The Enlightenment Vision of Science and Religion #26: A Task Unfinished

The Enlightenment Vision of Science and Religion #26: A Task Unfinished

God has conferred upon and added to man a distinctive power — the faculty of intellectual investigation into the secrets of creation, the acquisition of higher knowledge — the greatest virtue of which is scientific enlightenment.


May 13, 2013. Six months ago, I started on a journey of discovery — a journey of learning — a journey of trying to understand where I came from — a journey of learning about the sources of modern thinking and western values. Six months ago, I started writing the blog you are reading on the European Enlightenment.

What I found was an incredible story – a story of small groups of 17th century Europeans sickened and disheartened by a century and half of warfare, persecution, intolerance, fanatical hatred, and base political manipulation conducted in the name of religion. Individually and working together, members of these groups looked to philosophy, to reason, to the study of nature, to tolerance, and to ancient and distant cultures to try to find ways to stitch together what had been broken when western Europe erupted in a fury of violence — violence directed both internally and externally — against those who religious beliefs failed to agree with the desires of the powerful and the power-hungry among the many groups of political and ecclesiastical leaders.

Protestants being burned at the stake for their faith on May 21,1559 in Valladolid, Spain

What those groups discovered was science – they were the people who took the discoveries of Copernicus, Brahe, Galileo, and Kepler and turned them into the modern sciences of today. And they built great system of thought — those of Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton being the most influential — that united science and religion for generations of the foremost thinkers of the foremost countries of Europe. And they discovered democracy, modern government, and almost every other modern discipline of study or investigation, be it archeology and study of ancient cultures, or be it natural theology and the natural origins of the religious impulse.

They laid the foundations — scientific, economic, and cultural – of our modern world. And it was all based on the search for the unity of science and religion, of reason and belief — at least it was at first.

A Task Unfinished

But the task that these few, enlightened, and brave individuals started centuries ago remains unfinished. The wounds that tore apart Europe remain — in the main — unhealed. Indeed, in a number of ways the Enlightenment made it worse by creating new sectarians who hated all religion with unbridled fanaticism — and frequently found ways to exercise their hatreds in ways whose effectiveness was technologically enhanced.

And science — this extraordinarily wonderful tool of learning that undermines prejudice and superstition — was twisted into new and invidious forms of prejudice and hatred in the guise of “scientific” racism, social Darwinism, eugenics, and the like. These prejudices have delayed — and continue to delay — the advent of racial equality in the United States and around the world to this very day.

The hatred of religion — and the distrust of divine revelation in favor of natural religion — eventually came to permeate later enlightenment thought to the extent that it blocked, and sometimes extinguished, the search for moral and ethical standards for conducting life, giving rise to materialistic philosophies which embraced force, pleasure, wealth, and power as the rewards to strive for and denied the age-old teachings of the need for spiritual growth. One result is a world stratified into the wealthy and the rest, to the great discontent of those who find themselves among the rest.

So, the great tasks of the enlightenment remains unfinished. We need to pick them up, make them or own, and advance them further.


Next week, we start a new series of blogs. I’m not sure what to call it – maybe something like “Finishing the Enlightenment.”

In these blogs, we will look at the great Enlightenment themes we discussed in the last 26 blogs, examining how they are addressed in modern society, by modern religious thought, and also by the teachings of the Baha’i Faith – teachings which directly and powerfully address most, if not all, of the major concerns of the enlightenment and the role of all the world’s religion in the further advancement of humanity.


This is the 26th in a series of blogs on the Enlightenment Vision of Science and Religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.


5 thoughts on “The Enlightenment Vision of Science and Religion #26: A Task Unfinished

  1. So basically, you’re saying there’s a classical Engligthenment and a modern Englightenment. This leaves problem with using the Engligthenment as just one word, the same way the word Liberalism has ambiguous meanings today. There are three or more Liberalisms according to Wikipedia. I’ll refer to the pro religious Enlightenment as the classical Enlightenement, and the anti religious Enlightenement as the moder Enlightenemnet.

    I have only been slightly familiar with the Engligthenment writings because I have been studying Classical Liberals like the Ancient Liberals, Humanist Liberal, and John Lock era Liberal. There still are Classical Market Liberals in this the John Mill era, but the list is mostly Modern Social Liberals at that point.

    Stephen, how many Enlightenment figures are listed in the Wikipedia page, so I can know how many exactly Im familiar with?

