Enlightenment and Secularism Research Paper

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In the broadest sense of the word, enlightenment refers to the development and dissemination of the arts and sciences. Enlightenment entails secularism to a great extent in the Western intellectual tradition, though the two terms are not interchangeable. The entailment of secular ideas distinguishes the European Enlightenment from that of other traditions of the same name, namely the Buddhist Enlightenment of a much earlier period. However, enlightenment can also be described as transcendence, and in this regard, the Western Enlightenment is much less distant from its Buddhist counterpart. Indeed, transcendence is a key component of both enlightenment and secularism. This research paper describes the key components of enlightenment and secularism, and the relationship between the two concepts, as they have developed in the Western intellectual tradition, and as they continue to develop in our time.

In 1784, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) accepted the challenge of defining the elusive concept of enlightenment in an essay titled, “What Is Enlightenment?” Already a renowned figure of the 18thcentury Age of Enlightenment, which will be discussed ahead, Kant responded to the question with the following opening, provocative for its age:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s mind without another’s guidance. SaperAude! Dare to Know! Have the courage to use your own understanding is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment. (as cited in Durant & Durant, 1967, p. 540)

Kant’s insistence on the importance of using one’s own mind without another’s guidance is a central theme of enlightenment. The implications are perhaps greatest for humankind’s relationship with religious establishment. Individual thought and reasoning are closely linked to skeptical inquiry, and the application of skeptical inquiry is the basis of secular thought. In light of the implications, the challenge posed to religious orthodoxy is considerable. The conflict between free thought and religious orthodoxy has been, and in many respects continues to be, an enduring theme of history.

Concisely defined, secularism is the affirmation that government institutions and religious institutions and beliefs exist in separate spheres, if not in practice then in theory. Although the term is of relatively recent origin, the concept was not unknown to the ancients. George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906), British author and philosopher, is credited with coining the term secularism in 1846. Holyoake described secularism as the kind of knowledge that relates to the “conduct” and “welfare” of this lifetime. Secular knowledge is that which can be tested and understood through human reasoning. Secularism thus places emphasis on rational thought. The connection to science and scientific methodology is implicit.

Insofar as state and society are concerned, secularism entails the neutrality of government on matters concerning religion. The debate on the meaning of this, and on the question of degree, has been prominent throughout the history of Western societies and persists worldwide today. In the United States, the debate over the separation of church and state has perhaps never been more pronounced than at present. The implications are particularly significant in the realm of scientific and medical research, and government support thereof. To recognize the importance of these debates, their implications, and their future direction, it is necessary to turn first to their origins and development. The following pages provide a rather concise sketch of enlightenment and secularism from some of the earliest speculations on humankind to the present debates.

Speculations on Humankind

There is little doubt that human beings in societies across the globe have speculated on the nature of humankind. Such speculations can be the simplest of questions and yet can have the most complex answers, if they can be answered at all. The struggle to comprehend the unknown has given rise to numerous creation myths, many of which have long perished while others endure. While a reliance on supernatural explanations for understanding the universe persists, the development of science over time has unquestionably diminished popular faith in myths. Inherent in the emergence of scientific methodology is the application of skeptical inquiry. In this regard, the scientific revolution was not without its forerunners.

The period of secular philosophical achievement in the world of ancient Greece spanned more than five centuries, from the materialist philosopher, Thales, to the atheistic philosopher, Carneades (214–129 BCE). The earliest documented secular thinkers of the Western intellectual tradition were pre-Socratic materialists and skeptics (Sophists). The most notable include the mathematician Pythagoras (582–507 BCE), perhaps an early forerunner of Newton, who conceived a mathematically based universe absent the Homeric gods. The philosopher Protagoras (490–420 BCE) opened his treatise On the Gods with a candid denial of humankind’s capacity to know whether or not gods exist. This subversive language led to perhaps the first recorded incident of a public book burning. Socrates (469–399 BCE) placed emphasis on inquiry and doubt with his famous Socratic method, intended to challenge traditional assumptions. Plato (427/428–348 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) expanded on these notions and developed their own metaphysical approaches to understanding the universe. Aristotle in particular championed scientific inquiry and the possibility of an infinite universe. Ancient Greece was hardly lacking in religious orthodoxy, and polytheistic belief was pervasive throughout the Mediterranean world, yet a culture of speculation clearly prevailed, without which, it is safe to say, modern science and enlightenment would not have become possible.

