Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 19—17th to 19th century—Christendom Grapples With World Change
“Philosophy and religion are irreconcilable.”—Georg Herwegh, 19th-century German poet
“PHILOSOPHY,” a word derived from Greek roots meaning “love of wisdom,” is difficult to define. While doubting that “a universal and all-inclusive definition” can be made, The New Encyclopædia Britannica ventures that “a first attempt in this direction might be to define philosophy either as ‘a reflection upon the varieties of human experience’ or as ‘the rational, methodical, and systematic consideration of those topics that are of greatest concern to man.’”
These definitions clearly show why true religion and philosophy are irreconcilable. True religion is based upon divine revelation, not upon “the varieties of human experience.” First and foremost, it revolves around the interests of the Creator, not around the “topics that are of greatest concern to man.” False religion, on the other hand, like philosophy, is based on human experience and puts human interests uppermost. This fact became particularly evident from the 17th century onward as Christendom grappled with world change.
A Triple Threat
As soon as modern science was born in the 17th century, a clash between it and religion seemed inevitable. Spectacular scientific breakthroughs enveloped science in a halo of infallibility and authority, producing scientism, a religion in itself, a sacred cow. In the light of scientific “facts,” religious claims suddenly seemed precariously unprovable. Science was new and exciting; religion seemed outdated and dull.
This attitude toward religion was intensified by the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that swept Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. Stressing intellectual and material progress, it rejected political and religious authority and tradition in favor of critical reasoning. This, supposedly, was the source of knowledge and happiness. “Its ancestral roots,” says The New Encyclopædia Britannica, were found “in Greek philosophy.”
The Enlightenment was mainly a French phenomenon. Prominent leaders in France included Voltaire and Denis Diderot. In Great Britain it found spokesmen in John Locke and David Hume. Advocates were also found among U.S. founding fathers, including Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. In fact, the separation of Church and State demanded by the U.S. Constitution is a reflection of Enlightenment ideas. Outstanding members in Germany were Christian Wolff, Immanuel Kant, and Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of composer Felix Mendelssohn.
Kant, suspicious of religion, is said to have defined “enlightenment” as “the human being’s release from self-imposed tutelage.” By this, explains Allen W. Wood of Cornell University, Kant meant “the process by which human individuals receive the courage to think for themselves about morality, religion, and politics, instead of having their opinions dictated to them by political, ecclesiastical, or scriptural authorities.”
During the second half of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution began, first in Great Britain. Emphasis switched from agriculture to the production and manufacture of goods with the aid of machines and chemical processes. This upset a largely agricultural and rural society, sending thousands of people crowding into cities for work. Pockets of unemployment, housing shortages, poverty, and various work-related ills resulted.
Would Christendom be able to cope with this triple threat of science, Enlightenment, and industry?
Easing God Out, if Ever So Gently
People persuaded by Enlightenment thinking blamed religion for many of the ills of society. The idea that “society should be constructed according to the preordained blueprints of divine and natural law,” says The Encyclopedia of Religion, “was replaced by the notion that society was, or could be, constructed by man’s own ‘artifice’ or ‘contrivance.’ A secular, social humanism thus came into being that, in turn, would beget most of the philosophical and sociological theories of the modern world.”
These theories included the “civil religion” advocated by influential French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It centered upon society and human involvement in its concerns rather than upon a divine Being and his worship. French memoirist Claude-Henri de Rouvroy advocated a “New Christianity,” while his protégé Auguste Comte spoke of a “religion of humanity.”
In the late 19th century, the American movement known as the social gospel developed among Protestants; it was closely related to the European theories. That theologically based idea asserted that the main duty of a Christian is social involvement. It finds great support among Protestants to this day. Catholic versions are found in the worker-priests of France and among the clergy of Latin America who teach liberation theology.
Christendom’s missionaries also mirror this trend, as a 1982 Time magazine report indicates: “Among Protestants, there has been a shift toward greater involvement with the basic economic and social problems of the people . . . For an increasing number of Catholic missionaries, identification with the cause of the poor means advocacy of radical changes in political and economic systems—even if those changes are being spearheaded by Marxist revolutionary movements. . . . Indeed, there are missionaries who believe that conversion is fundamentally irrelevant to their true task.” Such missionaries evidently agree with French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who once suggested: ‘The real object of religious worship is society, not God.’
Obviously, Christendom was easing God out of religion, if ever so gently. Meanwhile, other forces were also at work.
Replacing God With Pseudoreligions
The churches had no solutions for the problems created by the Industrial Revolution. But pseudoreligions, the products of human philosophies, claimed they did, and they rapidly moved in to fill the void.
For example, some people found their purpose in life in pursuing riches and possessions, a self-centered tendency pandered to by the Industrial Revolution. Materialism became a religion. Almighty God was replaced by the ‘Almighty Dollar.’ In a play by George Bernard Shaw, this was alluded to by a character who exclaimed: “I am a Millionaire. That is my religion.”
Other people turned to political movements. Socialist philosopher Friedrich Engels, collaborator with Karl Marx, prophesied that socialism would eventually replace religion, itself taking on religious attributes. Thus, as socialism gained ground across Europe, says retired Professor Robert Nisbet, “a prominent element was the apostasy of socialists from Judaism or Christianity and their turning to a surrogate.”
