By Adi Chowdhury
The modern world finds itself embroiled in a kind of turmoil it has not yet confronted before. This turmoil has spanned across nations and cultures, suffusing the globe in a new way of thinking, a radically dissimilar new outlook, that has impacted everything from science, politics, ethics, and our understanding of ourselves. Entwined in this turmoil are thinkers, writers, philosophers, scientists, politicians, priests, and pundits alike.
The seeds of this curious turmoil had been laid by the wondrous spectacle known as the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual milestone that marked one of the most significant paradigm shifts to adorn human history. Before the coming of this age, even the most advanced human societies willingly submitted to religious authority, accepting the men of God as the guides toward a better future. Legislation was shaped and chiseled by religious texts and commands. Social outlooks and perception of nature, sexuality, gender, and morality found itself entangled inextricably in the fabric of faith rather than reason. The gaze of society fell upon the wealth of religious mandates at hand. The eyes of social leaders perused godly texts for a sense of direction.
Sometimes, this approach worked, as it provided religious incentive for charity, good works, et cetera. A population laced with faith in a deity seemed to be simpler to control and guide effectively, submitting to authority willingly and accepting the kings’ divine right to rule.
And sometimes, this approach did not work. The upholding of religious faith as the absolute authority generates absolute submission and fear of skepticism. Political dissent seemed tantamount to challenging the Word of God. Religious authority additionally instilled a respect for the superstitious, as citizens and even medical officials regarded disease and illness to be demonic possession and the work of the devil. Belief in witches, curses, sorcery, magic, and miracles prevailed. Misguided understanding of the natural world, generated by belief in a supernatural Creator and Controller, ran rampant and lay unquestioned.
The echoes of this superstitious, religious outlook are still visible today. The nuances of human sexuality are demonized. Reason is suppressed in favor of unshakable faith. The need for evidence is shunned, and religion is widely bequeathed under the guise of revelation, tradition, and cultural values–all insufficient justifications for a belief. LGBT citizens and skeptics are no stranger to the active social prejudice still lingering across the globe.
What did the Enlightenment achieve to combat such anti-rational values? This historical paradigm shift put into effect the revolutionary Age of Reason, repudiating the previously maintained superstition and theocratic values. From US History:
“The old way of life was represented by superstition, an angry God, and absolute submission to authority. The thinkers of the Age of Reason ushered in a new way of thinking. This new way championed the accomplishments of humankind. Individuals did not have to accept despair. Science and reason could bring happiness and progress. Kings did not rule by divine right. They had an obligation to their subjects.”
It is clear that the Age of Reason served largely as a large-scale broom that swept away the “superstitious errors” and mysticism of the past, and suffused European culture with newfound reverence for reason and rationalism, as well as appreciation for scientific thinking and social progress. Religion was beginning to be removed from the forefront of society:
“The Enlightenment advocated reason as a means to establishing an authoritative system of aesthetics,ethics, government, and even religion, which would allow human beings to obtain objective truth about the whole of reality. Emboldened by the revolution in physics commenced by Newtonian kinematics, Enlightenment thinkers argued that reason could free humankind from superstition and religious authoritarianism that had brought suffering and death to millions in religious wars. Also, the wide availability of knowledge was made possible through the production of encyclopedias, serving the Enlightenment cause of educating the human race.”
A cherished practice that emerged during this time is the widespread fame of salons. No, these weren’t fancy haircut places–rather, they were hubs for vigorous thinking and intellectual discussion. Such “get-together”s of visionaries took place in private homes, organized overwhelmingly by women. This practice of hosting salons is said to have been a key step forward in the crusade for women’s rights in a world dominated nefariously by men alone. Notaries and intellectuals would gather at salons to discuss the latest in politics, society, and assortments of philosophical ideas and theories.
What is the significance of the salons? They were emblematic of the rising tides of reason, the newfound interest in the importance of civil discussion and open debates. They marked the advent of a new social atmosphere–in which thoughts and opinions of individuals were valued too much to be drowned out in favor of political authority, a refreshingly dissimilar environment in which rigorous and rational debate inundated the social sphere, trumping over the previous paradigm singing odes to the virtues of a voiceless, superstitious, submissive public. Gone was the age during which religious and political authority presided over the momentum of a nation, turning a blind eye to reason and cultural cultivation, flipping through the pages of a holy book for a sole guide through life, and lumbering ahead as a monolithic, tyrannical, blind, gargantuan of authoritarian superstition and monarchism.
The advent of the Age of Reason, in a nutshell, thrust Western civilization into the realm of scientific thinking, effacing the overwhelming suffusion of religion in everyday life. Although religion still was and still is a significant player in the world’s power dynamics and continues to shape our perception of a range of issues, the Enlightenment worked to combat and alleviate the perpetual reliance on religion humanity previously suffered. In the wake of this new age, our eyes are open to a universe that can be comprehended through scientific thinking and logical analysis, rather than immerse our understanding of the world in a vat of ancient texts reeking of superstition and prejudice.