The Romans triumphed more in the art of war than in the science of enlightenment. Notwithstanding, significant contributors made their mark, drawing on the intellectual traditions of Athens and Alexandria. Rome’s “golden age” of intellectual achievement during the 1st century BCE witnessed several notable enlightened thinkers. The orator Cicero (106–43 BCE) published works expounding the importance of skepticism and inquiry in determining truth. His contemporary, Lucretius (99–55 BCE), promoted Epicureanism in his On the Nature of Things, an epic poem that encourages the use of logic over superstition and appeals to humankind to overcome the fear of death. Indeed, humankind’s so-called fear of death has been a recurring theme prevalent among enlightened thinkers throughout time, often articulated as a source of popular belief in religion. The hope of an afterlife existence can be said to undercut the anxiety over the termination of existence in the present.

The conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312 CE signaled the legitimization of Christianity, already pervasive throughout the Mediterranean world, as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The tendency toward religious homogeneity and the consolidation of papal authority after the fall of Rome in 476 effectively stifled the types of free thought so prevalent in Greek and early Roman civilization. The tendency toward monastic lifestyle and a Manichaean worldview furthered this trend at the expense of enlightenment. Although secularism was a concept nearly extinct in practice during the period known as the Middle Ages, the characterization of the period as a continuous “dark ages” has been contested by modern scholars. Several “renaissances” flowered in Europe before the scientific revolution, such as the Carolingian Renaissance at the time of Charlemagne, but these were generally limited in scope and not secular in nature. The Italian Renaissance beginning in Florence in the late 14th century began to witness the enduring revival of GrecoRoman ideas. A climate of interest in the arts and sciences, and the humanistic speculations on humankind inherent in such interest, was certainly more favorable to ideas of scientific inquiry.

The Scientific Revolution(s)

In 1543, Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543) published De Revoltionibus Orbium Coelestium (Concerning the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), challenging the existing notions of the universe and of humankind’s position in it. In this major work, the Polish astronomer challenged the Ptolemaic theory of the solar system, hitherto accepted as accurate, proposing alternatively his own heliocentric model. Copernicus maintained that the sun is at the center of the universe and that the earth rotates on an axis and revolves around the sun. The Copernican revolution generally marks the advent of the scientific revolution because of the tremendous implications of heliocentrism. In replacing the earth with the sun as the center of the universe, Copernicus revolutionized humankind’s understanding of science and religion. Indeed, the Copernican revolution marks the beginning of the disagreements between science and religion that would quickly become a persistent theme of history thereafter. The science-versus-religion debates have increasingly developed as a struggle between conflicting worldviews, of enlightenment versus orthodoxy.

The notion of an infinite universe, with untold number of planets, moons, and even suns was met with disdain by religious authorities, both Catholic and Protestant. The reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) dismissed heliocentrism and chided its supporters. The Roman Inquisition sought to make an example of the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, a well-known supporter of heliocentrism who also elaborated on its precepts, by condemning him to death on the charge of heresy. Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. The Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and his contemporary Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) further developed the laws of heliocentrism, planetary motion, and optics. Galileo twice defended himself before the Roman Inquisition, the latter occasion recanting his speculations. In spite of this dubious recant, Galileo’s research helped to bring the new laws of astronomy and physics to a much wider audience than ever before. Speculations on the configuration of the universe and the role of humankind increasingly became a source of debate during the 17th century.

The application of a scientific method to investigate problems and acquire knowledge did not originate in the 17th century. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks both applied methodology to investigate phenomena. The Muslim scientist, Alhazen (965–1039), developed a scientific method that emphasized the testing of hypothesis using experimentation. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) therefore drew upon the work of predecessors when he developed his own system of logic, the Baconian method. His most notable work in this regard, Novum Organum (1620), is in fact a direct reference to Aristotle’s syllogism, as the title suggests.

Mathematical principles were employed by the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596–1650) in his development of a “method of doubt” based on deductive reasoning. In Discourse on the Method, Descartes arrives at the famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum), concluding that the process of doubting in and of itself proves existence. Descartes nonetheless maintained deeply held religious beliefs, discounting any inherent contradiction. Fellow rationalist Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) proposed a more pantheistic interpretation of God, rejecting all supernatural phenomena such as miracles and demons. Like many freethinkers of his day, Spinoza sought refuge in the Dutch republic, where such views were tolerated to a greater extent than in the adjacent nations. All of Spinoza’s published work was placed on the Roman Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books).

