Enlightenment Origins of Contemporary Atheism

One thing I have learned interrogating, in Socratic fashion, the so-called atheists, agnostics, and skeptics who are thick on the ground and on-line these days is that the Christianity they reject is not any Christianity I would claim as my own, but a false Christianity fashioned for them by bigots. Rarely, it soon becomes clear, have any read an Augustine or Aquinas or C.S. Lewis, or taken the time to study (let alone understand) a Bible. In fact, what one soon realizes is that they know little or nothing true about the source of most of what is true, good, and beautiful in Western Civilization.

Thus, these people should for the most part not be treated as adults bearing well-considered beliefs, but rather as rebellious teenagers. All they really know is that they want to be free to do what they want. These people I tend to encounter are not, as one might be tempted to think, ignorant and unschooled. Not at all. Many are the product of fine universities, where they have learned to despise Christianity, the United States, Western Civilization, and anyone who does not join them in this hatred. One is to hate these things and anyone who might defend them because they are responsible for the oppression that keeps the oppressed from getting what they want, whatever it is.

The justification offered for this refusal to accept any order or authority outside themselves is the now commonly heard absurdity that “everyone has his own truth.” That everyone having his own truth is a logical impossibility does not seem to faze them. The absence of reason more generally does not seem to faze them. Instead, reason is subordinated to individual autonomy, to the triumph of the unencumbered will. The apparent willingness to dispense even with common sense if it inhibits what one decides to want often displays this tragi-comically, as in the increasingly common practice of deciding that it is we, not God, who makes us male or female.  This pursuit of autonomy will reach its logical end when some begin to claim to be their own creator ex nihlo. Sound absurd? Not if you’ve been paying attention.

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The triumph of the will, of individual autonomy over truth and reason, is the most prominent fruit of the Enlightenment. We were to be freed from tradition, and religion, so we might instead follow reason, but reason itself, along with human nature, has been found by many to be too much of an obstacle to freedom. Reality itself has become such an obstacle. The choice between reason and Christianity was always understood to be a false choice, at least by anyone who had read the Church Fathers, but the Enlightenment was never really about enlightenment at all. It was, at root, about liberating man from God. One become “enlightened” by accepting the lie that man didn’t need God, that he could save himself from whatever ailed him.   This is the philosophy under which many in the West now live. Whether God exists or not is beside the point; God is simply unnecessary, or so it is said. The problem for these rebels, increasingly in power, is what to do with anyone who dares to disagree. It is increasingly a problem, too, for those who disagree.

Much of the chaos and absurdity we see around us today can be directly tied to this pursuit of freedom for its own sake, unconstrained by the true, the good, or the beautiful. It is difficult sometimes to see this because the rebels have become skilled at claiming that what they happen to want is good, true, and beautiful, and even more skilled at getting it. That what they often want is bad, false, and ugly is obvious, and troubling.

Our country may not survive the triumph of the unencumbered will, nor the totalitarian means that are increasingly found necessary to control it. A society of people devoted only to the freedom to be free is not a citizenry but a mob. Among the pillars of our civilization is the recognition—found in Plato, in the Bible and elsewhere, and among the Founders of our nation—that only the truth would make us truly free. Liberating ourselves further from the truth will not bring true freedom, but only a false freedom that brings in its wake disorder, tyranny, and death.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Liberty Leading the People” painted by Eugène Delacroix in 1830.


  • Clifford Staples

    Clifford Staples, Ph.D., is a sociologist serving as a Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

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