The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda of Contemporary Atheism

Yesterday I chanced upon Atheist Climber’s interesting post on “The Atheist Re-Enlightenment” whilst browsing around, and this inspired me to make available the third chapter of my undergraduate dissertation, in a slightly updated and “blog-ified” format.  This chapter was entitled “The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda” and assessed the views and agenda(s) I have discerned in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and compared them with my (fairly general) impression of the views and agenda(s) of prominent Enlightenment thinkers. I hope it illustrates some of the merits and pitfalls of referring to a contemporary Enlightenment, spearheaded by certain individuals or a more general atheistic movement, and provides some interesting starting points for discussion.

The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda

Although it can be inferred from representative literature that contemporary atheism pushes a liberal agenda in favour of a peaceful, moral co-existence, where rational inquiry can be freely practised, positive expressions of this are difficult to find. This blog post teases out positive expressions from the representative writings and utilises these, in addition to the contemporary atheistic criticism of religion, to consider whether contemporary atheism promotes a twenty-first-century return to Enlightenment values. Following a brief presentation of these values, I consider various key points of contact, before concluding that there is an agenda at work, which has been heavily influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, but also incorporates certain aspects of Romantic and anti-clerical thought.

As with any historical period, it is misleading to refer to “the Enlightenment” as a distinct, bounded phenomenon. Different Enlightenments occurred at different times during the eighteenth-century, and localised terms for “enlightenment” carried different meanings within these contexts (Outram, 2005:1). However, these contextual usages delineate a consistent theme of new light bringing fresh and deep understanding[1]. As will become clear, it is almost always possible to find a counter-example to any simplistic designation of the Enlightenment position. However, this acknowledgement does not negate certain commonalities of spirit and purpose. It is possible to speak of the Enlightenment as an “historical fact” and an “ideal reconstruction” (Crocker, 1969:1). Whilst the individuality of various writers means that ‘the Enlightenment’ is in many ways an ideal reconstruction, it is also a “fact inasmuch as a group of writers, working self-consciously, […]sought to enlighten [humanity], using critical reason to free minds from prejudices and unexamined authority” (ibid). Humanity seemed to be freeing itself from the superstitions of the past, “human omniscience” seemed an attainable goal (Berlin, 1979:14 cf. Hampson, 1990:150-151), and people believed, with Kant, that “we are indubitably living in an age of enlightenment” (in Hof, 1997:165).

As I am not attempting to assess theological critiques of the Enlightenment[2], this greatly reduces the sources available for an examination of its relationship with contemporary atheism. Also, due to the large number of Enlightenment sources, I proceed from contemporary atheistic writings, and compare their implicit and explicit vision with the Enlightenment. However, the writers considered as Enlightenment representatives are by no means all atheists. Whilst “Baron d’Holbach [1723-1789] and Jacques-André Naigeon were the two foremost proselytisers for materialistic atheism during the French Enlightenment” (Kors, 1992:273), their contemporary, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) cared little “if his atheistic manuscripts saw the light of day” (ibid). Voltaire and Rousseau were most certainly deists, with Rousseau believing that atheism was immoral, arrogant, and philosophically untenable (ibid:287). And there is evidence that other thinkers, such as Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Priestly, George Berkeley and Isaac Newton maintained a Christian faith, believing that “reason and revelation went largely hand in hand” (Hyland, 2003:60). Therefore, any similarities discerned between the views of “the Enlightenment” and those of contemporary atheism cannot include a denial of God’s existence.

Explicit calls for a new Enlightenment can be found in the work of Hitchens and Dawkins. In the final chapter of God is not Great, “The Need for a New Enlightenment”, Hitchens calls for “a renewed Enlightenment” which is well “within the compass of the average person” (2008:277-283). This enlightenment is seen in direct opposition to the religious alternative being delineated “with extraordinary vividness” (2007b:xxvi). Similarly, Dawkins writes the following in his “Mission Statement” for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science – “The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science…”[3] – clearly seeing the defence of the Enlightenment as an imperative for his foundation.

It is much more difficult to find such explicit declarations in the work of Dennett and Harris. There are instances where they have participated in lecture series’ promoting Enlightenment values (Enlightenment 2.0[4], the Enlightenment Lecture Series[5]), and Dennett indicates his displeasure that the spirit of the Enlightenment hasn’t led to a scientific examination of religion (2007:49). However, despite frequent insinuations and provocations from public comments, Dennett refrains from mentioning the Enlightenment in seventeen articles published in the Washington Post[6], and Harris only mentions it five times in passing in the fifty published articles listed on his website,[7] suggesting that they are intentionally avoiding utilising the term. If anyone can alert me to any writings by these authors which do explicitly refer to the Enlightenment, I would be delighted to have them brought to my attention. However, on the basis of the evidence I have seen to date, it appears that two representatives of contemporary atheism make sparing references to their Enlightenment agenda, and two either fail to make this explicit, or intentionally avoid doing so. Whilst potential reasons for this are discussed in another of my posts, these observations indicate that if an Enlightenment worldview is being presented, it is implicit rather than explicit.