The long development of scientific methodology is an important part of humankind’s pursuit of enlightenment. The transition from trust in supernatural phenomena and mysticism to the application of a scientific method for understanding the universe is a central theme of enlightenment. Indeed, it was only a matter of time before religious beliefs would undergo the scrutiny of scientific inquiry. Early scientists, or natural philosophers, attempted to fuse science and religion, minimizing fundamental disagreements. In the Age of Enlightenment, even this synthesis would be challenged. The contributions of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1629), Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), and a host of others set the stage for modern secular and enlightened thought, even as they maintained religious beliefs, and certainly disagreed widely.

The Age of Enlightenment

The skeptical inquiry that emerged as a dominant theme of the scientific revolution was soon applied to other spheres, especially political and social. This development coincided with the emergence of a public sphere in Europe. A gradual development in the truest sense, the rise of a public sphere entailed the dissemination of the written word, and the proliferation of venues at which ideas could be discussed. This process can be traced at least back to the development of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440. Necessity gave rise to invention with growing literacy rates and increased demand for the written word during the Renaissance and Reformation. The proliferation of venues for discussion of ideas included coffeehouses, freemasonic lodges, debating societies and salons, to name a few. The circulation of pamphlets, journals, letters, and later, newspapers all contributed to the level of discussion and certainly to the exchange of ideas. Historians debate the question of how “public” the public sphere was by the Age of Enlightenment. It can safely be said that the level of discussion and the number of participants had never been greater. The notion of a public opinion, virtually unknown during the Middle Ages, became something increasingly important for the arts and for politics.

These developments are of profound importance to the spread of enlightenment and secularism. The emergence of a public sphere meant that critical ideas would reach a broader audience. The transfer of a monopoly on enlightenment among a select number of elites, to a broader enlightened society, was for the first time possible. The idea of human progress, of the progression of humankind to a better existence, gained many adherents. In the 18th-century Enlightenment, science, and especially medical science, came to be seen as the greatest hope for humankind. Critics of the Enlightenment denounced what they considered to be a naive or excessive faith in the human capacity for progress. Enlightenment thinkers, for their part, disagreed widely on a variety of matters, but maintained in common a confidence in human reason as the most reliable means to understanding the natural world.

It is no wonder then that Enlightenment thinkers viewed the English physicist Isaac Newton (1643–1727) as the culminating synthesis of the scientific revolution, and a key transitional figure to the Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophers embraced the philosophical notion of determinism, the Newtonian conception of the universe whereby fixed, “natural laws” could be applied to describe phenomena. In his Principia Mathematica, Newton formulated laws of motion that put to rest doubts about heliocentrism. Newton contributed immensely to the field of mathematics in order to demonstrate his laws. Enlightenment thinkers applied the concept of natural laws to other fields of human knowledge, including economics and politics. The transition of philosophy from cosmology to agnosticism thus took an important step.

Though there is no consensus on the precise beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, scholars generally look to England’s “glorious revolution” in 1688 as an approximate starting date. This development preserved parliamentary democracy in England and circumscribed the powers of the monarchy. Enlightenment principles were concurrently advanced by key early-Enlightenment figures. Notable among them was the English empiricist philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). Locke’s influence on epistemology and political philosophy was enormous. His ideas on liberty, toleration, and the social contract can be seen in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Indeed, these principles remained a central theme of the Age of Enlightenment, emerging from theory to practice in the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 18th century.

The secular tone of Enlightenment philosophy increased as the geographic center shifted from London and Amsterdam to Paris. The former cities were known for their comparatively tolerant atmosphere, and thus the premier destination for freethinkers in exile. Paris, however, was the center of an absolutist-monarchial regime, where freethinkers could be sent to the infamous Bastille-fortress prison for publishing works critical of throne and alter. Though critical books were frequently banned in France and printing presses closed down, the Bourbon regime could not prevent the large number of publications from being smuggled into the country and disseminating. These works included a variety of subjects produced on a wide range of medium. The tone of Enlightenment work was largely anticlerical, especially in societies such as France in which clerical officials were ubiquitous. The monarchy too bore the brunt of much critique. The marriage of church and state, and the concept of “divine right” of kings to rule, came under heavy scrutiny by those who promoted the concept of natural, unalienable rights.