    The definition of a liberal is highly debatable. In the list below, a liberal is defined as a person that adheres to the basic principles of political liberalism. This is a broad political current, that includes both left, centre and right wing. All liberals emphasise individual rights, but they differ in their opinion on an active role for the state.

    After liberals have gained power and realized their first reforms, one often sees a divergence within their ranks.

    Some are satisfied and rest apart with these reforms, developing into liberal conservatives or simply becoming conservatives, mostly still adhering to free market policies. The mainstream of liberalism continues on the path of gradual reforms, embraces electoral democracy as a basic liberal position and organizes itself in the form of the traditional liberals. These are included in the overview. Part of this mainstream is more right-wing, emphasizing classical liberal issues and concentrating on economic liberalism. This is, for example, the origin of libertarianism. Many people consider this a separate political theory/current. Others argue that these are still liberals. Therefore they are included in the overview. Another part of the mainstream is more left-wing. It embraces and emphasizes democratic reforms and often strives for social reforms. These parties sometimes prefer to name themselves radical or progressive liberal and are generally quite positive about the role of the state in the economy, by advocating Keynesianism for example, while continuing to support a market economy. United States liberalism developed out of this tradition, also referred to as social liberalism. Progressive liberals tend to use labels such as “Radical”, “Progressive”, “Free-thinking” or simply “Democratic” instead of “Liberal”. These are included in the overview.

    I had to change my top part from four to three Liberalisms because Wikipedia no longer lists social democrats as liberals. So in summary Conservatives, Libertarians, and Progressives, are Liberals. I’ve never read anything anti religious in Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, Friederic Bastait, etc.

    1. Hi Stephen:

      You wrote:

      So basically, you’re saying there’s a classical Enlightenment and a modern Enlightenment.

      Not exactly. Basically, I’m saying that the Enlightenment – as powerful as it was – didn’t finish its self-assigned task, which was to unite religion with reason, philosophy and what later came to be known as science.

      Look around at the world today. What you see is continuing fighting over religion affiliation and belief, politicians and ecclesiastics continuing to use belief and religious fanaticism for political and sectarian ends, a willingness to ignore reason and to engage in blind belief. Clearly the job has not been finished.

      Partly, they didn’t have the tools – the religious perspective that they believed in or argued against was, in the main, backward, naive, and credulous. With the coming of centuries of modern scholarship AND the progressive teaching of the Baha’i Faith and other distinctive and modern religious perspectives, we’ve got a lot more going for us.


  2. Stephen, that reminds me that the list of available worldviews was limited during Enlightenment era Europe. Bascially, Christianity, Deism, and Naturalism at first with Existentialism coming later. Now in this post Enligthenment era we have Orientalism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, Neo-Theosophy, New Thought, New Age movement, Post Modernism, etc. There are hundreds of new religious movements listed on Wikipedia. I remember reading various worldview catalogs or encylopdias describing all possible worldviews. It’s staggering just listing all the new modern religious perspective that exist now that didn’t in the past.

    Since 1848 or 1885 (Wikipedia is currently having edit wars about when modern Dharmic writers started writing), there have been tons of Dharmic writers that have captivated Westerners with East. Wikipedia has a whole template of them. I usually use Wikipedia as my favorite research tool. Belief Net has extensive pages on Christian Science, Hinduism, Jainism, Quakerism, Buddhism, Neo-Paganism, New Age, New Thought, Scientology, Sikhism, Taoism, Unitairan Universalism, etc.

    The Englightenment was the original Renaissance Humanism. Humanism has developed since then with both Religious Humanism (Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism/Integral Humanism, Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, and New Age) and Secular Humanism. Wikipedia lists several Manifestoes: Humanist Manifesto I (1933), Humanist Manifesto II (1973), A Secular Humanist Declaration (1980), Christian Humanist Manifesto (1982), The Gift of Salvation:Christian Humanist Manifesto II (1997), Humanist Manifesto 2000:A Call For A New Planetary Humanism (2000), Amsterdam Declaration (2002), Humanism and Its Aspirations:Humanist Manifesto III (2003), Manifesto for a contemporaneous humanism (2012)), and others. Liberalism and Humanism in religion oppose Traditionalism and Fundamentalism.

    The “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” from the Parliament of the World’s Religions (1993) proclaimed the Golden Rule (“We must treat others as we wish others to treat us”) as the common principle for many religions. The Initial Declaration was signed by 143 respected leaders from all of the world’s major faiths, including Baha’i Faith, Brahmanism, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Indigenous, Interfaith, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American, Neo-Pagan, Sikhism, Taoism, Theosophist, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian. In the folklore of several cultures the Golden Rule is depicted by the allegory of the long spoons.

