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Natural Religion


The Enlightenment seemed never as happy as when attacking religion. Whether it was the adulation for saints with jewels in their bones or wafers that transformed their substance. Or whether it was the narcissism of the God of the Old Testament and the sacrifice of the God of the New. Or the cruelty of biblical champions and the idea of limbo where babies where assigned to eternal torture.

If the Enlightenment wanted to elevate human dignity, praise our natural talents, and free our capabilities, it would do so at celestial expense. The Enlightenment strove to lessen fear; religion appeared to feed on it.

In truth, most enlightenment criticisms did not confront religion as such. They confronted they ways in which religions undercut their own supposed aims.

Religion, supposed to assert genuine truth, thrived on inconsistency and double standards. Faith meant to encourage peace lead to anguish and murder.

Reason’s light here was an ethical one.

If religion is fairness, it should not encourage killing and spite. If religion is fact, it should not rest on delusion and deceits. And if religion is wonderment, it should not nurture behaviours that are thoughtless and crude.



As the French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire put it: ‘May this God, Creator of all the Worlds, have pity on the sect of Christians who blaspheme Him.’

His attacks on religious institutions were often pitiless, but his reasons for doing so were neither ungodly nor uncaring. He rather held religion to high moral and spiritual standards and found it wanting.

This God of Abraham was barely less unpleasant than the god’s who ate their own children and the demons who required human sacrifice.

Voltaire believed what was necessary was a religion purer than Christianity, as Christianity had been purer than those pagan rituals seem to us.

Immanuel Kant carried this line of reasoning to its conclusion. An authentically religious viewpoint understands that God is so grand we will never understand him. Thus we should not even speculate about his nature.

In his view, of all the major religions, by declining to envision God, or even to use His name, it was Judaism that conserved an appreciation of sacredness that gave God His due.


Vile Worm

What customary religion did to God, Enlightenment philosophers added, was no better than what it did to us.

Not only did it project our worst compulsions onto God, it demanded even less of us – with certain results. (Don’t be surprised at what you get if you call me a vile worm for long enough time.)

If you only respond for the sake of incentives and penances, are you any better, or freer, than a well-trained dog? Kant thought you were not.

Not knowing whether your actions will be rewarded is essential to morality. Moral actions must be free actions. We may have faith in a holy destiny but thank heavens we have no certainty.

Keeping us guessing is essential not only to God’s greatness, but to our humanity.



The second Enlightenment opposition to established religion is even more surprising than the first. In picturing God without splendour, humankind without pride, traditional religion was itself irreverent. Voltaire called the Christian image of God blasphemous; Kant thought it idolatrous. A God who could be tempted with conduct that was good for the sake of reward was no better than a god who could be bribed with the smoke of a sacrifice. Not indifference, but indignation fuelled Kant’s and Voltaire’s fire.

Fanatics think they are avenging the Divine Majesty; in fact, Voltaire wrote, they are insulting it. Their God looks more like a Mafia boss than a God of justice.

Kant and Volatire’s critique went even further, however. In the accounts of traditional religion, God is not only a gangster, but a bumbler.

If he were omnipotent, wouldn’t he produce the best world possible? And in a world that worked as it ought to, what need would there be for miracles?

The problem with miracles was not, as Hume argued, that they cannot meet dependable measures of evidence. If what God created was good in the beginning, why need He come back to fix it later on?

Natural Beauty Wallpaper


Deism, or what it more often called natural – sometimes rational­ – religion, was the answer to their problems. The terms themselves were clever marketing. Highlighting the link between reason and nature was a way of uplifting both, and undermining their opponents.

If Enlightenment religion was natural and reasonable, traditional religion must be both unnatural and mad.

Natural religion expressed the breath of wonder that the age of enlightenment gave rise to. All too often, modern thought views the rise of science as a threat to religion, but no one saw it that way at the time. Every new finding exposed a world of wonders; every scientific advance was a window on God’s glory.


As it should be

How much greater was a God who could devise a world with the modesty and grace of Newton’s. With a design so logical, how could you doubt the designer? Science came not to bury God, but to praise Him.

Modern science leaves us in a state of wonder and appreciation too great to express. The more science understood about the marvels of the universe, the more miracle -working its author seemed. Natural religion appeared to offer a demonstration of God’s existence that was finally worthy of Him.

Worshiped not with an eye to the boons He might grant in the future, but to the ones permitted in the present. This type of worship does both sides honour.

Who needs a God to interfere in the world when we have one who made everything as it should be?


This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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