rembrandt anatomy lesson

This is a transcript of a talk I gave last week at the Bruno Kreisky Foundation in Vienna. It is part of a series of lectures the Foundation is organising on the ‘Enlightenment and its legacy’.



No Enlightenment philosophe talked of the ‘Death of God’. The ‘Death of God’ is a nineteenth century phrase, which we know of today largely through Nietzsche (though it was not Nietzsche who coined it). ‘God is dead’, as he put it The Gay Science. ‘God remains dead. And we have killed him.’

In the eighteenth century, God was very much alive. The power of the Church still ran deep. Those who challenged it did so clandestinely. And they were themselves often believers. So why talk about the ‘Enlightenment and the Death of God?’

There are two aspects to what we call the death of God. The first is the decline of religious belief. The second is the growth of a new kind of faith – faith in the capacity of humans to act without guidance from beyond. What I want to suggest is that the decline of religious belief has been overplayed. But faith in human capacities has been undervalued. We have been so obsessed by idea of the decline of religious belief that we have almost ignored the significance of faith in human capacities – and the decline of that faith in the post-Enlightenment world.

The importance of the Enlightenment is that it was the hinge upon which views of the significance of God and of what it is to be human transformed. But the story of that transformation is a complex one. And to tell the story I will, perversely perhaps, say relatively little either about the death of God or about the Enlightenment, but much more about wider social, intellectual and religious currents both before and after the eighteenth century.

Today the death of God is usually seen in terms of a struggle between science and religion. So the story of the Death of God might be expected to be the story of a bloody conflict between science and religion. But it did not quite happen like that. Historically, the challenge to God came less from science than from politics. At the heart of the eighteenth century God wars (if it’s not too anachronistic to call them that) was a debate not so much about theology or metaphysics – though there were, of course, fierce debates about these issues too – as about the social order and human freedom. Or rather, beneath the fierce debates about theology and metaphysics was a more fundamental debate about social order and human nature.

For more than a millennium, Christianity had provided the crucible within which intellectual and social life was lived in Europe. Belief in God, as the Christian thinker Nick Spencer put it in a recent book on the history of atheism,

determined the way people lived, the way they were governed and the way they structured society. It regulated their days, their weeks and years, their births, marriages and deaths. It told them what to hope for and what to fear. It legitimized communities, kingdoms and empires. It explained the past, the present and the future, the earth, heaven and the heavens, human origins, purpose and destiny. It was the key in which all life, human and natural, was composed, if not necessarily played.

That may be to overstate the all-encompassing sense of Christianity. But there is little doubt that Christianity was the loom on which the threads of life, both private and public, had to be woven. And to many people, to unstitch faith was to unstitch society, indeed life, itself.

In 1676 an English yeoman named John Taylor was charged with blasphemy for saying that Jesus Christ was a ‘bastard’ and that religion was a ‘cheat’. He was tried in front of England’s most important jurist, the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale. ‘Such kind of wicked and blasphemous words were not only an offence against God and religion’, Hale insisted, ‘but a crime against the laws, States and Government; and therefore punishable in this court; that to say religion is a cheat, is to dissolve all those obligations whereby civil societies are preserved; and Christianity being parcel of the laws of England, therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law.’ Any challenge to Christian doctrine was, in other words, also a challenge to the social order. To preserve the social order, one must necessarily also protect the authority of faith and Church.

van Eyck Diptych

It is against this background that we need to understand the story of the Death of God. What that story encapsulates is not merely a debate about God, or doctrine or faith. It is also a story about how to construct, sustain and renew both the social structure and the moral order.

It is a story too about what it means to be human. Our conceptions of God reflect our conceptions of humans. Different conceptions of God reflect different conception of human being.

In the Ancient world, gods were not seen as wise and judicious as were the later gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but as capricious, vain, vicious, deceitful and immoral. It was in part a reflection of the world as the Ancients saw it: messy, chaotic, largely unpredictable, barely controllable, and yet inescapable. And it expressed the tragedy of being human: to desire freedom, and be tortured by a sense of autonomy, and yet be imprisoned by forces beyond our control.

With tragedy, however, came dignity. Ancient gods acted according to whim; only humans were truly accountable for their actions. Human life was framed by the gods and yet humans could not rely upon them. They had to depend upon their own wit and resources. It was human reason and human morality that imposed order upon an unpredictable world, and carved out dignity and honour within it.

