The Enlightenment, an intellectual and philosophical movement that emphasized the power of reason, dominated Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. Following the Age of Science, which marked a radical change in scientific thought during the 16th and 17th centuries, many Enlightenment men were equipped with scientific ideologies. Science made people aware of the natural law and their natural rights, which led people to question the nature of God and challenge the role of the church.
Influenced by figures of the Age of Science who put reason above religion and demonstrated the power of the human mind, men of the Enlightenment believed that humanity could be improved through rational change and associated rationalism with the overthrow of religion and traditional authority in effort to attain free speech and thought. Consequently, the Enlightenment men abandoned and rejected whatever belief that cannot be reasoned or backed up by rational justification and focused on the order in the natural world and natural rights of individuals.
Contrary to traditional views that took a spiritual approach, the Enlightenment men approached God’s creation and the role of religion rationally. The Enlightenment thinkers thought that it wasn’t necessary for a man to support a particular religion because if a man’s purpose is to please God, he can rationally follow sociability rules and rights of humanity instead of following the church and its priests. The universe was created by God in such a way that mutual benefit is resulted from natural cooperation of all parts of the universe. Public utility is a result of perfecting morality, which means it must comply with morality that religion advocates. That’s why the Enlightenment men believe that religion protects virtue by regulating the hearts of men and making them better citizens. Also, God created the universe with a purpose of happiness. In order to live a good life, man doesn’t need to renounce the gifts given by God to be happy. Happiness is guaranteed by abiding to the laws of God. Because the laws of nature are understood through science and reason, happiness are limited to individuals who are capable of reason.
Deism was one of the new ideas that questioned the God-universe relationship in a rational approach as opposed to faith. Deists thought that the fact that the universe exists means there’s necessarily a creator. But God, the first cause and creator, doesn’t intervene in our human lives because his work ends with the creation. Because the universe is created for natural cooperation, God allows it to run itself to perfection. Deism rejected supernatural phenomenon and criticized religion where God’s existence is verified through revelation and miracles. Deism thought that since God is creator of heaven and Earth, it’s illogical that God revealed Himself through a vision to a fraction of this universe. It’s irrational that God’s existence is verified by miracles because they are extraordinary events that cannot be explained and violate laws of nature that God created. Deism thought that the means to reach spiritual truths is not religious beliefs but reason alone. Such perspectives promoted the thought of evolution and since and made people think beyond religion. The Enlightenment encouraged man’s freedom and individuality. Differences among individuals are not a result of a godly plan but our nature to survive and adapt.
People of the Enlightenment aimed to spread and apply reason to all aspects of life and society, encouraging everyone to interpret and think for themselves. While educated people saw it as a tool for rational discussions and secular beliefs, the heads of state considered it as means for improvement and productivity. They emphasized the importance of reason in spreading knowledge, refining society, and dealing with the Church and state’s exploitation and prejudice.
However, the importance of reason was taken to the extreme when Europeans used it to justify their colonialism and proclaimed themselves superior because the European way of thinking was based on reason. Consequently, cultural pluralism and diversity were crushed, and ethnic minorities were disregarded.
Nonetheless, the way of thought promoted by the Enlightenment transformed a society where individuals had to accept religious, political and societal beliefs and values to one where the people own their thoughts and act accordingly. The prevalent philosophies that existed back then was characterized with an increasingly scientific outlook on the world and advocated critical thinking, as well as political freedom and human rights.