Religion and the Scottish Enlightment, c. 1690 - c. 1790: Virtue, Providence, and History

Project Details

Key findings

It is now a commonplace that the era of ‘Enlightenment’ in the eighteenth century was not necessarily hostile to religion. Although there were prominent and notorious atheists, such as the Franco-German Baron d’Holbach, as well as scores of minor, less famous theorists with similar views, whose writings were often so inflammatory that they went unpublished and only circulated as clandestine manuscripts, on the whole the intellectual elites of eighteenth-century Europe continued to be committed to broadly Christian religious beliefs of some kind. But the nature of these religious beliefs was neither static nor uniform. Whether the pace of intellectual change during the eighteenth century quickened or not is difficult to determine. What is clear, however, is that the various and conflicting notions of religion that existed were affected profoundly by the wider intellectual culture of which they formed a part. Over the past two decades there has been an ever-growing stream of literature concerned with elucidating the relationship between the main currents of European Enlightenment thought and ideas about the nature of true religion from the second half of the seventeenth century onwards. One of the features of enlightened religion that has been most frequently commented upon is the apparent shift of emphasis from theological doctrine to moral conduct as the measure of genuine faith. Ernst Cassirer already drew attention to this phenomenon in his Philosophy of the Enlightenment, when he said that, for thinkers such as the German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the ‘truth of religion cannot be determined according to purely theoretical criteria; its validity cannot be decided abstractly without regard to its moral effect.’ Blair Worden has detected a similar tendency in English thought during the transition from the late seventeenth to the early eighteenth century. There was, he argues, a softening of religious attitudes, and a transition to a religion of works, rather than doctrinal opinions. ‘The test of Christianity’, he writes, ‘became good conduct, not right belief.’ Although this was not universally accepted, it was, as he puts it, the way things were going. And very recently Charles Taylor has advanced a similar interpretation in his magisterial history of the emergence of secularism in the West. According to Taylor the emphasis on conduct in eighteenth-century religion was the result of an increasing focus, from the Reformation onwards, on the inner dispositions of the believer, rather than the devotion of deeds typical of medieval popular religion. With that came an increasing concern with conduct, or the ‘holy life’, and the achievement of human goods. To some extent this development may seem a first step towards a secular form of morality. As Taylor wrote, ‘the very attempt to express what the Christian life means in terms of a code of action in the saeculum opens the possibility of devising a code whose main aim is to encompass the basic goods of this life in the saeculum: life, prosperity, peace, mutual benefit’. Once religion is justified in terms of its moral, this-worldly effect, it then only seems to require a small further step to say that morality no longer requires a religious foundation at all.
It is often argued that one of the factors promoting this transition ‘from faith to conduct’ was ‘natural religion’, that is, religious belief that was founded exclusively on the authority of human reason, without the assistance of Scripture or any other kind of divine revelation. The use of this natural religion, it is said, was motivated by the desire to avoid the endless, bitter controversies over revealed theology by founding key religious beliefs on the more perspicuous standard of universal human reason. Even though thinkers did not simply substitute the authority of reason for that of revelation, their appeal to reason, it is argued, eroded the authority of Scripture; their views implied a focus on morality, which the tenets of natural religion were believed to encourage, rather than the finer points of doctrine, derived from the Biblical text. Typical beliefs of natural religion were, for example, those in the existence of an all-powerful and benevolent Creator; in his providential government of creation; and in the reality of an afterlife in which each person would receive the appropriate rewards and punishments for his or her conduct in temporal life. Secularization may not have been the intended outcome of these ideas, but it was, it is often argued, implicit in them, as an extreme, but logical conclusion that was only waiting to be developed fully.
That view is familiar and, indeed, plausible, but one of the main findings of this project is that there are reasons to question it. It is possible to argue, rather, that natural religion did not contribute to eroding the authority of Scriptural revelation, or to reducing the importance of theological doctrine. In fact, the most vigorous defenders of natural religion were often the strictest upholders of doctrinal orthodoxy, and those thinkers who considered moral conduct the essence of religious faith, were often sceptical about the possibility of founding religious beliefs on natural reason. Moreover, the shift from doctrine to conduct appears to have had its origins in specifically theological arguments that were not based on natural religion. The book that is based on the findings of the project will show the importance of specifically theological controversies for the shift in emphasis from doctrine to conduct in Enlightenment religion.
Effective start/end date1/09/0831/03/09


  • AHRC: £29,443.00