The coming of monotheism, with its one all-powerful, all-knowing, wise and moral God, transformed the vision of human nature and the character of moral thinking. Monotheism made humans both greater and lesser than they had been before. Humans had been created by God in His image, a notion that helped monotheistic thinkers, Christians especially, enlarge the meaning of ‘humanity’. The dignity of the individual, in principle at least, derived not from his or her participation in a specific community but through their God-created nature.

Yet what God giveth with one hand, he taketh away with the other. Humans were now seen as weak, corrupt, flawed and broken, in a qualitatively different way than previously. Where the Ancient Greeks had seen humans as carving out a space for dignity and honour within an unpredictable universe, and in the face of capricious and often immoral gods, Christianity insisted that humans could not be good on their own but only through God.

At the heart of the Christian account of human nature was the doctrine of Original Sin, perhaps the most profound contribution of Christianity to the Western tradition; and perhaps also its most pernicious. The insistence that all humans were tainted by Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God in eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; that it was impossible for humans to do good on their own account, because the Fall had degraded both their moral capacity and their willpower; and that only through God’s grace could humans achieve salvation – all led to a bleak view of human nature that came to dominate Western thinking as Christianity became the crucible in which that thinking took place.

Cranach Adam and Eve

Ideas of God, of human nature and of social order are, then, intimately linked. Different conceptions of God reflect different conceptions of human being.   Different social structures, different moral orders are necessarily rooted in distinct conceptions of human nature.

From the late Middle Ages conceptions of God, of human nature and of the good society all began to change. From within the Christian tradition there developed the beginnings of a new humanist sensibility, expressed in the work of poets from Dante to Milton, of artists from Giotto to Michelangelo, of philosophers from Aquinas to Erasmus. At the same time, a host of changes, from the emergence of the individual as a new social actor to the breakdown of traditional communities, upended the social world. Increasingly, social structures were no longer seen as given but became debated politically and challenged physically.

These changes both drove and were driven by changing conceptions of God. There was greater skepticism among theists themselves about arguments for theism, a growing desire to root faith in reason, a more naturalistic view of the world, even among believers, the burgeoning of secular spaces in society, a developing sense that one’s relationship with God was more a private than a public issue.

The Reformation played an important role in fostering many of these changes; at the same time many of these changes allowed for the emergence of a more Protestant sensibility. The Reformation was, however, a complex, contradictory movement, as reactionary as it was revolutionary, as constraining as it was liberating. The Reformation with which we are most familiar, the Reformation of Martin Luther and John Calvin, was in fact an intensely conservative religious reaction against the spirit of reason that Thomas Aquinas had introduced into Christianity in the twelfth century by marrying theology to Aristotelian philosophy. The Protestant reformers insisted on the absolute sovereignty of God over His creation and saw the human race as a ‘teeming horde of infamies’, as Calvin put it, whose innate sinfulness degraded any autonomy except for the autonomy to be wicked.

Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church appealed to many monarchs and princes, especially in northern Europe, chafing at the constraints imposed by Papal power. The so-called ‘magisterial Protestantism’, wrenched power away from the Pope, but did not abandon the idea that the rule of the monarchs was authorized by God.  Many, such as Charles I of England, insisted on the ‘divine right of kings’. As kings and princes cleaved to the Reformation as a means of gaining power, so the institutions of faith and the institutions by which they enforced their rule became barely distinguishable. As a result, the spread of secularism went hand-in-hand, paradoxically, with the greater fusion of church and state. And a movement that began by asserting the right of every individual to interpret the Bible as they wished soon realized that this would lead to religious and social anarchy. Each of the various strands of the new Protestant faith established its own institutions to enforce its particular doctrines and rituals and to eliminate heresy, often on the pain of death.

cranach luther

There were, however, more radical strands to the Reformation. From the Anabaptists in the Low Countries and in German speaking lands in the mid-sixteenth century to the Levellers and Diggers in England a century later, such movements sought to challenge the power not just of Popes but of monarchs too. They took Luther’s idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ as an expression of the moral equality of all humans, and as a challenge to all religious authority.

Anabaptists argued that Christianity had compromised its integrity through an accommodation with the ruling classes. Christians, they insisted, had to disengage themselves from the social order. Anabaptists refused to swear oaths to a secular authority, opposed the death penalty, decried wars, and condemned private property as unchristian.