The public intellectuals who produced much of the provocative literature of the age called themselves philosophes. Unlike traditional philosophers, for whom theory is predominant, the philosophes were public intellectuals who sought progressive change through the application of theory. They used satires, plays, novels, poems, operas, and many other venues to express criticism of superstition, dogma, and tyranny, in their different forms. Though the term philosophe is French, these public intellectuals of the “Republic of Letters” lived and wrote throughout Europe and later, the early United States. They included figures from Pierre Bayle to Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), the latter an example of the movement of Enlightenment philosophy across the Atlantic. An incomplete list of the most prominent and influential philosophes would also include the Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (1694–1778), Julien de la Mettrie (1709–1751), Denis Diderot (1713–1784), JeanJacques Rousseau (1712–1778), David Hume (1711–1776), Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), Thomas Paine (1737–1809), Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797). Many of these thinkers contributed to Diderot’s Encyclopedie (1750–1765), which contains numerous Enlightenment topics.

While certainly many Enlightenment thinkers were theist, atheist, or agnostic, the 18th-century Age of Reason is also well-known for the triumph of deism. Deists believe in the existence of a deity (from which the word derives) but maintain that this belief is purely based upon reason and observation rather than faith. Deists uphold natural law as opposed to divine revelation or supernatural explanations for the universe. Given the contributions of the aforementioned thinkers, who built upon one another, it is easy to see how and why deism emerged when it did. Inherent in deism is a pronounced skepticism of religion, especially in dogmatic forms. Strongly influenced by Newtonian physics, deists believe in the God of nature who designed the universe as a great machine set in motion according to natural laws. Often referred to as “the grand architect” or “divine watchmaker,” the deistic God created the universe, but does not intervene thereafter. This interpretation renders all supernatural events such as prayer, miracles, and prophecies as illusory and holy books such as the Bible and Koran as human-made. In spite of its 18th-century prominence, the word deism fell out of popular usage by the beginning of the 19th century. The concept, of course, has endured and evolved in a variety of forms.

The Evolutionary Framework

By the dawn of the 19th century, secular and enlightened thought had made considerable advances. Humankind’s desire to investigate and examine the natural world proved to be the underlying impetus for the spread and development of enlightenment. The intellectual culture of skeptical inquiry that emerged during the 17th-century scientific revolution, and developed during the 18th-century Enlightenment, affected nearly every field of human thought. Belief in supernatural explanations diminished as humankind developed a greater understanding of the universe. Of course, new questions emerged and old ones remain unanswered. However, more people came to accept the idea that science was the best means to understanding our world. Though literal interpretation of religion was increasingly undermined by science, the origins of life remained a mystery. As such, even Enlightenment thinkers, often highly critical of religious orthodoxy, could not conceive of a universe without a creator. It would take the application of skeptical inquiry to the fields of biology and geology in particular, and the emergence of anthropology, to piece together the origin of species.

The idea that species evolved over time was not unknown to the ancient Greeks. Philosophers and naturalists in different civilizations have suggested evolutionary ideas in relation to organisms long before the emergence of specialized scientific fields. Scientists in the 18th century, or natural philosophers as they were then called, began to formulate biological mechanisms for how evolution of species might occur. Pierre Maupurtuis (1698–1759), Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), and the Compte de Buffon (1707–1788) all made important contributions. The French naturalist Jean-Baptist de Lamarck (1744–1829) developed the idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics, also known as Lamarckism. This hypothesis purports that physiological traits or characteristics may be transmitted to offspring. Lamarck maintained that organisms adapt to their environment over the course of their existence, developing characteristics that are passed on. While the basic concept of Lamarck’s proposal is today largely refuted, his ideas nevertheless influenced the most important figure in the field of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin (1809–1882).

That Darwin’s ideas built upon the work of predecessors in no way diminishes the revolutionary nature of his contribution. This is equally true of Newton and Copernicus before him. As with Newton and Copernicus, Darwin’s ideas had vast implications for humankind. Also like his revolutionary predecessors, Darwin formulated his theory carefully over many years before publication. The famous voyage of the HMS Beagle between 1831 and 1836 was followed by more than two decades of thoughtful examination. In On the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection and the notion of common descent of species. The book provides an overwhelming mass of supportive evidence, much of it accumulated during the Beagle voyage, but also collected from colleagues in the various related fields of science. Darwin’s proposal was indeed startling: The diversity and differentiation of species was not the result of the 6-day creation of a powerful deity, as had been taught and largely accepted for centuries, but rather is attributed to the gradual, organic process of natural selection. Very succinctly put, this process entails the passing of genetic traits (characteristics) beneficial to survival from parent to offspring, over many successive generations, causing the emergence of new species. Adaptation to environment is, of course, an essential component of natural selection. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection quickly became known simply as Darwinism.

