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Atheism in the Enlightenment

Atheism in the Enlightenment

During the Enlightenment, people sought answers to life's unsolved questions: is there God? What is his purpose? What is our purpose as humans? What is the true nature of humankind?

The Enlightenment taught people to question, to become skeptical, and attempt to find rational and realistic answers to these questions. Doubt as a gateway to knowledge! Thus, Skepticism was born as a philosophical stance, and from this stemmed Deism and Atheism.

Skepticism in the Enlightenment

To be skeptical during the time of the Enlightenment was extremely important; to be skeptical means that one can think critically and methodically, which are key factors in math, logic, and science. The creation of scientific thinking also came along with the rationalization of philosophical thinking, exploring the learning and the experience behind existing human knowledge.

Did you know?

Rene Descartes wrote "Meditations on First Philosophy" in 1641, which explored Skepticism on a radical level, explaining God's existence and the soul's immortality. Descartes aimed to discard whatever was not certain and present what can be known for sure.

The people of the Enlightenment did not seek to replace religion with Skepticism. However, they used Skepticism as means to understand life. When science discovered something new, there was less of a reason for people to believe in anything other than the proof of science itself. This encouraged people to follow reason over blind faith, pulling them away from the traditional values of Christian belief.

David Hume

Skepticism gained prominence through Scottish philosopher David Hume, who developed a skeptical school of thought. Hume devoted an enormous amount of his time to investigating the limits of human reasoning.

Hume's work was later picked up by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who questioned whether or not we, as humans, can fully grasp the world around us with any level of accuracy.

Atheism in the Enlightenment, Painted portrait of David Hume, StudySmarter David Hume, 1766. Source: National Gallery Scotland.

Definition of Skepticism

Skepticism questions and doubts asserted beliefs or dogmas. This can apply to topics of philosophy, epistemology, politics, religion, and any field of knowledge. Skepticism can also range from radical to moderate, the difference being that the radical believes that answers to every question can be found and proven. In contrast, the moderate believes that some things can never be known for certain (such as the existence of God or whether there is an afterlife). The concept of Deism, a "natural religion," is derived from Skepticism.

"Natural Religion" is a belief based on reason (science, mathematics, the nature of the universe, etc.) over divine revelations.

Deism in the Enlightenment

Coined in the 17th and 18th centuries, Deism focuses on religious belief apart from miracles or superstition. When Isaac Newton presented his findings on universal gravitation, explaining the behavior of objects on earth and objects in the heavens, this encouraged a view of the world that sees the natural world being defined by the laws of nature and not a God.

Did you know?

The first major publication of Deism can be traced back to the book De Veritate (1624), written by Englishman Lord Herbert of Cherbury. After flourishing in England and spreading into France, the works of Voltaire can be credited with spreading Deist thinking into Germany and America.

Atheism in the Enlightenment, Painted portrait of Voltaire, StudySmarterVoltaire (1694 - 1778)

Deism was heavily focused on answering life's questions through science and rationality. They did not believe that God was a conscious creator who monitored and punished people in their everyday lives. The concept of human nature plays a large role in the beliefs of Deism, which professes that God intervenes very little in human affairs past the point of creation.

Definition of Deism

Deism is the belief in the existence of God or a supreme being that does not intervene with the workings of the universe and natural world. It is accepting the existence of a creator based on reason and not on supernatural beliefs. God created human nature and the nature of the universe so that the world can run its course without the constant attention of a deity.

Soon stemming directly from Deism and Skepticism came Atheism, the complete rejection of a God and the stories of religion.

The Enlightened Atheist

During the Enlightenment, open Atheism and the questioning of religious practice were made possible by increasing religious (or, in this case, non-religious) tolerance. Though the term "Atheist" first appeared in the 16th century, people did not begin to use the word as a way to identify themselves until the 18th century.

Atheism in the Enlightenment, First page of the Encyclopédie, StudySmarterFirst page of the Encyclopedie. Source: Wikimedia Commons

With Atheism growing from Deism and Skepticism, both heavily based on reason as the primary epistemological tool to know reality, it was easy for a person to reason their way out of religion completely. Deism and Skepticism are sometimes viewed as "gateways" or "paths" to Atheism.

An entry defining Atheism found in Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie says

The simple ignorance of God doesn't constitute Atheism. To be charged with the odious title of Atheism one must have the notion of God and reject it."

–Diderot's Encyclopédie.

