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The Enlightenment and religion

The myths of modernity

S.J. Barnett

This book offers a critical survey of religious change and its causes in eighteenth-century Europe, and constitutes a challenge to the accepted views in traditional Enlightenment studies. Focusing on Enlightenment Italy, France and England, it illustrates how the canonical view of eighteenth-century religious change has in reality been constructed upon scant evidence and assumption, in particular the idea that the thought of the enlightened led to modernity. For, despite a lack of evidence, one of the fundamental assumptions of Enlightenment studies has been the assertion that there was a vibrant Deist movement which formed the “intellectual solvent” of the eighteenth century. The central claim of this book is that the immense ideological appeal of the traditional birth-of-modernity myth has meant that the actual lack of Deists has been glossed over, and a quite misleading historical view has become entrenched.

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Introduction

The Enlightenment and modernity

S.J. Barnett

Enlightenment is a broad phenomenon, and it is now increasingly recognised that it was as diverse in its protagonists as it was geographically and chronologically disparate. This chapter reveals that, outside of traditional Enlightenment studies, there also exists strong support for the Enlightenment-modernity thesis in the form of the so-called post modernity theory. Modernity gave way to post modernity in the early 1970s. Postmodernists have repeatedly asserted that the secularising, reason-orientated Enlightenment is the one and only origin of modernity. It is true that postmodernism has been responsible for a renewed interest in the philosophy of history, mostly because it asserts that the past is irretrievably gone, and that self-interested attempts at reconstructing it are, by their nature, consequently doomed to failure. This study represents an attempt to review some of the causes and contexts of religious change in Enlightenment Italy, France and England.

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S.J. Barnett

This chapter discusses the reasons the myth of a deist movement has remained so important to Enlightenment studies, even when the evidence adduced for it has been markedly insufficient. It examines the claims for a deist movement, the actual numbers of verifiable deists, the problem of defining deism, and how the desire to identify the roots of and validate modernity has led to long-term distortion of historical evidence and subsequent interpretation. Furthermore, the fear of infidelity, antichristianism and heterodoxy that produced the witchcraft craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also produced the early origins of the deist scare. In the eighteenth century, deists remained scarce and, aside from a few high-profile moments in France, never fulfilled the role assigned to them by admirers or detractors. In the twentieth century, deism was resurrected and imbued with new force by historians, and made to appear as one of the great contributors towards secular modernity.

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S.J. Barnett

This chapter focuses on historical records and problems that occur in their interpretation, moving from the distortions of historians to the inherently biased and misleading nature of the historical record, and to the role of politico-religious struggle in its creation. Historians must ask which historical reality – as provided by the historical record – they wish to choose, for competing constituencies of interest that have bequeathed to us not objective history, but above all their views upon the issues of the period. Thus, the myth of the deist movement is not solely the invention of historians, but was itself first invented in the early Enlightenment with the aid of the powerful tools of politics and public opinion. The politico-religious convulsions across Europe from the Reformation until the eighteenth century were numerous and bloody. The resulting religious divisions were enshrined in confessional states, but, as with the cases of Protestant England and Catholic France, religious minorities remained persecuted and disabled. The origins of Enlightenment Anticlericalism, John Toland, Pierre Bayle, the problem of influence and many more issues are briefly explained.

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The English deist movement

A case study in the construction of a myth

S.J. Barnett

This chapter emphasises the politicisation of religion, and the reasoning and mechanisms by which the scare figure of Deism was manufactured, dealing primarily with the period from the 1690s to the 1730s. It illustrates how sections of the clergy and political class were keen to talk up the existence and threat of a deist movement for their own particular ends. The debate further deepens the discussion on how centrally important public opinion was to the whole process of creating the historical record. The two case studies on France and Italy contain very little discussion devoted to Deism, instead concentrating much more intensely on identifying the broad elements and processes of religious change. The case study of England is the first of the case studies, because the Enlightenment was at its most precocious in England, as conditions there relate to the arguments on creation of the myth of Deism.

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France

The revolt of democratic Christianity and the rise of public opinion

S.J. Barnett

The discussion of the French experience in this chapter illustrates that the tiny number of philosophes, few of whom were deists, were more bystanders than activists in the major politico-religious events and developments of the century. In fact, they can hardly be termed consistent fighters for toleration, at least as Enlightenment studies have traditionally understood that term. The study focuses on public opinion and broad forces for change, challenging the notion of an all-embracing French absolutism. The parliaments, Jansenists and broad public opinion achieved what the deists and philosophes never even consistently fought for: the suppression of the Jesuits, the development of a de facto toleration prior to the Revolution and the initiation of the demands for constitutional government. The chapter also deals with the emergence of religious toleration in France and the degree to which it was brought about by broad politico-religious struggle rather than by the philosophes.

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Italy

Roman ‘tyranny’ and radical Catholic opposition

S.J. Barnett

This chapter discusses a case study that provides a different context of the Enlightenment. The experience of Catholic dissidents in the Italian peninsula provides some similarities with the struggles in France. The chapter illustrates that broad politico-religious struggle, rather than the actions of the philosophes, provides the most significant challenge to the status quo of Enlightenment Europe. It sheds light on the nature of the polemical challenge that radical Catholics–Jansenists advanced against Roman theocracy and Church jurisdiction in the independent states of the Italian peninsula. In the practical absence of the voices of deists and philosophes, the broad Catholic forces opposed the ‘tyranny’ of Rome in very forceful terms remarkably similar to those of dissenting Protestants. This chapter also demonstrates how politics and religion were intertwined, and that the broad politicisation of religion is really the key to understanding religious change in the Enlightenment.

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S.J. Barnett

This chapter discusses the significance of ‘misreadings’. Eighteenth-century participants and constituencies of interest could – wittingly or unwittingly – ‘misread’ the publications and events of the period, contributing to the origins of modern myths about the eighteenth century. The main discussion here, however, focuses on the role of public opinion in intellectual change on core Enlightenment topics such as toleration. The dominance of the top-down model of intellectual change has prevented due recognition of the role of the wider public in the formation of the idea of religious toleration. It is also asked whether it is appropriate for modern (or postmodern) historians to place modern definitions of religious toleration upon the shoulders of eighteenth-century thinkers. By doing so, historians invite anachronistic comparisons with the twenty-first century. Only by broadening the scope of Enlightenment studies beyond the traditional canon can one hope to grasp and investigate the intellectual dynamic of the Enlightenment.