The Levellers were a political movement during the English Civil Wars that held to a notion of ‘natural rights’ and emphasized popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance. The Diggers were a group of agrarian communists led by Gerrard Winstanley. ‘In the beginning of time God made the earth’, he wrote. ‘Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another.’

The emergence of such movements was deeply unsettling to the Protestant elite. In 1524 the Peasants’ War broke out, a popular revolt in German speaking lands against oppressive taxes and land laws, and one that the rebels justified through a particular reading of the Bible. The uprising was brutally put down by the ruling classes, some 100,000 peasants losing the lives in the slaughter. Luther published in response his essay Against the Murdering Thieving Hordes of Peasants, berating the rebels for the use of violence but defending the right of princes to use force to suppress the revolt because the peasants had ‘become faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious, murderers, robbers, and blasphemers, whom even a heathen ruler has the right and authority to punish’. ‘Anyone who is killed fighting on the side of the rulers’, Luther insisted, ‘may be a true martyr in the eyes of God’.

Ideas of God, of human nature and of social order may have been intimately linked but there was no straightforward relationship between the different elements of the equation. It was in the Enlightenment that the tensions implicit in that relationship fully came to the surface.



It is impossible to discuss the Enlightenment, and particularly debates about religion and social order, except in the shadow of Jonathan Israel’s recasting of its history. In a series of monumental books – Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested, Democratic Enlightenment and Revolutionary Ideas – Israel challenges both the traditional accounts of the Enlightenment and more recent revisionist histories of the eighteenth century.

Traditional accounts took their cue from the philosophes themselves. To the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’, Immanuel Kant responded that it was ‘Man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage’. For Kant, as for Voltaire, Hume and Diderot, the importance of the Enlightenment was that it cleansed the European mind of medieval superstition and allowed the light of reason to shine upon human problems. This was, of course, a self-serving definition, and one that airily dismissed pre-Enlightenment intellectual traditions upon many of which the philosophes drew; but it was also a definition that gave a sense of the historical significance of the Enlightenment. Subsequent historians from Ernst Cassirer to Peter Gay developed and reworked this theme.

The vision expressed in such studies of a single coherent Enlightenment understood in terms of an intellectual transformation of the European mind has come to be challenged in the past half century from a number of quarters. Some historians began developing national, rather than pan-European, accounts. The French Enlightenment, the German Enlightenment, the Scottish Enlightenment: each came to analysed in its own terms, and often as a display of national pride. Other historians, such as Robert Darnton, began to stress not the intellectual but the social and cultural aspects of the Enlightenment. Postmodern scholars challenged the very idea of the Enlightenment as a good. Enlightenment rationalism and universalism, long seen as the foundation stones of progressive thought, are now often dismissed as Eurocentric, even racist.

jonathan israel

Israel, like many before him, lauds the Enlightenment as that transformative period when Europe shifted from being a culture ‘based on a largely shared core of faith, tradition and authority’ to one in which ‘everything, no matter how fundamental or deeply rooted, was questioned in the light of philosophical reason’ and in which ‘theology’s age-old hegemony’ was overthrown.

And, yet, despite language and imagery that harks back to Kant, Israel is also deeply critical of much of the Enlightenment, and hostile to the ideas of many of the figures that populate the works of Cassirer and Gay. At the heart of his argument is the insistence that there were two Enlightenments. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know, which provides the public face of the Enlightenment, and of which most historians have written. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.

The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream’s intellectual timidity constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs. By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment ‘rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely’.

There are many criticisms one can make of Israel’s account. The divergence between the Radicals and the mainstream was never as sharp as he suggests. Thomas Hobbes, for instance, was an atheist and a materialist, but a political authoritarian. Rousseau and Kant were theists but supportive of revolutionary thinking. Many of the ideas of the Radical Enlightenment emerged through the religiously-shaped movements nurtured by the radical wing of the Reformation. All this is only to be expected, for ideas and beliefs never cleave cleanly, especially in an age as complex and questioning as that of the Enlightenment.