Christendom’s failure to cope with world change allowed forces to develop that the World Christian Encyclopedia refers to as “secularism, scientific materialism, atheistic communism, nationalism, nazism, fascism, Maoism, liberal humanism and numerous constructed or fabricated pseudo-religions.”
In view of the fruitage these philosophical pseudoreligions have produced, British poet John Milton’s words would seem most appropriate: “Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy.”
Seeking a Compromise
Caught between ineffective ecclesiastical systems on the one hand and deceptive pseudoreligions on the other, millions of people were looking for something better. Some thought they had found it in a form of Deism, also known as “natural religion.” Gaining prominence particularly in England during the 17th century, Deism has been described as a compromise that embraced science without deserting God. Deists were therefore freethinkers set on a middle-of-the-road course.
Author Wood clarifies: “In its principal meaning, deism signifies the belief in a single God and in a religious practice founded solely on natural reason rather than on supernatural revelation.” But by disallowing “supernatural revelation,” some Deists went so far as to reject the Bible almost totally. Nowadays the term is rarely used, although professed Christians who reject ecclesiastical or Scriptural authority in favor of personal opinion or alternate philosophies of life are in actuality adhering to its principles.
Parallel Theories of Evolution
The most dramatic confrontation between religion and science occurred after the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s Origin of Species, in which he proposed his theory of evolution. Religious leaders, especially in England and the United States, at first denounced the theory in strong terms. But opposition soon faded. By the time of Darwin’s death, says The Encyclopedia of Religion, “most thoughtful and articulate clergy had worked their way to the conclusion that evolution was wholly compatible with an enlightened understanding of scripture.”
This may explain why the Vatican never placed Darwin’s books on its Index of Forbidden Books. It may also explain audience reaction at the 1893 Chicago conference of the World’s Parliament of Religions. As Buddhists and Hindus listened, a “Christian” speaker said: “The theory of evolution fills a gap at the very beginning of our religion, and if science is satisfied in a general way with its theory of evolution as the method of creation, assent is a cold word with which those whose business it is to know and love the ways of God should welcome it.” The statement was reportedly greeted with loud applause.
This attitude is not surprising in view of the popularity during the late 19th century of what became known as comparative religion. This was a scientific study of world religions designed to determine how different religions are interrelated and how they came about. English anthropologist John Lubbock, for example, expressed the theory that humans started as atheists and then progressively evolved through fetishism, nature worship, and shamanism before arriving at monotheism.
However, as The Encyclopedia of Religion explains: “Religion in such a view was not absolute truth revealed by the deity, but the record of developing human conceptions about God and morality.” So those who accepted this theory found no difficulty in accepting Deism, a “civil religion,” or a “religion of humanity” as rungs upward on the ladder of religious evolution.
In the final analysis, where does such a view lead? Already in the 19th century, English philosopher Herbert Spencer said that society was moving into a frame of advancement no longer compatible with religion. And of the 20th century, Professor Nisbet observed that sociologists generally believe that religion “answers certain psychosocial needs in human beings, and until or unless these needs become casualties of biological evolution of the human species, religion in one or another form will remain a persisting reality of human culture.” (Italics ours.) Accordingly, sociologists are not ruling out the possibility that “evolutionary progress” may one day lead to no religion at all!
The Search for True Worship Intensified
By the middle of the 19th century, it was obvious that for some 200 years, Christendom had been fighting a losing battle against world change. Its religion had degenerated into little more than a worldly philosophy. Millions of honest people were concerned. The search for true worship intensified. It could truly be said that reformation of Christendom was impossible. What was needed was the restoration of true worship. Learn more in our October 22 issue.
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Pressured by World Change, Christendom Compromises
THE EMERGENCE OF MODERN SCIENCE weakened faith in the unseen and created doubt about things science could not “prove.” Christendom compromised Bible truth by adopting unproved, supposedly scientific theories like evolution and by seeing in scientific know-how, rather than in God’s Kingdom, the panacea for world problems.
THE RISE OF POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES (capitalism, democracy, socialism, Communism, and so forth) created nationalistic conflicts and ideological bickering, thus obscuring the Bible truth that God, not man, is earth’s rightful Ruler. Christendom compromised Bible principles by breaking Christian neutrality and becoming involved in wars that pitted members of the same religion against one another. Christendom actively or passively supported political pseudoreligions.
THE HIGHER STANDARD OF LIVING made possible by the Industrial and Science Revolutions promoted egotistical self-interest and brought social injustice and inequality to the fore. Christendom compromised by neglecting divine interests in favor of getting involved in human interests of a social, economic, ecological, or political nature.
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Up or Down?
The Bible says: Humans were created perfect and were taught how to worship their Creator acceptably; but they rebelled against God, and for some 6,000 years, they have been degenerating both physically and morally, moving ever further away from the true religion they originally practiced.
Biological and religious evolution says: Humans evolved from a primitive beginning and were atheists with no religion; for untold millions of years, they have improved both physically and morally, moving ever closer to a state of Utopian religious, social, and moral development.
Based on your knowledge of human behavior, mankind’s present condition, and the status of religion in today’s world, which view seems more consistent with the facts?
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Darwin’s unproved speculations in Origin of Species became the pretext for many to abandon belief in a God of revelation