The Enlightenment

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How did the Enlightenment foster a more secular society?

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The Enlightenment (1685–1815) led to a more secular society for several reasons. The Enlightenment is also known as the Age of Reason; reason replaced faith for many people during this period. People often met in coffeehouses to exchange ideas and debate the issues of the day.

The Christian Church had...

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dominated the Middle Ages. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 CE, the popes of the Catholic Church wielded enormous power. Great rulers, such as Charlemagne, were crowned by popes. But Napoleon grabbed the crown from Pope Pius VII and put it on his own head at his coronation in 1804; such a bold act would have been unthinkable before the Enlightenment.

Isaac Newton, John Locke, and other Enlightenment figures (philosophes) strongly believed that knowledge was attainable through human reason and calculation. Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie summarized human knowledge; it, not the Bible, had the answers. Philosophes believed that natural law—not the hand of God—explained the universe. Understanding could be achieved through the use of mathematics, science, and philosophy, rather than Christian faith. Deism replaced religious theology.

After the French Revolution of 1789, the Catholic Church was persecuted. Many priests were killed, and scores of churches were closed. The Cult of Reason replaced the Catholic Church.

In 1787, Enlightenment thought influenced America's Founding Fathers in their decision to separate church and state. The Founding Fathers knew about the terrible religious wars that had occurred in Europe, and they were determined to create a secular state.

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During the Enlightenment, people started to look for rational explanations for why things happened. This is a sharp contrast with the Middle Ages, when most natural phenomena was believed to be caused by the direct action of God. During the Enlightenment, people started to question giving the Church exclusive power over one's soul, and many people started reading the Bible and looking for their own interpretations. This led to the Protestant Reformation. Scientists also took part in the Enlightenment, as they used the scientific method and direct observation to explain natural occurrences. This led to advances in science and medicine. While superstitions still existed, they were less common in classes exposed to secular education.

The Enlightenment also spread to government. People started to question the divine right of kings. This would lead to a surge in people longing to govern themselves, either by creating a republic or making a monarch subservient to a legislative body. This was perhaps the greatest legacy of the Enlightenment, as people did not put all of their trust in a leader who was to enact God's will on Earth and govern everything outside of the Church's jurisdiction.

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Descartes is often called the father of modern philosophy and, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, he set the groundwork for the secularism of the Enlightenment.

In that work, Descartes sought to find a ground for knowledge. He found it by throwing out anything that he could doubt. This included Church doctrine. He grounded knowledge in his certainty that "I think, therefore I am." From that rational starting point, he reasoned his way into a belief in the existence of God, which he equated with perfection.

In doing so, Descartes put reason ahead of religious authority. This was a reversal of how people had thought in the Middle Ages. Before Descartes, people had grounded reason in the authority of received religious truth.

Separating reason from religion and giving reason primacy was key to Enlightenment thinking and led to secularism, because now religious truth could be questioned and doubted. Religious truth now how to justify itself in terms of reason and not vice-versa.

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The Enlightenment promoted a more secular outlook in society by encouraging people to question received authority.

In Medieval times, people tended to accept ideas that came from authority figures.  These could be figures from the past, like Aristotle, whose ideas were widely believed and taken on faith.  These could also be people like church figures.  The Enlightenment encouraged people to believe only in things that could be proven.  This led to a more secular outlook in society as people stopped looking to the church for answers and instead turned to science for answers that could be backed up by empirical proof.

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