In 1871, Darwin published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. In this work, he elaborated on what Origin of Species had already implied regarding the origins of humankind. Human beings were certainly no exception to evolution and in fact, argued Darwin, are the most developed product of natural selection. The consequences of the Darwinian revolution are a comprehensive rethinking of the nature of humankind and of our relationship to the natural world. Humankind’s understanding of religion was also thoroughly affected. Evolution and the principle of common descent demolished the scientific plausibility of creation and design for the universe. Even the existence of a deity was put into serious question and for many, marginalized almost entirely as a possibility. Indeed a multitude of philosophical, theological, and historical debates emerge from Darwinism. The belief that human activities should be based on evidence and verification absent the influence of religion was greatly boosted by evolutionary theory. Today, the evolutionary synthesis is uncontested among credible scientists of all related fields. However, evolution remains an active source of debate in many societies due to the fundamental contradictions between religious interpretation and scientific investigation. The sections ahead provide greater detail on these important debates and the new conceptualization of humankind.

The Emergence of Anthropology

The origins of anthropology can be found in antiquarianism, colonialism, and to some extent, travel narratives primarily between the 15th and 19th centuries. The field crystallized following the development of scientific methodology, evolutionary biology, and later, a holistic approach to understanding culture. Early forerunners include the Greek historian Herodotus (484–425 BCE), the Venetian traveler Marco Polo (1254–1324), and the Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406). However, these prominent figures were not anthropologists in the modern sense because they did not inquire on the nature of the observed, merely recording observations. Like all of the social sciences, the necessary ingredient in the formation of anthropology was the development of a systematic approach. It is not an accident that anthropology emerged out of the Enlightenment.

Antiquarianism broadly refers to the prescientific interest in ancient civilizations. Often this took the form of hobby for affluent gentlemen, or artifact hunting in the pursuit of profit. The subfield of archaeology especially is rooted in the 18th-century interest in antiquity—Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Early archaeologists focused on the Mediterranean world, and prior to the mid-19th century, often searched for ruins associated with biblical events. The gradual inclusion of methodology and systematic approaches to conducting research soon transformed the field.

Colonialism is not entirely distinct from antiquarianism, and was for at least four centuries the primary means by which Westerners came into contact with other civilizations. European colonists, explorers, Jesuits, and naturalists often transcribed their observations, which were, of course, generally based upon their own perspective rather than that of the observed. It was for many years through these accounts that most Europeans understood nonWestern cultures. These early observations naturally gave rise to many assumptions, questions, and preconceived notions about the “other.” Traditional assumptions could also be challenged through comparative analysis, such as the notion of Christian universalism. Taxonomy and the invention of racial categories flourished in the 19th century alongside notions of “inferiority” and “superiority.” In the 20th century came the practice of observers actually immersing themselves within another culture in order to attempt an objective understanding of the observed.

Anthropology is very much an interdisciplinary study, emerging from the synthesis of knowledge gained in multiple fields that developed in conjunction. These include social sciences and natural sciences. In the case of the latter, developments in the fields of physics, geology, and biology, and their many subfields have collectively dealt a mighty blow to religion. It is an understatement to say that the emergence of evolutionary biology, and the theory of natural selection in particular, fundamentally transformed anthropology. It would not be possible to understand the origins of humankind, or what it means to be human, without evolution. Indeed, much of science would simply make minimal sense absent this fundamental theory. Anthropologists have pieced together much of our distant past through research and excavation work during the last 150 years. Distant hominid ancestors have been unearthed and dated using a variety of means. While many questions certainly remain, today we have a reasonably good understanding of the course of human evolution.

The Controversy of Science Versus Religion

The relationship between science and religion has been uneasy throughout much of history. Revolutionary scientific developments such as the Copernican, Newtonian, and Darwinian revolutions all significantly strained the relationship. The source of this unease has been the reliance on opposing methodologies to understanding the universe, and the fundamental contradictions that have emerged in the cumulative knowledge of science over time. Religion in the Western sense rests upon what has been revealed to humankind by or through a deity. The term religion itself is problematic. Some “religions” practiced throughout the world are absent a deity or divine revelation. In that case, they may be referred to as philosophies or “codes of living.” Religions that have become defunct or extinct in terms of popular practice may today be referred to as mythologies. The major revealed religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are fundamentally based upon sacred texts that increasingly came into question by scientific inquiry. Religious orthodoxy has been in a position of defense in the West at least since Copernicus, as we have seen.

