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Enlightenment thinkers were all the more keen to keep the parts of religion they held essential as faith in traditional Christianity became more difficult to retain.

Their strongest contention against religion was that it was irreverent. Their wish to maintain a division between what was pious and what was not was a recognition of limit.

Whatever else you believe about the world, only one thing is key: it wasn’t you who made it.

If reverence is appreciation of human limits, it is what produces humility.

To be reverent is to be conscious of the all the things that you aim for and all that can bring you down. Failure and weakness and madness and, should you in some way avoid all the others, death.

Our unwillingness to damage corpses is perceptive. It springs from a sense that valuing life and feeling awe before death are too near to each other to take risks.



Making love is encouraged, along with good food and wine and company. Only what gets in the way of gratitude is proscribed.

For Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, ingratitude was the most horrible and unnatural crime that human creatures are capable of committing. 

His contemporary Kant agreed that “Ingratitude is one of the most odious and hateful vices, and yet our species is so notorious for it, that everyone holds it likely that he may create enemies by his benefits.”

Real gratitude requires acceptance of your limits. You are not entirely independent of the past.

The Enlightenment acknowledged this even as it sought emancipation from a world in which people’s choices were determined by past traditions.

Though it encouraged the conditions that made the idea of fashioning yourself possible, it also recognised that you cannot do it alone.


Awe and Wonder

Without superstition and doctrine, sheer gratitude can shine.  “Two things fill the mind with awe and wonder’, said Kant, ‘the starry heavens above me and moral law within me.”

The first, he continued, strikes down our self-conceit. Any sky that’s clear enough to reveal the stars will remind you of your place in a universe that dwarfs you. Yet the moral law you know you could follow if you were willing to stand up for justice lets you know how tall you can stand.

In times of awe it is not the appreciation you feel for a gift from a loved one, but closer to what you feel for an unforeseen act of kindness from a passing stranger. That is gratitude for Being itself, and for the fact that you’re alive to experience it.

It’s an experience not simply of pleasure, but of silent celebration. These are feelings that enlarge us, and make us better than before.



Religion, in the end then, is not the basis of morality, or even reverence. On the contrary, religion is a way of expressing reverence and morality that are felt across every culture we know.  

What the Enlightenment called natural or rational religion was a core that was common to each of the major religions alive today.

They are all a reaction to the most important truths.

That natural evil, most particularly death, is part of the world we live in. That moral evils, like brothers feeling cruel envy for brothers, are always a threat. And in all this muddle we are supposed to seek sense.

Religion is not where ideas of good and evil come from. Religion, rather, is one way to respond to the reality of their existence.

Natural Beauty Wallpaper

The Last Men

If religion is a way of expressing reverence what happens when those religions fade? The 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzse called them the last men, and they expressed a new nightmare. What’s left over from the Enlightenment when the energy of reverence is gone?

Pick you own emblem of nihilism there are plenty around.

Too often we are bombarded with images and people who are celebrated for not having any real values at all. 

So much trash – sometimes trash, masquerading as satire of trash – that it’s hard to say what is worse.

The blunting violence that’s called action? The careless conversion of sex to a commodity? The shows that invite people to debase themselves for a few dollars or minutes of fame?

All chip away at human dignity. All go further than Nietzsche’s grimmest dreams.

He wrote that a noble soul has reverence for itself. He may have missed the point, a noble soul must have reverence for something.

Reverence cannot be produced but it can be inhibited.

What curbs our demonstrations of reverence today isn’t a lack of devotion, but something that is far more pitiful: an excess of embarrassment.

Rather than quiver in fear at our own mortality, we’d prefer to revel in shame, whiling away our time rather than appreciating what we’ve got.


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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