Through previous research, I concluded that religion is overwhelmingly portrayed as physically, morally and intellectually dangerous by contemporary atheism. On this subject, the general Enlightenment position held that through reason, humanity was “freeing itself from the prejudices and superstitions that had produced so much blind cruelty in the past” and from the “repressive and disciplinary role” of Christianity (Hampson, 1990:150-151,155 cf. Dupré, 2004:251). Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a Protestant, believed that Christians “are encouraged to cruel intolerance by beliefs that arouse their aggressive passions” (Crocker, 1969:10). And in a striking prelude to the writings of Harris and Hitchens, d’Holbach asserted that God is known “only by the ravages, the disputes, and the follies which he has caused upon earth” (in Hyland, 2003:89).

On the immorality of religion, in addition to the overwhelming denunciation of religiously inspired violence, Voltaire criticises biblically celebrated immoral actions (e.g. Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac) (Gay, 1964:28) and derides the Christian optimists who “accepted that evil was just a necessary part” of the world (Hyland, 2003:61). D’Holbach was of a similar opinion (ibid:89), and David Hume held that “religions result in cruel persecutions, bigotry, strife between sects or between sects and the civil power, and the hunting down of unorthodox opinions” (Gaskin, 1993:xvii). Concerning the non-religious origin of morals, Hume speaks for the Enlightenment, writing: “Their root [morals] strikes deeper into the mind, and springs from the essential and universal properties of human nature” (1993a:183).

Finally, in 1947, Horkenheimer and Adorno stated that “the Enlightenment had always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. […]The programme of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world: […]the substitution of knowledge for fancy” (in Outram, 2005:6). Although this was an anti-Enlightenment polemic, it provides an accurate account of the Enlightenment opinion on knowledge and religion. Condorcet (1743-1794) opposed both the church and belief in God “because it perpetuated ideas detrimental to progress” (Hof, 1997:262); Voltaire thought that “it was to the interest of ecclesiastics everywhere to keep men in the condition of ignorant and submissive children” (Gay, 1964:44); and Kant maintained that the churches made their “domestic cattle dumb” (in Hyland, 2003:54). As with the previous two points of discussion, these points of commonality cannot sufficiently support a declaration that contemporary atheists are promoting an Enlightenment worldview. However, they do demonstrate that the key themes through which these atheists couch their opposition to religion found significant expression in the writings of the Enlightenment. These similarities also emphasise an anti-clerical regime which can stand apart from ‘atheism’, suggesting that contemporary atheism inadvertently endorses a secular reformist Christianity…

In his critique of the Enlightenment, Hegel wrote: “When all prejudice and superstition has been banished, the question arises: Now what?” (in Outram, 2005:109). If this question is applied to contemporary atheism it perfectly encapsulates the scope of this investigation. When the negative critique of contemporary religion is stripped away, what positive intentions can be discerned? When referring to ‘positive intentions’, the term “positive” is not used in an evaluative sense, but denotes the active courses of action proposed, as opposed to the negative criticism of religion.  Thus, this analysis focuses on four key aspects of the worldview promoted by contemporary atheism, and discusses parallels with the Enlightenment: the promotion of knowledge and understanding for all; the belief that the atheistic worldview is life-affirming and life-enhancing; the stance on the continued existence of religion; and the emphasis on the majesty and wonder of nature.

