society from an organic one to a political one. As a result the perception of the foundational structure of society shifted from that of a 'natural' hierarchical order to that of a voluntary construction. Absolutism gave birth to the notion of human sovereignty. As the Reformation had asserted the value of freedom of conscience and individual religious liberty, so Absolutism paradoxically promoted individual freedom by virtue of the fact that power was no longer divinely ordained. Together they led to the birth of subjectivity whereby individuals came to conceive of themselves as having a mental life of their own independent of Church and State .
The scientific revolution also impacted on the Enlightenment's attitudes towards religion. Copernicus's heliocentric model of the universe was by the eighteenth century accepted in scientific circles as established and demonstratable fact, not simply speculation. Scientists like Newton proved by Mathematical calculation that laws, knowable through human inquiry, govern the universe. Philosophers, such as Grotius, Hobbes and Locke, interested in the social realm, took these discoveries and argued that if man could discover the law of universal gravitation surely they could govern themselves by the light of reason and by constitutional government, in effect a Newtonian system of government. Thus developed the doctrine of Natural Law that was to be so influential in the development of social theories and laws.
Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) claimed that nations were subject to natural law insisting on the validity of the natural law 'even if we were to suppose...that God does not exist or is not concerned with human affairs' . A few years later Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), defined the right of nature to be 'the liberty each man hath to use his own power for the preservation of his own nature, that is to say, of life' , and a law of nature as 'a precept of general rule found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life' . He then enumerated the elementary rules on which peace and society could be established. Thus, Grotius and Hobbes stand together 'at the head of the 'school of natural law' that, in accordance with the tendencies of the Enlightenment, tried to construct a whole edifice of law by rational deduction from a hypothetical 'state of nature' and a 'social contract' of consent between rulers and subjects' . John Locke (1632-1704) departed from Hobbesian pessimism to the extent of describing the state of nature as a state of society, with free and equal men already observing the natural law . In France, Charles de Montesquieu (1689-1755) argued that natural laws were presocial and superior to those of religion and the state , and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) postulated a savage who was virtuous in isolation and actuated by two principles 'prior to reason', self-preservation and compassion (innate repugnance to the sufferings of others) .
The joint impact of the belief in Reason and the changing attitude to the nature of human laws and the role of government contributed to the growing tendency towards religious tolerance within European States, though pragmatic reasons also played a part: the desire to avoid war and indeed a certain revulsion of war on religious grounds, linked in part to the experience of Europe over the seventeenth century of widespread war waged primarily over religious differences; the need for new, non-divisive bases for loyalty to the sovereign; and the need to attract skilled immigrants for economic development of the State .
Though established religion was on the receiving end of much criticism and debate on the part of Enlightenment thinkers, this did not translate into them rejecting all forms of religion or faith. Rather the various debates tended towards their desire to combine religious belief with the precepts of reason, expressed in various ways ranging from pious religiosity through to outright atheism, with the majority falling somewhere in between.
For many Enlightenment thinkers the power exercised by the clergy on its subjects was anathema and such intellectuals as Voltaire, Diderot and d'Holbach made it their mission to emancipate mankind from religious tyranny, both in terms of irrational belief in false 'truth' and also from the involvement of the Clergy in areas of knowledge that the Enlightenment thinkers felt to be outside of their jurisdiction.
Attempts were made to recast Christianity in a form that any rational person could accept. This led to serious questions being raised regarding the nature of the bible, which was full of what the Enlightenment thinkers believed to be irrational claims and unsustainable personal testimonies of the prophets and apostles. Miracles alluded to in the bible could not be believed either, as they overturned the laws of nature - and what God would break his own laws? This led to the undermining of the status and perceived quality of the Bible. In the process, revelation itself was criticised and lead to the ultimate questioning of the validity of the
A large proportion of Enlightenment thinkers turned to 'natural' religion, one that was free of the mysteries and miracles originally contained in the bible, put there, they argued, as a propaganda technique to bring people into the Christian fold. Even the pious began to subscribe to what is called 'physico-theology', an attempt inspired by science to explain God's providence by reference to his work in nature and not primarily through his biblical word. Physico-theology was tame in comparison to Deism, a rational religion stripped down to a belief only in God . The Deist's God was conceived as an abstract and distant figure, rather like a watchmaker who leaves his creation, the watch, behind as evidence of his existence. The person who finds the watch can know nothing of the watchmaker apart from his creation . Another form of natural religion which influenced the thinking of many philosophers was Pantheism, a term invented in 1705 by the freethinker and radical Whig, John Toland , to describe the belief that God and Nature are one and the same.
Whereas the attitudes outlined in the above paragraph largely stripped religion and faith of all but a rational understanding of God, the various pious movements that grew out of nearly all organised religions rather focused on a personal and emotional religious experience . These movements attracted many followers and became powerful social forces. In Prussia for instance 'Pietism... enhanced the power of the ruler over the social elites and the Lutheran church, providing a powerful force for cultural unity in Prussia's divided lands' , due to the Pietists active social and political involvement in serving the poor and serving the state.
Religion in general was becoming more private than public, more individual than collective, and thoughts rather than ornate ceremonies began to define the believer. One indication of this lessening of the public role of piety was that 'by the second half of the eighteenth century fewer families in both Catholic and Protestant Europe left money to the church in their last wills and testaments' .
Many Enlightenment theorists expected that a well-constituted society would posses a 'civic' religion, upon the model of Rome - a faith designed to foster patriotism, community spirit and virtue. Voltaire, along these lines, was convinced that 'it was essential that one's servants and one's wives too, should be pious, otherwise, lacking fear of God, such people would steal the spoons or be unfaithful' . The religion that many Enlightenment thinkers proposed was two tier - 'a simple, pure, rational religion for the elite, and a melodramatic faith to regulate the minds and hearts of the [masses]' . Religion for the masses, as is evidenced by this argument, was seen as a utilitarian organisation for the purpose of imposing social order.
In conclusion, it is important to underline the complexity and range of attitudes towards faith on the part of the Enlightenment intellectuals. Very few intellectuals wanted to replace religion with an out and out unbelief. For one thing, most believed that science and philosophy, though casting doubt upon the existence of the specifically Christian, Biblical, God of miracles, nevertheless pointed to some sort of presiding Deity, a supernatural Creator, Designer, and Mind. The function of the established church was reduced to that of keeping order within the lower echelons of society, and outward conformity to public ceremonies was practiced by many Enlightenment intellectuals, whether they believed in them or not. The Enlightenment thinkers were quick to criticise the Church where it overstepped this role and tried to influence or control the spheres of State or Science, which were conceived as separate and autonomous bodies.