Gordon Gamm, a lawyer and longtime humanist activist (among other positions, he has served on the board of directors of the American Humanist Association), approached Free Inquiry last year about the possibility of asking an historian to write an essay addressing the connections between the Enlightenment and contemporary humanism. Although humanists routinely reference the Enlightenment as one of the principal sources for humanist thought, there have been few detailed analyses of the key ideas within the Enlightenment that subsequently had a critical influence on humanist thought, especially in the area of humanist ethics.
Gamm generously offered to sponsor an essay provided an appropriate historian could be recruited to undertake this task. He conducted the author search in collaboration with Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. Alan Charles Kors, Henry Charles Lea Professor of European History at the University of Pennsylvania and a noted authority on the Enlightenment, graciously agreed to research and write the essay, which we are pleased to publish in its entirety. We believe this essay substantially adds to our understanding of the intellectual heritage of humanism and will prove to be an important resource for the humanist movement.
Alan Charles Kors is one of the world’s leading scholars on the history of the Enlightenment. He served as editor in chief of the four-volume Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2002) and was selected by the Teaching Company to teach an elegant course on The Birth of the Modern Mind. The Center for Inquiry and the Gamm Project were fortunate to engage Kors to contribute the article that follows, “The Enlightenment, Naturalism, and the Secularization of Values.”
What is the relationship between contemporary humanism and the Enlightenment? Contemporary humanism traces its origin to the Humanist Manifesto I of 1933. All of the world’s current humanist organizations had their beginning in this document. In the United States, these include the Council for Secular Humanism; the American Humanist Association; the American Ethical Union; the Society for Humanistic Judaism; and HUUmanists (formerly the Fellowship of Religious Humanists), the affiliate organization for humanists within the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The Manifesto, which rendered the word humanism with a capital H, defined Humanist truth about the natural world (epistemology) as discoverable by the scientific method through such methods as experiential verification, establishing criteria for falsification; and the like. The Humanist ethic was defined as utilitarian (maximizing human fulfillment and minimizing suffering). Therefore, there was no purpose for a supernatural source of truth and morals. All in this movement derived these ideas from the Enlightenment philosophes.
Kors highlights the Enlightenment as the fount of a new philosophy that transformed the conventional religious paradigm. Traditional Christian moral theology (as espoused by, for example, Aquinas in the form known as Aristotelian Scholasticism) had denigrated human fulfillment in this life (falicitudo), considering it far more important to receive fulfillment after death for eternity (beatitudo). Suffering in this life was viewed as a natural part of our duty to God.
On the contrasting Enlightenment view, because living creatures seek earthly pleasure and flee earthly pain, this must be a reflection of God’s plan. The pursuit of happiness was not only a good in itself; it was also God’s choice for us. The philosophes never said how they justified redefining God from a dictator of morals to the architect of natural laws that could be discovered through experiential testing. Bishop Joseph Butler made the argument that because we are made in God’s image, God in his goodness gave us emotions that were intended for our happiness to be expressed in this life. This is a normative argument that equates our pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain with God’s morals because it expresses our natural state of being.
The Enlightenment philosophes redefined the word God to denote the architect of (1) predictable patterns in the experienced world and (2) natural laws of behavior discoverable through the moral imperative by applying utilitarianism. However, it is confusing when participants in dialogue use the word God in conflicting ways, denoting a conventional, supernatural, inerrant deity or the source of discoverable patterns in nature. For example, when Jefferson referred to a “creator” who had endowed human beings with the self-evident right to the pursuit of happiness, he was not speaking of a conventional Christian God whose laws were indisputable regardless of their consequences. After all, Christianity had condoned slavery, sexism, and torture for over a thousand years, and had repudiated a right to happiness in this life as venal.