Throughout contemporary atheistic writings there is a recurrent emphasis on the importance of knowledge. Bafflement as to why anyone would choose religious faith over the pursuit of knowledge is exemplified when Dawkins cites Douglas Adams: “I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day” (2007b:142 cf. Hitchens, 2008:278; Harris, 2006:48). Dennett emphasises the importance of this pursuit, believing that the only constant of human nature left in our post-modern, scientific age may be “our incessant curiosity” (2010:xxiii). However, this emphasis is no mere corollary of the Enlightenment denunciation of religion’s obstruction of knowledge. Yes “imposing ignorance is shameful”, but there is nothing shameful in ignorance itself (Dennett, 2007:339). “The average person [now has] access to insights that not even Darwin or Einstein possessed” (Hitchens, 2008:282) and should be allowed “to make their own informed choices” (Dennett, 2007:327) Including in matters of religion (ibid:327-328). This same concern to promote knowledge, above and beyond objecting to its censure, can be seen clearly in Enlightenment writings: Rousseau aimed “to free children from the tyranny of adult prejudice and expectation” (Hyland, 2003:83); Voltaire believed the clergy should be “told what to teach and how to teach it” (Gay, 1964:31); and “the mere diffusion of accurate and up-to-date information” was an important part of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Hampson, 1990:86). However similar to the contemporary atheists’ concern for education this might seem, there are several important differences. Firstly, this concern to educate does not appear to have extended to the ‘common’ people. Aside from the expense of the Encyclopédie restricting its circulation (Hampson, 1990:86), there is evidence that Voltaire, d’Holbach, Diderot and Naigeon (ibid:160-161; Kors, 1992:299-300) “took the existence of an unteachable majority for granted” (Hampson, 1990:160). Secondly, it was a common thought that unrestricted use of reason was either undesirable (Kant in Outram, 2005:1) or simply impossible (Diderot and Voltaire in Hampson, 1990:96 cf. 78-79). And thirdly, it was regularly argued, in the words of the Benedictine Louis-Mayeul Chaudon (1775), that “the study of physics” could be put into the service of religion, as a cure for both atheism and superstition (in Kors, 1992:288 cf. Voltaire in Hampson, 1990:78-79). These widespread views indicate that whilst contemporary atheists may be influenced by these initial, tentative steps, their emphasis on a fully naturalistic and rational education for all takes them above and beyond the pale of the Enlightenment writers.

Dawkins states that “the atheist view is correspondingly life-affirming and life-enhancing” (2007b:405). This double affirmation is passionately expressed in quite romantic language, by the other writers: “we have been given a lot to love” (Dennett, 2007:253) and once people have embraced reason, and “accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives” (Hitchens, 2008:6) they will “feel in their bones just how precious life is” (Harris, 2007:54 cf. 2006:226). Again there is a correlation between these views, and the general purport of the Enlightenment. The core of Voltaire, Hume and Kant’s ethics “was a favourable estimate of human nature and of the human enterprise” (Gay, 1964:135), and even the devout Anglican, Dr Johnson (1709-1784), acknowledged that “pity is […]acquired and improved by the cultivation of reason” (Hampson, 1990:159). However similar these views may seem to those of contemporary atheists, the majority of these expressions were not based upon a materialistic atheism (Kors, 1992:296-7), but upon a re-examination of the relationship between man, religion and the deity. Therefore any correlation between contemporary atheism and Enlightenment thinkers on this matter seems purely coincidental.

There are few other issues on which there is so much disagreement than contemporary atheistic attitudes towards the continued existence of religion. At some points it appears that the aim is the complete eradication of religion – people should be protected from being “infected” by, or “hooked” on religion (Dennett, 2007:85; Dawkins, 2007e:306 cf. Harris, 2006:14,227). At others, the “spiritual” aspects of life are celebrated in such a way that allows Harris to say, without a hint of irony, that in a world without God “there would be a religion of reason” (Wolf, 2006, cf. Dennett, 2007:23,55,303,311; Harris, 2006:16,30-41,221). Hitchens indicates that he would be happy if religious people simply left him alone (2008:12-13) and during The Four Horsemen dialogue actually states, to the consternation of the other three, that he wouldn’t wish “to see a world without faith” (cf. 2008:12)  – he wishes people would see sense, but then he would be left with no one to argue with. Dennett harangues those people of faith who withdraw from the discussion on the existence of God (2007:296-297), yet Dawkins himself refuses to debate with creationists (2006). Sometimes religion is presented as a manmade phenomenon (Hitchens, 2008:10,52,117,219; Dawkins, 2007b:56) or, alternatively, as the result of unconscious evolution (ibid:222,233; Dennett, 2007:140-141,149,166-167). However, underneath this disagreement flows the thought that the world would fundamentally be a better place if free, rational thought triumphed over supernaturalism.

Unsurprisingly, the Enlightenment exhibits a spread of opinion on this issue, with Condorcet being prepared to dispense with the church (Hof, 1997:262), and Voltaire oscillating between “white-hot hatred” and “respect and even affection” for Christianity (Dupré, 2004:253 cf. Outram, 2005:113). However, the overwhelming thrust of the Enlightenment was one of religious tolerance (Outram, 2005:114-115 cf. Hampson, 1990:152). This toleration was extolled by Kant as “enlightened” (in Hyland, 2003:57), and most explicitly by Voltaire, as “the natural attribute of humanity” (ibid:62 cf. Dupré, 2004:251; Gay, 1964:25). Whilst these arguments for tolerance share some similarity with the professed positions of contemporary atheists, there are two key differences. Firstly, Enlightenment toleration was imbued with an inherent respect for the religious beliefs of others whereas contemporary atheism views “the very ideal of religious tolerance […as] one of the principle forces driving us toward the abyss” (Harris, 2006:15). And secondly, any toleration extended by these atheists is generally viewed as an interim solution, before religion eventually dies its natural, or induced, death. However, as discussed previously, contemporary atheism often exhibits an ambivalent attitude to certain aspects of Christianity, which reflects the Voltaire’s oscillating position. It is also clear that, in striking resemblance to the “civil religion” proposed by Rousseau (Gehrig, 1981:51), a “religion of reason”, purged of superstition and immorality, and imbued with an anti-clerical ethos would partially address the concerns of contemporary atheists. These observations clearly add weight to theories of both Enlightenment and secular Christian influence on contemporary atheism.

