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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Seventeen


By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update February 25, 2015)

More on Das Aufklärung: The Enlightenment

Secular Humanism

The human equality and personal responsibility principles of the Enlightenment discussed previously exercised profound influence on the minds and philosophies of the American Founders. Under the influence of this new line of thought it became fashionable to ridicule the so-called superstitions and dogmatism of Western religion, while developing an ethnic appreciation for those of the East. The popular religious respect and tolerance of the past was being transformed into intellectual and secular pomposity. From this arrogant trend arose the neo-religion of Secular Humanism.

Christian and Jewish theology and religious piety was systematically being replaced by a materialistic belief in the fundamental goodness of nature. Any meaningful belief in God was quickly waning both in concept and in practice. This trend is exemplified in Haskalah as discussed before. The dawning Humanist world view was championed by people such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28 1712 – July 2 1778). The religion of the day, at least in intellectual circles, was a nature-based panentheism exemplified by the words of the poet Thomas Gray: "Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry" (DRP 218) (note 18). The depth of this growing neo-Pagan paradigm was threatening both traditional religious faith as well as the rationalism of the eighteenth century as the nineteenth dawned.

Ironically its proponents considered themselves to be the most rational generation in history. The world was rushing to replace tradition and religious faith with the secular sciences and they felt it was about time. This intended transition from cold reason to a more tender turn of the heart produced a wide array of philosophical fruit. In Kierkegaard's satire against the rationalism of Hegel, the appreciation of patristic and medieval Christian values among the English Tractarians and others, and the emphasis of religious feeling in the works of people such as Schleiermacher and Chateaubriand we see evidence of this transition in perspective. As is always the case, there were pros and cons to this growing trend.

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