Nevertheless, however fuzzy the boundaries may have been, however difficult it may seem to pigeonhole individual philosophers, however knotted were the roots of radical ideas, the distinction between the Radical and mainstream Enlightenment remains both important and illuminating. It provides a powerful and cogent framework through which to understand intellectual and social conflict both in the Enlightenment and in the post-Enlightenment world.

david jeu de paume

The story of the Death of God, I have suggested, is really a story of the struggle over the social order, and of what it means to be human. This was also at the heart of the struggle between the Radical and the moderate Enlightenment. What the distinction the Radicals and the mainstream expresses also, in part, is a new relationship now developing between morality and politics. In the premodern world, morality grew out of the structure of the community, a structure that was a given. Societies changed, of course, but few people entertained the idea that it was possible to will social change. Morality was about how to define right and wrong behaviours within the given structure of a society. Every individual possessed a fixed place in society from which derived his duties, rights and obligations. Moral rules both derived from, and defined, his role within that community, his duties towards other members and the actions that were compatible with his role and duties. The structure of the community, the role of the individual and the rules of morality were all bound together by divine law – all were vested in the authority of God.

The social and intellectual transformation I have already mentioned changed much of this. As the structure of society became politically contested, so ought came to be as much a political as a moral demand: how society ought to be was defined by the political possibilities of social change. All the philosophes recognized that to create a moral society one had to create a more rational society. Only those who followed in the footsteps of the Radicals accepted that to create such a rational society would require the root and branch transformation of society. It is in this context that we need to understand both the debate between the Radicals and the mainstream, and the debate about the God. To see this more clearly, consider two of the key philosophers of the mainstream Enlightenment: John Locke and David Hume.



John Locke is generally regarded as providing the philosophical foundations of liberalism. His Letter Concerning Toleration is a key text in the development of modern liberal ideas about freedom of expression and worship. It is a powerful argument in defence of religious tolerance. It is also a highly restricted one.

Locke’s starting point in the Letter is the insistence that the duty for every individual is to seek his own salvation. The means to do so are his religious beliefs and the ability openly to worship. The power of human political authority cannot, therefore, rightfully extend over either sphere. The proper concern of civil government is the protection of life, liberty, health and property. The state can use force and violence where this is necessary to preserve civil interests against attack. One’s religious concerns with salvation, however, are not within the domain of civil interests, and so lie outside of the legitimate concern of the state.

Locke’s was a brave and controversial argument, particularly at a time when Europe was rent by tempestuous religious strife, and when intolerance and persecution were the norm. But Locke’s concept of liberty was also exceeding narrow. ‘No opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society’, he insisted, ‘are to be tolerated by the magistrate’. This allowed Locke to justify intolerance towards Catholics. Catholics owed their primary allegiance to Rome, not to London, he insisted, and so could not expect tolerance or protection. It is a claim few make these days about Catholics, but many continue to do so about Jews and Muslims.

Further, those ‘who deny the being of a God’, Locke maintained, are ‘not at all to be tolerated’. Atheism, for Locke, undermined all morality and therefore was a threat to the very foundations of society. ‘The taking away of God, though but even in thought’, he wrote, ‘dissolves all’ because ‘Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.’ The echo of Lord Chief Justice Hale is unmistakable.

For Locke, ‘those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.’ In other words, since tolerance was only tolerance of religious freedom, those without religion did not have a claim upon such tolerance.

Spinoza 2

There is a striking contrast between Locke’s conception of tolerance and that of his near contemporary Baruch Spinoza. Born in Amsterdam in 1632 into a traditional Jewish family, Spinoza was excommunicated from his synagogue for his ‘evil opinions’ and  ‘abominable heresies’, and came to be one of the leading figures of the Radical Enlightenment. No other thinker, Jonathan Israel observes, ‘became, in the century after 1650, remotely as notorious as Spinoza for challenging revealed religion, traditional morality and political authority.’

For Spinoza, freedom of worship, far from constituting the core of toleration, is a peripheral issue. His starting point is not the salvation of the soul but the promotion of individual liberty. ‘The less freedom of judgment is granted to men’, he believed, ‘the further are they removed from the most natural state and consequently the more repressive the regime’. All attempts to curb free expression not only curtails legitimate freedom but is futile:

If no man, then, can give up his freedom to judge and think as he pleases, and everyone is by absolute natural right master of his own thoughts, it follows that utter failure will attend any attempt in a state to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinion.

Spinoza’s real fear was not that dissenting views might undermine the power of faith, but that ecclesiastical power might undermine individual liberty. Hence he advocated the use of the state to limit the size and power of religious congregations. To our age, in which state and church are separated in most liberal democracies, and in which the power of the church has diminished while that of the state has grown, this might seem as illiberal an attitude as Locke’s refusal to tolerate Catholics or atheists. Yet in an age in which state and church were fused, and ecclesiastic power was immense, and often an obstacle to individual liberty, Spinoza’s argument were truly radical. ‘The right of the sovereign, both in the religious and secular spheres’, he wrote, ‘should be restricted to men’s actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he wishes and say what he thinks’. It is a view that seems startling even today.

