The natural unfolding of human progress

Enlightenment worldview is the root of the “liberal social order,” and is predicated on the belief in “the natural unfolding of human progress,” (Kagan, 2012). Preceded by a Church-dominated orthodoxy, the Enlightenment directly threatened the political power of the Church, the main cause of rising fundamentalism in the defense of orthodoxy. However, the relationship between religion and the Enlightenment was not one of direct contract and opposition to create two binaries in the European consciousness. In fact, “recent studies of the Enlightenment suggest that its relation to religion is far more complex than a simple process of increasing secularization,” (The German History Society, 2007, p. 422). One example of how the Enlightenment ironically bolstered, or at least reshaped, orthodoxy, was via the accessibility of the Bible due to the Gutenberg printing press. Making the Bible available in the common English and German languages, readable by a substantial portion of the populace outside of the province of the clergy, rendered the mystique out of the Bible and permitted a “dogma-free Christianity,” if such a thing were possible (The German History Society, 2007, p. 422). Therefore, the Enlightenment emphasis on Reason as a mode of inquiry and critical thought initially presented challenges to orthodoxy, but it did far from erase the religious impetus in the European spirit, instead allowing a curious blend of liberalism and orthodoxy.

Conservative thinkers have posited, as Henrie (2002) points out, that “Enlightenment liberalism was a project that set out to transform the world in a quite partisan way,” (p. 27). This narrow view is unsubstantiated, and is far too simplistic. The Enlightenment did not set forth to wage a “multi-generational” battle against its “enemy,” the Catholic Church and the “the social world that Christianity had brought into being in Europe,” (Henri, 2002, p. 27). There was, however, a rise in “bourgeoisie” culture that transposed itself upon “the classical and Christian virtues,” (Henri, 2002, p. 27). Questioning the sovereignty or metaphysical existence of God, however, was a project reserved for future generations — indeed centuries later in the modern era. Enlightenment writings, theories, and philosophies do not reject God so much as they reject Church orthodoxy. God fit firmly within a pattern of Enlightenment thought that welcomed the coexistence of theism and Reason. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason embodies the fusion of Enlightenment analytical thinking with orthodoxy.

It must be acknowledged, though, that during the Enlightenment the seeds of critical inquiry into the potential non-existence of God did emerge. The German History Society (2007) presents the most “radical” form of Enlightenment thinking under the rubric of philosopher Spinoza, who was a “rationalist, atheist, and libertarian, and anticipated the dominant liberal values of the present day,” (p. 422). This was not the dominant strain of thought during the Enlightenment, though. The Enlightenment also had a diverse and multifaceted impact on European thought because of geographic and cultural differences. Those differences related to the perception of the Church and its authority, and also to the perception of Reason and political empowerment. Thus, the Enlightenment took shape differently in Italy, Austria, Germany, and England (The German History Society, 2007).

Enlightenment infused reason into orthodoxy, enabling a transformation of the Church and its role in society. The “boundaries of conservative certainty and doubt” were to be found simultaneously in the Church and in Reason; even though those were not shared boundaries (Henrie, 2002, p. 28). The dimensions of doubt were also applied to multiple domains: politics, social justice, and morality.

The Enlightenment was undoubtedly empowering, as it challenged the individual to perform intellectual inquiry into prevailing questions, whether those questions be related to metaphysics, ontology, or political philosophy. This was perhaps the most critical challenge to orthodoxy, and its primary threat. Viewed as a threat, the Enlightenment worldview challenged the legitimacy of the Church doctrine, dogma, and authority. If there were no limits to Reason; that is, if Reason led to the celebration of atheism, then the Church faced serious problems and a general revolution might have been afoot. As it were, Reason did not completely dismantle belief in God as a symbolic authority. The Church become simply an orthodox version of religiosity, and the Enlightenment served sometimes as its handmaiden.

Fundamentalism, the return to the foundations of Church doctrine and dogma, was a natural internal response to the challenge posed by Enlightenment worldviews. Attempting to reestablish the authority and legitimacy of the Catholic Church and its worldview, fundamentalism represented the stability of the ground of European thought in the midst of the tremors caused by Enlightenment reasoning. Apologetics could formulate new, Enlightenment-style defenses of orthodoxy to embolden Church doctrine. Philosophers would blend traditionalism and conservatism with the prevailing language of the Enlightenment. The mindset of fundamentalism was not contrary to the mindset of the Enlightenment, although they do seem to have completely different political and social objectives. If the objective of the Enlightenment was to dismantle Church hegemony, then it worked but only partially. If, however, the Enlightenment had the goal of dismantling Church ontology only, then it could not work. Instead, the Enlightenment became the thread of liberalism in European Christian thinking, which led to a remaking of orthodoxy. The most obvious manifestation of this pattern is in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Whereas the Reformation had as its express goal the dismantling of Church authority in Germany, its tenets did not preclude religiosity. Quite the contrary, Martin Luther remained a stalwart believer in Biblical fundamentalism but simply distanced fundamentalism from the Church. A new orthodoxy was born, in which the Church retained an orthodox sensibility and the Protestant Reformation became an ironic liberalism.

There were two types of orthodoxy extant in Enlightenment Europe, then: the orthodoxy of the Church and the orthodoxy of Protestantism. The counter-Reformation solidified the Church as a bulwark of traditionalism and fundamentalism. The Protestant Reformation became an alternative, Enlightenment-friendly mode by which the common people could proclaim intellectual and political liberation but without having to seriously challenge their metaphysical worldview. Avoiding the deeper existential questions during the Enlightenment only caused those questions to resurface later during the modern era, when it became far more likely and possible to reject Christianity entirely in an embrace of pure reason and science. The same cycle that took place during the Enlightenment would characterize global struggles between Reason and orthodoxy during the modern and postmodern eras. Existentialism, atheism, and scientific inquiry presented greater challenges to Church authority than Enlightenment thinkers ever did; leading to the resurgence of a backwards-viewing fundamentalism and orthodoxy in both the Catholic and Protestant domains. The struggle to dominate human ontology is an ongoing one, as is the struggle to dominate human political, economic, and social spheres.


The German History Society (2007). Religion and the Enlightenment: A review essay. German History 25(3): 422-432

Henrie, M.C. (2002). Opposing strains. Retrieved online:

Kagan, R. (2012). The end of history. Review by Francis P. Sempa. American Diplomacy. Retrieved online:

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