Though tolerance was rising in Europe, Atheists were still often referred to as "heretics," "unbelievers," or "materialists," despite many of the accused not being Atheists at all. Rather, they were thinkers who may have been diving too deeply into science and reason for the comfort of the church.

The Necessity of Atheism, written by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, expresses several ideas regarding Atheism. He claimed that belief is involuntary; an Atheist does not choose to be so. Hence they should not be persecuted. At the end of his pamphlet, he writes-

The mind cannot believe in the existence of a God..."

–Percy Bysshe Shelley

Rise Atheism in the Enlightenment, Painted portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley, StudySmarterPortrait of Shelley. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Regardless of his lack of belief, he encouraged his readers in other publications to come forward with proof of God if they possessed any.

Definition of Atheism

Atheism is to have disbelief in the existence of God or Gods. Atheists are often closely related to Skepticism, as they question everything that does not appear to have a rational answer. The group builds its lack of support for the idea of God through little to no solid evidence and conflicting stories and revelations. Atheists do not believe there would be a God in a world filled with so much evil, a world that does not even recognize the existence of God but as social conformity.

The Outcome of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a time that helped develop new religions, or lack thereof, along with producing many unique views of the world through books, essays, discoveries, laws, and even revolutions regarding all existing human knowledge. The American Revolution and the French Revolution can give direct credit to the period of Enlightenment due to a want to restructure society based on rationality and not simply because of the bloodlines of the elite.

The Enlightenment also inspired 19th-century movements such as Romanticism, Liberalism, and Classism, and in the 20th century, inspired Modernism.

Atheism in the Enlightenment - Key takeaways

  • Skepticism, Deism, and Atheism are closely related but not the same. For example, one can be a Skeptic without being an Atheist, or one cannot be both an Atheist and a Deist.
  • Skepticism means that one can critically and methodically, which are both keys to succeeding in math or science. They question religious beliefs and dogmas because they often believe that many things cannot be certain.
  • Deism means that one believes in the existence of God or a supreme being but does not believe in religion's magic, mystery, and miracles. They believe that past the point of creation, God is not a conscious deity that interferes with everyday life.
  • Atheism means one does not hold any beliefs toward God or religion based on rationality and reasoning. Atheists must be given solid evidence to become believers.

Frequently Asked Questions about Atheism in the Enlightenment

The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment led to the rise of Deism. People began to want solid, proven answers to things; no longer simply believing in superstition or miracles. 

No, Deism is not a form of Atheism. Deists still believe in God as the creator, though they do not believe he makes an impact on our everyday lives. They also do not believe in the miracles or mysteries of the scripture, only what can be proven with science: a "natural religion". Atheism is the complete absence of the belief in God and religious doctrine. 

The Enlightenment influenced the development of Atheism because it encouraged people to be skeptical and find rational answers to every question. Blind faith was not a part of the Enlightenment and encouraged people to not believe in something without solid proof of its existence. 

The term Atheism can be traced back to the 16th century, however, the first people to use it to directly identify themselves was during the Enlightenment in the 18th century. 

Skepticism was important to the Enlightenment because asking questions and finding their answers means that the human mind is expanding. The Enlightenment was all about developing and showcasing human knowledge. 

Final Atheism in the Enlightenment Quiz

Question

Skepticism, Deism, and Atheism are all related, but not the same. 

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Answer

True. 

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Question

What is Skepticism? 

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Answer

One questions religious beliefs and dogmas because they often believe that many things cannot be absolutely certain.

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Question

What is Deism? 

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Answer

When one does believe in the exitance of God or a supreme being but does not believe in the magic, mystery, and miracles of religion. 

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Question

What is Atheism? 

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Answer

One does not hold any beliefs toward God or religion because of rationality and reasoning

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Question

The Enlightenment inspired _________.

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Answer

All of the above. 

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Question

The Enlightenment fed the fire for the beginning of the American and French Revolutions. 

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Answer

True. 

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Question

People who were accused of being Atheists, in fact often identify themselves as Atheists.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Religious tolerance was developing during the Enlightenment.  

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Answer

True. 

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Question

Deism and Skepticism are often viewed as "gateways" or "paths" to Atheism. 

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Answer

True. 

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Question

Skepticism only has one level, you can be neither radical nor moderate. 

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Answer

False.

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Question

What subjects encouraged people to think more rationally and pull away from blind faith?

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Answer

Both. 

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Question

The findings of universal gravitation, which helped inspire Deism, was found by _______. 

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Answer

Isaac Newton

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