Historically, this relationship between science and religion may therefore be characterized as one of advance of the former and retreat of the latter.

Sacred texts such as the Bible and the Koran have long come under intense scrutiny with the advance of scientific knowledge. Literal interpretation in particular has become impossible if one is to accept the results achieved by scientific research. Consequently, many believers have sought compromise between two seemingly opposed worldviews. Philosophers and theologians in the 17th and 18th centuries wrote texts arguing for allegorical meaning. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Diderot questioned the authenticity of sacred books. The emergence of deism as a substitute religion can be seen as an outcome of this skepticism of divine revelation, yet reluctance to abandon the notion of a prime mover. While few 18th-century thinkers were willing to take the bumpy road from deism to atheism, in the 19th century this was much less the case.

Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 added tremendous fuel to a conflagration. The theory of evolution by means of natural selection presented a major crisis between science and religion, as it undermined the Judeo-Christian-Islamic story of creation. Darwin’s assertion of the antiquity of humankind also suggested that the earth is significantly older than previously believed. This substantiated the findings of the geologist Charles Lyell (1797–1875), who argued in his voluminous Principles of Geology (1830) that the earth is much older than the 6,000 years calculated by the Christian theologian, Archbishop James Ussher. Lyell was a proponent of uniformitarianism, the theory that slow, gradual natural processes have shaped the earth (and other planets) over the course of time. In the 20th century, British geologist Arthur Holmes (1890–1965) built upon these principles with the publication of The Age of the Earth (1913) in which he used radioactivity to estimate the age of the earth as at least 1.6 billion years. Today, evidence from radiometric dating suggests that the earth is approximately 4.57 billion years old. Geologists have organized this immense span of time into a detailed geologic time scale. A vast span of time would be necessary for the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift, among many other geological propositions.

During the 150 years subsequent to the debut of natural selection, numerous advances in knowledge have been made that authenticate evolution and the antiquity of the earth. Important contributions have been made in the fields of genetics, chemistry, paleontology, geology, molecular biology, physics, and of course, anthropology, to name a few. New fields and numerous subfields have also emerged. The contributions made in these fields converge in support of Darwin’s theory. Perhaps the most notable, albeit unknown to Darwin at the time, was the research in genetics by the Augustinian cleric Gregor Mendel (1822–1884). Mendel’s work was rediscovered in 1900, after his death. Mendelian genetics were soon embraced by scientists and have become an integral component of the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology. Consequent to these developments, many people of religious faith have sought to find synthesis between religion and science. Many Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus have modified their interpretations to accommodate scientific findings. The Roman Catholic Church, perhaps mindful of the embarrassment caused by the treatment of Galileo and Bruno, has acknowledged that evolution may indeed be accurate, without explicitly endorsing or opposing the notion.

Despite numerous advances in knowledge of the arts and sciences, and particularly in the natural sciences, the theory of evolution has many detractors. The “Scopes trial” (State v. Scopes) in Tennessee in 1925 highlighted the division in American culture over the issue of evolution. The trial helped to create a lasting impression in the United States of the rift between two opposing approaches to finding truth. While many people of religious faith have found compromise, often by opting for nonliteral interpretation of sacred text, fundamentalists among Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, as well as other faiths, remain a potent and vocal force in the modern world. In the United States, many critics of evolution embrace the concept of intelligent design (ID). The basic premise of this concept is that organisms are simply too complex to have evolved, and therefore must have been designed by a god. Scientists, court rulings, and even some theologians have dismissed ID as pseudoscience and a religiously based critique of evolution. The concept is nonetheless popular in many Islamic countries, as well as in regions of the United States.

