The Catholic Church and the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire was one of the most vociferous questioners of Catholic doctrine.
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Enlightenment philosophers were generally opposed to the Catholic Church and organized religion in general. Especially in France, the center of the European Enlightenment, the Catholic Church was seen as an oppressor -- along with the aristocracy -- of individual freedom and reason because of its dogmatism and insistence on being the only source of truth.

1 Roots of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment thinkers traced their beginnings back to scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo, both of whom discovered new natural laws that were not addressed by the Bible or ancient philosophers like Aristotle. This chipped away at the authority of the Catholic Church, which claimed to be the only source of truth. Galileo in particular was heroicized by the Enlightenment because of his challenge to Catholic Church doctrine. In his "Dialog Concerning the Two Chief World Systems," three characters use deductive reasoning to argue the possibility of Copernicus' theory of heliocentrism, which had been banned by the church. Enlightenment thinkers sought a world where people like Galileo were completely free to question the world around them.

2 Reason and Sin

For centuries, the Catholic Church had characterized human beings as naturally sinful and in need of forgiveness through religion. Enlightenment philosophy was in direct opposition to this because of their positive emphasis on the importance of the individual. Enlightenment thinkers did not think the Church was necessary to make people be "good" or behave morally. They sought to motivate individuals through education and reason to work for the betterment of society and themselves. Especially in light of the ideal of religious freedom and tolerance, humans should be allowed to reason out their own morals and ethics.

3 Natural Religion

Enlightenment thinkers further undermined the authority of the Catholic Church by arguing that religion wasn't the only path to God. Although several Enlightenment thinkers were atheists, most others practiced some form of natural religion or agnosticism. Diests, for example, believed in a supreme creator that could be discovered, not through the Bible and church teaching, but through nature and the application of reason to the natural world. For some, Deism was too coldly rational, and they felt religion should be pursued through human sentiment, or divorced from reason altogether and taken only on faith.

4 Legacy

Before the Enlightenment, people did not enjoy the freedom to question state or religious authority, as the Galileo affair illustrated. During the Enlightenment, the concept of favoring individual liberty over the power of an institution became prevalent in France, Britain and the United States, leading to revolutions in two of those of those countries, as well as a concept of "basic human rights" that shaped the U.S. Constitution. The idea of religious freedom and tolerance also finds its roots in the Enlightenment and philosophers such as Voltaire and John Locke, who questioned religious doctrines.

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.