It is easy to regard the differences between Locke and Spinoza as merely those between a believer and an atheist, as those between someone whose notion of tolerance is limited by his faith and someone for whom there are no such restraints. All these differences were, of course, significant. But the cleft ran deeper. This was a debate also about social order, about what constituted the good society, about what it was to be human. Locke’s worldview both required God to act as a guarantor of social stability and needed restrictions on freedom and democracy to protect humans from their own follies.

If Locke is regarded as the founding philosopher of liberalism, David Hume is seen as the pre-eminent skeptic of his age. Upon almost every philosophical issue he touched, Hume shone a skeptical light. In epistemology, he dismissed standard accounts of causality and argued that inductive inferences and perceptions of causations are products of the way our minds work, not of the external world. Human reason, Hume insisted, is inherently contradictory and limited. And he was, of course, famously skeptical about religion. James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s biographer, visited the philosopher on his deathbed. Hume, Boswell reported later, ‘said to me he was no more uneasy to think he should not be after this life, than that he had not been before he began to exist.’ Hume’s withering criticisms of standard theistic proofs of God’s existence and against the argument from design, and his acerbic dismissal of miracles, stand to this day. So does his moral theory, in which he rejected the role of God, grounding morality in the pleasing and useful consequences that result from our actions.

As a result Hume has been appropriated by modern atheists as ‘one of us’. But that was not how he saw himself. He may not have been a theist. But he was not an atheist either. Partly this was because he was as skeptical about atheism as he was about theism. Partly it was because he saw reason as limited; faith and tradition were necessary buttresses of social order. ‘Look out for a people entirely devoid of religion’, he wrote in his Natural History of Religion, ‘if you find them at all, be assured they are but a few degrees removed from brutes.’ But his refusal to see himself as an atheist was also, however, again because atheism meant more than skepticism about God. It meant a challenge to the existing social order. And Hume was no social radical but a monarchist and a conservative.

wright philosopher

It was not so much that the unwillingness of the moderates to break with tradition and theology made it impossible for them to accept a radical stance. It was more that their fear of revolutionary change led them to embrace tradition and theology. Radicals, on the other hand, were not radical because they despised religion. It was also that many despised religion because they recognized faith and tradition as obstacles to the construction of a new social order. And to a new vision of what it was to be human.

For the Radicals, to be human meant to have the power and capacity to be master of one’s own destiny, independently of divine intervention. Whereas for previous generations nature made sense as God’s order, only humans, many philosophes insisted, infused it with meaning. ‘If we banish man, the thinking and contemplating being, from the face of the earth’, Denis Diderot claimed, ‘this moving and sublime spectacle of nature will be nothing more than a sad and mute scene’. It was ‘the presence of man which makes the existence of beings meaningful’. The importance of this sentiment cannot be overstated. Meaning, for Diderot, is not something to be discovered. It is something that humans, and only humans, create.

Reason rather than faith was, for the Radicals, the true foundation of a just society. ‘Reason and law founded on reason should be the only sovereigns over mortals’, as Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger put it. Yet, the idea that ‘Reason should be sovereign over mortals’ was an ambiguous concept. For some, it suggested that humans, democratically, collectively, defined the rational social order. Reason, from this perspective, was a creative, democratic force. For others, it meant that humans had to submit themselves to reason. Reason here was more coercive than creative. It is not so much that human beings remake the world to their own conscious design; rather it is remade for them through reason. From this perspective reason would appear to have replaced God in more ways than one. Both these views existed within the Radical Enlightenment.

There is a parallel here with the idea of history for Marxists. Some Marxists have viewed class conflict and the ‘iron laws of history’ as propelling humanity through its various stages to the inevitable, and predestined, triumph of communism. Real, concrete human beings hardly play a role in this process, except as bearers of historical forces. Others have recognized that history has no meaning but as the product of human activity. History may reveal a pattern or even a logic, but it could never be inevitable or inexorable, and only human activity could bring historical change to fruition. Some, in other words, view humans as making history, others view humans as made by history.