The Triumph of Scientific Naturalism

The 20th century witnessed a remarkable increase in the secularization of the human world. As has been heavily implied, this pattern has occurred in conjunction with the spread of enlightenment, or the progression and dissemination of the arts and sciences. Humankind’s greater understanding of the natural world has affected popular belief in supernatural phenomena at an inverse relationship. The pace of revolutions in scientific knowledge has increased to the point that, today, we may speak of a concurrence of multiple scientific revolutions developing simultaneously. Notably, the ongoing DNA revolution, the use of stem cell research, genetic engineering, transhumanism, evolution, space exploration, and of course, the computer and Internet revolution, all attest to the triumph of scientific naturalism and of humankind’s ability to use nature for the cause of improvement. Of course, use of the term “improvement” in this regard is not without controversy. The question of ethics as it relates to scientific research is a persistent source of debate. The purpose of scientific research and of the ongoing revolutions noted in this research paper is to increase humankind’s knowledge and awareness of the universe we live in, and insofar as is possible, to improve the human condition.

The field of genetics has seen a revolution on multiple fronts. In 1953, geneticists James Watson and Francis Crick identified the double-helix model of DNA structure. This solved the mystery of how genetic instructions are passed on from parent to offspring. Knowledge of the structure of DNA propelled research in drug development, human identity and brain activity, medical uses such as organ transplantation, stem cell research, and especially in evolution by natural selection. In the case of the latter, no longer is it necessary to research human evolution purely through identification of the fossil record, but also through identification of genetic lineage traced using the DNA of living peoples. Recently conducted DNA analysis shows humans and chimpanzees to be 99.4% identical. This has raised questions about our genus classification, suggesting that perhaps humans and chimpanzees should both be classified in the genus Homo. It is now through multiple facets of scientific research that we are able to recognize our distant ancestors and discover what it means to be human.

While it took many years for the popular acceptance of the heliocentric model of the universe and planetary motion, among many other great scientific revelations, in time these truths were universally recognized. Evolution indeed has functioned in a similar manner in terms of gradual popular acceptance. The overwhelming convergence of data in support of evolution by natural selection has made reasonable dismissal of the concept difficult. Resistance predominantly persists in geographic and cultural zones less affected by secular humanism. Religious fundamentalism often incorporates the concept of denialism in regard to scientific findings. Politics too can be affected by fundamentalist religious views and by the pressure from populations resistant to perceived assaults upon traditional orthodoxy. Scientists, for their part, maintain that good science knows no agenda—political, ideological, or otherwise. The purpose of scientific research is the pursuit of truth and the improvement of the human condition. To that end, research in evolutionary biology is ongoing. Broad acceptance of evolution and a growing acknowledgment of a cosmic perspective, including support of the cosmological model of the big bang theory, are much more pervasive today than at any other time in our past.

The Secularization of the Human World

In 1846, British writer George Holyoake (1817–1906) coined the term secularism. As we have seen, the concept of free thought was nothing new by this time; nevertheless, religion remained a potent force in government and society even in Great Britain. Holyoake, himself subject to persecution for blasphemy, set upon defining and articulating the concept that had already crystallized in theory more than in practice. In his 1896 publication titled English Secularism, Holyoake described the concept as such:

Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three: (1)The improvement of this life by material means. (2) That science is the available Providence of man. (3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good. (p. 36)

Holyoake’s definition is broad, incorporating nontheists of many different stripes. For many, secularism simply entails the promotion of social organization and justice separate from the sphere of religious belief. Secularism is therefore not intended to be an assault on or dismissal of religion. Others are actively critical of religious influence in government and society, and may therefore deem it appropriate to challenge such influence. At the heart of secularism is the view that tolerance and skeptical inquiry should be the underlying principles inherent in a free society.

The neutrality of the state on matters pertaining to religious belief is a question of central concern for many theists and secularists alike. So important was the issue for the authors of the Constitution of the United States that it is addressed in the First Amendment. Largely influenced by the Enlightenment discourse of the 18th century, the authors sought to emphasize the neutrality of the government—prohibiting Congress from either making laws promoting or prohibiting religion and the exercise thereof. Interpretation of this clause has been a source of disagreement between secularists and religious fundamentalists since its inception. Contemporaneously in France, revolutionary events began to unfold that would make the issue of secularism a theme of central concern to the present. France and Turkey are two examples of nations with an official separation of church (religion) and state. Many other nations worldwide officially or unofficially have a secular-based relationship between church and state to varying degree. Critics often argue that secularism is discrimination against religion, or even a form of religion itself. Proponents associate secularism with enlightenment and the principles of freedom and tolerance. They note that the most progressive and prosperous nations in the world are typically secular, suggesting an evident link. Conversely, secularists maintain that theocratic societies enjoy less freedom and prosperity. The worldwide trend during the course of the last century has been one of increased secularization.