The final aspect of the contemporary atheistic worldview for comparison is the tendency to view the natural world with awe and wonder. The use of romantic language by these authors is, at times, quite intense: Dawkins notes a “quasi-mystical” response amongst scientists to the “magnificence of the real world” (2007b:25,32 cf. 397,404); and the others speak of the “mystery and marvel” (Hitchens, 2008:8-9), the “unimaginable surprises” (Harris. 2006:36) and the “humility, and awe, and sheer delight, at the glory of the evolutionary landscape” (Dennett, 2007:268). The notion that the natural world is sufficient for any human is a resurgent theme throughout the writings of these four authors. However, whilst the Enlightenment saw men as “objects in nature no less than trees and stones” (Berlin, 1979:27), the message taken from this was that human interactions “could be studied as that of atoms or plants” (ibid). Hints of reverence are found in the writings of Hume, who has Philo declare that nature “possesses an infinite number of springs and principles, which incessantly discover themselves on every change of her position and situation” (1993b:50). However, the key notion here is again that these “springs and principles” of nature “discover” themselves – they make themselves known upon proper scientific examination.

It is commonly held that “the idealisation of nature” is something which occurred in the movement away from the Enlightenment and into the Romanticism of the nineteenth-century (Outram, 2005:108)[8]. This could explain why Dawkins alludes to critics at Cambridge who condemn his worldview as “nineteenth-century” – a double-edged attack aimed both at his directness and at his awe at nature’s “monstrosities of improbability” (2007b:185-187). Romanticism was itself a form of diffuse Christianity, imbued with the same anti-clericalism observed in the Enlightenment and contemporary atheistic writings. The observed parallels between contemporary atheism and Romanticism are suggestive, once again, of a sentimental attachment to certain aspects of Christianity, and a liberal, secularising reformist agenda. Thus, whilst it is not possible to label contemporary atheistic emphasis on the majesty of nature as “Enlightenment”, these observations point to an additional, Romantic, influence – itself a reaction to, and in some ways a development of, the Enlightenment. Although contemporary ecological concerns and a more “New Age”, holistic attitude to human interaction with nature are likely to influence the contemporary atheistic position, these too are rooted in Romantic ideals (Chryssides, 2007:6) and thus further support this argument.

This discussion has demonstrated that however much contemporary atheism may be influenced by Enlightenment norms and values, the consistent surpassing of Enlightenment ideals in the areas considered discourages the conclusion that contemporary atheism promotes an Enlightenment worldview per se. Only two of these four authors offer explicit support for a new Enlightenment, and then only sparingly. Their three-fold criticism of religion does indeed follow the pattern established by the Enlightenment writers. However, upon turning to the positive, active aspects of the worldview atheists are promoting, it becomes clear that whilst their agenda has expanded upon the implicit influence of Enlightenment writers, it has found additional motivation from the Romantics, and from a sentimental attachment to aspects of Christianity. I have identified that there is a positive agenda at work, even if there are disagreements over the final fate of religion. Whether this agenda is to be labelled a new Enlightenment or not appears to be down to the individual idiosyncrasies of the authors involved.

A full bibliography, and a continuation of this discussion can be found in my earlier post: The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief

[1] See Hof, 1997:4-5 on English, French and German interpretations of the term.

[2] See, Tina Beattie’s “The Enlightenment and its Aftermath” (2007:57-75).

[3],ourMission, (21/03/10, 19:12)

[4],   (21/03/10, 19:20)

[5], (21/03/10, 19:26)

[6] Since 14/11/06, (21/03/10, 19:31)

[7] (29/03/10, 15:27)

[8] See, McGrath’s “Nature: Affirming the Transcendent without God” on the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats (2005:116-122).


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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

5 responses to “The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda of Contemporary Atheism”

  1. atheistclimber says :

    A really good breakdown there. I tend to agree with your summary, and it’s funny, I wrote a piece on Romanticism just the other day.
    See: Double Rainbow Guy and The Insane Clown Posse

    Thanks for linking to my article by the way.

    I’m glad people like you exist who can do all the research and cite sources, as I fear I am terribly lazy when it comes to things like that.

  2. religionandmore says :

    Sorry it has taken me a while to get back to you… will try and have a look at your piece today.

    Thanks for the encouragement, and the mutual linking. I wish I could say that I did the research all the time… give me a project though and I’m there :-)

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