The Origin of Modernity

The Origin of Modernity

Mini Teaser: Modern Western discord stems from differing Enlightenment experiences.

by Author(s): S. T. Karnick

This was especially true in the case of the Church. But the rebuilding of this institution could not possibly be made complete, as it had to be pushed out of the realm of politics in order to let reason ascend to full prominence. Although Catholicism remained strong in France, the political power of the Church declined radically, and ultimately its social authority subsided as well. Catholicism, once the soul of France, has now been almost entirely replaced by Enlightenment secularity. The American Catholic theologian George Wiegel described the current morality of the country in his 2003 William E. Simon Lecture, noting that "many of the French prefer[red] to continue their vacations rather than bury their parents when thousands of elderly Frenchmen and women died alone during the heat wave this past August--and were then left in overflowing refrigerated warehouses."

Weigel went on to characterize the outcome of a century and a half of increasing secularization across Europe: the Continent, he said, is "systematically depopulating itself" and "committing demographic suicide." He noted that "no Western European country ha[s] a replacement-level birth-rate." The loss of religion has created a continent-wide weakening of morale, Weigel said: "European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular. That conviction . . . and its public consequences are at the root of Europe's contemporary crisis of civilizational morale."

As Weigel points out, Europe is increasingly losing its religion. A fact sheet released by the French embassy in Australia notes:

'During the last fifteen years, religious observance and beliefs [in France] have declined as regards christenings (which have fallen from 95 percent to 58 percent), weddings (which have fallen from 85 percent to 50 percent), belief that God exists (61 percent today, 66 percent fifteen years ago) and the resurrection of Jesus Christ (43 percent now do not believe in it, compared with the previous figure of 37 percent)."

The French, it is clear, have gone much farther toward the Enlightenment goal of removing religion from public life and replacing it with notions based solely on reason divorced from any "eternal or immutable moral law", as Cobbe put it.

Britain has gone a long way down that same road in the past century, as Christie Davies notes, and America certainly seems to have started down a similar path. If, however, there were three Enlightenments, as Himmelfarb suggests, and two of them were salubrious, it is puzzling that the one she sees as toxic should seem to be winning out after all, both in Europe and in the English-speaking nations, though more slowly in the latter. Herman's book unintentionally suggests an answer. The author observes Scotland at the end of the 17th century, "on the threshold of the modern world", and notes that it was "a cultural world that had come into being a little more than one hundred years before, with the Scottish Reformation." This nation "generate[d] the basic institutions, ideas, attitudes, and habits of mind that characterize the modern age", all as a result of the democratizing forces set loose by the Reformation. Legal subjugation of women was discarded, and slavery was abolished. This, Herman notes, was where the 18th-century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson "created a new political and social vision, . . . the vision of a 'free society.'" This new type of society--in which a shared moral compass made orderly freedom possible--was a direct outcome of the Protestant Reformation.

However, by undermining the authority of the Catholic Church and breaking the bonds between church and state, the Reformation ultimately cut the ties between Christianity and Europe. Religious pluralism led to increased cultural and political diversity and a decline in authority of all institutions, including religious observance. As a result, Europe soon lost its attachment to the ideas that were feeding the creation of free societies in Scotland, England and America.

The French Enlightenment took root in a country that had successfully withstood the Protestant Reformation, and instead of establishing a new variant of Christianity, it replaced it with the only thing that remained credible: reason itself. It was a Reformation without religion.

Seen in this light, the so-called British, American and Scottish enlightenments were not a break from the previous world but were instead a continuation and intensification of the religiously inspired liberalization initiated during the Reformation. This liberalization depended on religion to sustain a people sufficiently moral and public-spirited that they did not require close governance. Based solely on reason, the French Enlightenment had no real use for religion, and in fact its purveyors strongly believed that the world would be much better off without it. Providing a new ideology for centralized power and opposition to religion, its ideas spread through Europe, Britain and the rest of the world as an alternative to Reformation liberalism.

Today we see these two worldviews still at odds. In America, where religious faith is still relatively strong, the type of free society the Protestant reformers set in motion is alive, if not perfectly well. In Europe, where "enlightened" indifference to religion increasingly prevails, a very different world is forming. Although Himmelfarb is not ultimately persuasive in positing three Enlightenments, she is certainly right on the most important question: our future will indeed be built on the ideas we hold.

Essay Types: Book Review