The relationship in the ambiguity of the reading of reason by Enlightenment radicals and of history by Marxists is not accidental. They both point to the difficulties in thinking about agency from a materialist, naturalistic perspective, from the perspective of a world from which God has been expelled. ‘Humans make history but not in circumstances of their choosing’, Marx suggested, tying together the two readings of history. But it was not quite so simple. For how the idea of history was read, and not just by Marxists, depended upon which side of that equation – humans making history or the circumstances not of their choosing – seemed more compelling. And this was to be a key theme in the post-Enlightenment era.



The moral vision of the Radical philosophes may have been nourished by the crumbling of the God-ordained order. It was, it had to be, however, also rooted in faith, but a faith of a different kind – faith that humans were capable of acting rationally and morally without guidance from beyond. The debate about reason was really a debate the extent to which this was possible.

Through the nineteenth century religious faith crumbled in a way that even the Radicals could scarcely have foreseen. And, yet, as faith in the divine crumbled, so did faith in the human capacity to act without God. The optimism that had once suffused the humanist impulse began to ebb away and there began to develop a much darker view of what it meant to be human.

This growing darkness framed by two revolutions: the French Revolution of 1789 and the revolutions of 1848 that swept across much of Europe. For radicals the overthrow of the ancien regime in 1789 represented the practical embodiment of reason and of equality, and a concrete expression of social progress. For more conservative thinkers, the French Revolution was an illustration of the darker side of reason and of the dangers of social progress, revealing, in the words of Isaiah Berlin:

the precariousness of human institutions; the disturbing phenomena of apparently irresistible change… the insufficiency of simple formulas… the feebleness of reason before the power of fanatically believed values; the unpredictability of events.

The disorder and anarchy observed after 1789 led many to decry change and progress and to stress order and stability, tradition and authority, status and hierarchy. They longed for the safe anchor of ancient traditions, of a common faith and a universe that spoke to them through its myths and symbols. ‘The bulk of mankind’, Edmund Burke argued, ‘have neither leisure nor knowledge sufficient to reason right; why should they be taught to reason at all? Will not honest instinct prompt and wholesome prejudices guide them much better than half reasoning?’ Out of such perceptions developed modern conservatism and the Counter-Enlightenment.

Delacroix liberté

If the French Revolution had catalysed a conservative reaction against the Enlightenment, the revolutions of 1848 had a similar impact on liberal opinion. In that year a series of revolts and insurrections swept through the length and breadth of Europe, largely in response to political tyranny and economic immiseration. The revolutions were quickly crushed, often brutally. Liberals, who had initially helped man the barricades, were shocked by the violence and instability the uprisings unleashed, and many turned their back on the very idea of radical change. In the response of English liberal Walter Bagehot to 1848, one finds an echo of Edmund Burke’s fears after 1789. ‘The first duty of society is the preservation of society’, Bagehot wrote, ‘To keep up this system we must sacrifice everything. Parliaments, liberty, leading articles, essays, eloquence, all are good, but they are secondary.

The ‘vicissitudes of revolution’, the historian Daniel Pick observes, ‘seemed to call into question the very terms of liberal progressivism’. Pessimism, Pick adds, ‘began to colonise liberalism’; many came to the conclusion that democracy was no more than ‘turbulent decadence’.

Liberal pessimism of the late nineteenth century was different from the social pessimism of the late eighteenth century that had fed into conservatism and the counter-Enlightenment. Liberal pessimists were in many ways the intellectual progeny of mainstream Enlightenment philosophes. They saw themselves in the Enlightenment tradition, had faith in science and reason and believed in progress. But they feared social anarchy and desired social stability. Out of this mixture of beliefs and desires emerged nineteenth century ‘positivism’, the idea that science could, and should, establish, in the words of its French founder Auguste Comte, ‘the intellectual order which is the basis of every other order’. Positivism stripped Enlightenment radicalism of is ‘negative’, ‘critical’ aspects, and turned it into a means of defending rather than challenging the social order. ‘True liberty’, wrote Comte, ‘is nothing else than a rational submission to the preponderance of the laws of science’.

And from the fusion of pessimism and positivism emerged racial science. Racial ideology in the nineteenth century was less about defining people by skin colour than about explaining and justifying social distinctions as natural divisions. ‘Independently of all political insistutions’, claimed the English naturalist William Smellie, ‘nature herself has formed the human species into castes and ranks’. Racial science helped generate a hierarchy, underpinned by forces beyond the reach of humanity, that justified the superiority of the ruling class to rule both at home and abroad, proclaiming the fitness of the capitalist class to rule over the working class and of the white race to rule of over black.