Prominent variants of free thought include agnosticism, atheism, and deism, the latter described previously. Though often portrayed as a middle ground between theism and atheism, agnosticism is rather a philosophical position than a belief system. It entails that metaphysical and particularly supernatural claims can be neither proven nor disproven, and are therefore ultimately unknown to humankind. British biologist Thomas H. Huxley (1825– 1895) first used the term agnosticism in the 1860s. Huxley (1896) described agnosticism thusly:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. . . . Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. (p. 246)

Many people worldwide have articulated agnosticism before the term itself was coined. Prominent, selfdescribed agnostics include the American orator Robert Ingersoll (1833–1899), British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), and German-born physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955). Today, a substantial number of people worldwide identify as agnostic, particularly in the world’s most progressive societies such as Sweden, Denmark, and Japan.

Atheism is the position that deities do not exist, and hence religion in all of its manifestations is spurious. Skepticism is a central component, as atheists tend to doubt supernatural claims for which empirical support is wanting. Prior to the 18th century, the term atheist had a markedly negative connotation. It was loosely applied to those guilty of alleged heresy or blasphemy rather than explicit atheism. It was during the Age of Enlightenment that it became relatively more common for a person to identify as atheist. Denis Diderot and Paul Baron d’Holbach were two notable examples. The French Revolution of 1789 to 1799 had a profound influence in Germany, where philosophical discourse during the 19th century was dominated by secular thought. The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) described God in The Essence of Christianity as a mythical creation of humankind upon which human qualities are projected. As such, the narrative that God created man in his image is replaced by that of man created God in his image. Other influential thinkers of the 19th century who expounded atheism include Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), author of The Riddle of the Universe (1899); Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860); Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), author of several books critiquing religion; Karl Marx (1818–1883), who famously referred to religion as an “opium of the people”; and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who called religion a “mass delusion.”

The 20th century has undoubtedly witnessed a continuation in the trend of expressive free thought. Secular humanism, existentialism, nihilism, communism, structuralism, and psychoanalysis are but a few examples of the 20th-century philosophical discourse associated with secularism. Many 20th-century thinkers have written on the subject of free thought—certainly more than in any previous century. More significant is the extent to which this philosophical discourse has influenced societies around the world. The transformation of ideas in conjunction with rapid advances in technology has rendered the world of 2000 considerably more secular than that of 1900. Religious institutions once known for staunch opposition to scientific advancement have today, in the face of widespread secularization, modified their dogma to accommodate social changes. Resistance to do so and tension between orthodoxy and moderation has spurred violence at the dawn of the 21st century. Such responses can be seen as a reaction against universal secularization and modernization.

Future Directions

While secularism has spread worldwide at a spectacular rate over the course of the last century, its appearance in each nation has been uniquely dependent on the local social, cultural, political, and geopolitical conditions. Secularism developed quite differently in France, Germany, the United States, and Russia, for example. It is likely that this unique development, contingent on local circumstances, will continue to be the case. In addition, societies must cope with the globalization and mass society of the 21st century. The most noticeable feature of globalization is the spread and pervasive use of the Internet worldwide. A conduit for the exchange of information and ideas on this scale has the potential to usher in a second Enlightenment. The 18th-century Age of Enlightenment became possible because of the rise of a public sphere, in which new ideas could be discussed and debated, eventually eroding the monopoly on information hitherto held by throne and alter. Public access to information was the central indispensable component of the first Enlightenment. Today, in the 21st century, global access to information is unprecedented. The exchange of ideas on such a scale has the potential to challenge religious orthodoxy, traditional assumptions, and inherited beliefs. Those interested in preserving status quo are likely not unaware of this revolutionary potential.

A resurgence of religious fundamentalism and antidemocratic movements worldwide at the beginning of the 21st century has been met with a no less determined movement for secular humanism. Organizations advancing the cause of secularism and enlightenment are active worldwide. In Amherst, New York, the Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism are two such examples. Both organizations promote the ideals of free inquiry, separation of church and state, freedom and democracy, moral education, religious skepticism, the advancement of science and technology, understanding of evolution, and of course, the human capacity for reason. These ideals are today spreading worldwide to an unprecedented degree. The many aforementioned thinkers and writers have, over time, contributed to the ascendency of reason. Science and technology have fundamentally transformed social institutions in Europe, the United States, and in many other nations. It yet remains to be seen whether the principles of secular humanism will be universally embraced.


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