The desire for social change shaped the Enlightenment debate about God, and led many to reject divine authority. The fear of social turmoil led many in the post-Enlightenment world to look to the authority of science to supply order and stability. Humans, many now believed, had to submit not to God and to the Church but to nature and to science.



The late nineteenth century experienced, then, not simply a crisis of faith but also a ‘crisis of reason’, the beginnings of a set of trends that were to become highly significant in the twentieth century – the erosion of Enlightenment optimism, a disenchantment with ideas of progress, a disbelief in concepts of truth. Both these developments were expressed in the figure of Nietzsche. If Nietzsche was the high priest at God’s funeral, he was also the chief celebrant at reason’s wake. His brilliance at giving voice to the growing disaffection of the age with both faith and reason would eventually turn him into a key figure of the postmodern assault on the so-called Enlightenment project.

If the 19th century saw the death of God, one might describe the 20th century as being witness to the Fall of Man. In the Christian tradition, the Fall comes with Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God. In the secular world, the Fall is the product of the sapping of optimism, a disenchantment with the possibilities of social transformation and the growth of a much darker view of human nature.

The history of the twentieth century – of two world wars, the Depression and Holocaust, Auschwitz and the Gulags, climate change and ethnic cleansing – helped further shatter the old sense of hope and optimism about human capacities. We no longer believe, as Canadian writer and politician Michael Ignatieff has observed, that ‘material progress entails or enables moral progress’. We eat well, we drink well, we live well, Ignatieff observed, ‘but we do not have good dreams’.

picasso charnel house

The very idea of human-directed transformation has come to be called into question. Many have came to feel that every impression that humanity has made upon the world has been for the worse. The attempt to master nature had led to global warming and species depletion. The attempt to master society had led to Auschwitz and the gulags. ‘In a real sense’, the late ecologist Murray Bookchin noted, ‘we seem to be afraid of ourselves – of our uniquely human attributes. We seem to be suffering from a decline in human self-confidence and in our ability to create ethically meaningful lives that enrich humanity and the non-human world.’

In response to such self-fear, some have turned back to God. As the humanist impulse has weakened, as belief in human capacities to make judgments about right and wrong, good and bad, have eroded, as broader political, cultural and national identities have crumbled, and as traditional social networks, institutions of authority and moral codes have weakened, so there has developed a yearning for the restoration of strong identities and moral lines and of external authority. The very rigidness of contemporary fundamentalism – the literal readings of the Holy book, the strict observance of supposedly authentic religious norms, such as the veiling of women – speaks to such a yearning.

While some have turned to religion to provide an anchorage in an age of uncertainty, others have sought similar solace in science. Science today is often expected to provide not just a factual description of the world, but also a moral account of human existence as well as a sense of who they are, where they have come from and where they are going. ‘People need a sacred narrative’, the sociobiologist EO Wilson has argued. ‘They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or other, however intellectualised.’ Such a sacred narrative, he believes, can be either a religion or a science. ‘The true evolutionary epic’, he writes, ‘retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic’. Evolutionary science ‘has brought new revelations of great moral importance… from which new intimations of immortality can be drawn and a new mythos evolved.’

Morality, the American philosopher and New Atheist Sam Harris suggests, is ‘an undeveloped branch of science’:

Questions about values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, the effects of specific laws on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.

Science, and neuroscience in particular, do not simply explain why we might respond in particular ways to equality or to torture but also whether equality is a good, and torture morally acceptable. Where there are disagreements over moral questions, Harris believes, science will decide which view is right ‘because the discrepant answers people give to them translate into differences in our brains, in the brains of others and in the world at large.’

What is striking about this argument is how it expresses a very Old Testament view of morality. Moral norms do not emerge through a process of social engagement and collective conversation, nor through in the course of self-improvement, but rather are laws to be revealed from on high and imposed upon those below. Science will tell us which conception of the good life is objectively true, and scientists will inculcate such values into the masses. This is reason not as a creative, democratic force, but as a coercive, authoritarian power, and one to which humans must submit for their own betterment.

When Nietzsche wrote ‘God is dead’, he added that ‘Yet his shadow still looms.’ God is a metaphor for the desire for an authority beyond ourselves to frame our existence and guide our lives, the death of God for the insistence on acting without guidance from beyond. In a sense, God never died. For the desire for external authority, whether or not vested in God, was never stilled. The developments that gave rise to possibility of the death of God generated the fears and tensions that led also to the Fall of Man. The shadow of which Nietzsche speaks is not so much that of God as of our own fears, fears of the human condition. If there is one lesson that this story should teach us, it is that disbelief in God matters little without belief in humans.


The paintings are, from top down, ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’ by Rembrandt; ‘The Crucifixion and the Last Judgment’ Diptych by Jan van Eyck; ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ by Lucas Cranach the Elder; ‘Martin Luther’ also by Lucas Cranach the Elder; ‘Le Serment du Jeu de Paume’ by Jacques-Louis David; ‘Baruch Spinoza’ by Franz Wulfhagen; ‘A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery’ by Joseph Wright; ‘La Liberté Guidant le Peuple’ by Eugène Delacrois; ‘The Charnel House’ by Pablo Picasso. The photograph of Jonathan Israel was taken by me.


  1. Excellent article. I find it a sad reflection on our current level of discourse that Sam Harris’s views on morality are taken seriously. Where does, say, Peter Singer fit in to your argument? And should the data in Pinker’s “Better Angels of our Nature” do anything to rebut the historical pessimism that you describe?

    • Thank you. I’m not a utilitarian, so I am quite critical of Peter Singer’s arguments. As for Steven Pinker, the kind of statistics he presents have little bearing on the kinds of shifts in social consciousness of which I am speaking. It is not because the world is objectively worse (however one might define that) that social pessimism rises. As Michael Ignatieff aptly observes, it often does so despite technological and social improvements. It is one of the problems with the kind of study that Pinker presents in Better Angels. One day, when I have a lot of spare time, I might sit down a write a proper review.

  2. michaelfugate

    I once saw a poll in the US some time ago that indicated a large majority were afraid of scientists because of what scientists know. I replied to a friend and fellow scientist that we should be afraid of scientists because of what scientists think they know. I think there is a tendency to look back and see how far we have progressed and/or how backward they were, but not to realize that 100 years from now humanity will look back and make the same judgment about us.

  3. Excellent piece, Kenan. I think the key is your comment that modern science “expresses a very Old Testament view of morality” where laws are “revealed from on high and imposed upon those below.”

    The Enlightenment was little more than a baton change, a rebranding of the citadels of power and shared meaning based on holy writ – a constitution and jurisprudence for scripture and doctrine – and a steroid hit to go-all-the-way reason. New scientific certainties for the old, soul-destroying idols of the one-true religion. The monopoly on orderly violence and official belief smuggled into the nation-state from Rome and the monarchy, where it remains, bigger and meaner than ever, standing guard over the untouchable, surveilling the unseen.

    Material progress does not at all equate to moral progress. It never did. Never could, as our highest goals are spiritual. That said, had the West not assumed otherwise, we’d still be living in grass huts. The trick – the riddle written into History – is to appreciate that progress serves a separate but related purpose.

  4. John

    I found your essay most interesting, particularly the information on Locke, who has generally – and, apparently, incorrectly – been labelled the Father of Modern Liberalism. Clearly, his views on non-Protestant Christians exclude him from this.
    I think you could have referred to the works of Erich Fromm – particularly his Escape From Freedom (also known under the title of The Fear of Freedom outside the USA), in which he addresses the growth of Nazi ideology and the apparent fear that many have of possessing too much freedom.
    I always thought Nazi ideology was an outgrowth of spending up to 4 years in the trenches during World War One, in which Hitler “found” himself as an individual and which also had an apparent appeal to many others who joined groups such as the Freicorp in Weimar Germany. Not having to think and just unquestioningly obeying orders is much easier for individuals who do not want the onerous responsibility of making decisions about their own lives. Marx’s lumpenprolatariat?
    Overall, I think you are right to draw attention to the possible crisis of confidence in our collective humanity. It is very easy to view the world as going towards inevitable destruction but I frequently draw upon the recent work of Stephen Pinker, in which he points out, based on historic research , that the world of today is a kinder and gentler world than the one of yesteryear.
    All I know is that for most people on the planet Earth today, life is immeasurably better than for those who lived in the past.
    Many people leading “ordinary” lives within Western societies today enjoy standards of living which would have been considered incredibly luxurious by even the most senior of the ruling elites in the past.
    We just need to hold our collective nerve and plough on making some degree of gentle and gradual progress over time.

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