    Towards a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration is an interfaith declaration, drafted initially by Dr. Hans Küng, in cooperation with the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions staff and Trustees and experts. Drawing on many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, the declaration identifies four essential affirmations as shared principles essential to a global ethic.

    Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life
    Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order
    Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness
    Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women

    This Declaration was signed at the Parliament of the World’s Religions gathering in 1993 by more than 200 leaders from 40+ different faith traditions and spiritual communities. Since 1993 it has been signed by thousands more leaders and individuals around the world. As such, it established a common ground for people of faith to agree and to cooperate for the good of all.

    I like it, I also found it by wondering around Wikipedia. It was also referenced in a book I’ve read before as well, but I only looked into it once I saw the Wikipedia page and section of the Golden Rule page on it. I downloaded the declaration onto my iBooks app on my iPad. The Parliament of World Religions met in 1893, 1930, 1932, 1993, 1999, 2004, 2007, 2009, and will meet again in 2014.

    Things like the Internet really help modern people communicate and do research in ways Englightenment thinkers just couldn’t dream of. Liberal Religion and Religious Humanism weren’t in existence in their times, unlike now. I wonder if the Enlightemnet thinkers would have different opinions of religion if they lived in a society where these new perspective existed and were easily researchable?

    1. I forgot to explain my liberal religion.

      Theologian James Luther Adams defined the “five smooth stones of liberalism” as:

      Revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly revealed.

      All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion.

      Affirmation of the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community.

      Denial of the immaculate conception of virtue and affirmation of the necessity of social incarnation. Good must be consciously given form and power within history.

      The resources (divine and human) that are available for achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate (but not necessarily immediate) optimism. There is hope in the ultimate abundance of the Universe.

    2. I also forgot to explain religious Humanism more.

      There’s varieties of Humanism in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Ethical Culture, Marxism, Deism, Unitarian Universalism, Cosmism, New Age, Existentailism, Rationalism, Integralism, Hinduism, Transhumanism, and Personism.

      Some distinguish religious humanism from Jewish humanism, Christian humanism, and secular humanism.

      In the past, humanist versions of major religions, such as Christian humanism, have arisen. In addition, many Indian religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and other Asian religions and belief systems like Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, Shenism, and Zoroastrianism, that focus on human nature and action more than theology, were always primarily humanistic. Currently, however, humanism is dominated almost exclusively by secular humanism. This has given rise to a newer version of humanist religions which are similar in philosophy to secular humanism. Secular humanists and revealed religious humanists primarily differ in their definition of religion and their positions on supernatural beliefs. They can also diverge in practice since religious humanists endorse religious ceremonies, rituals, and rites.

      Dharmically-derived approaches
      The humanist approach to Buddhism shares the fundamental principle of analysing and evaluating the tradition according to natural, human values, but the particular interpretations and results various Buddhist humanists come up with will naturally vary. An early exponent, U Dhammaloka, combined western freethought and atheist positions with orthodox Burmese ritual practice and a strong critique of missionary theism. Most Buddhist groups are more or less humanistic anyway, but there is also a particular modern Chinese Buddhist organisation that calls itself ‘Humanistic Buddhism’.

      The teachings of the modern Chinese Buddhist thought of Humanistic Buddhism encompass all of the Buddhist teachings from the time of Gautama Buddha to the present. The goal of Humanistic Buddhism is the bodhisattva way, which means to be an energetic, enlightened, and endearing person who strives to help all sentient beings liberate themselves. Humanistic Buddhism focuses more on issues of the world rather than on how to leave the world behind; on caring for the living, rather than the dead; on benefiting others, rather than benefiting oneself; and on universal salvation, rather than salvation for only oneself.

      Other Buddhist scholars are exploring a humanist method of analysis and evaluation of the Buddha’s teachings based exclusively on the pre-sectarian early texts, which were probably mainly composed pre-300BCE. The focus of this form of humanistic Buddhism is analysis of the implicit authority theories contained in the different stages of evolution of Buddhist tradition, and critiquing the misunderstanding and misuse of religious ‘authority’ to justify abuse of individuals. It also re-emphasises value-pluralism, which is a humanistic way of reasoning about ethics.

      Abrahamically-derived approaches
      Another approach, Christian Existential Humanism, related to the work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, features a humanist perspective grounded in Christian religious belief; where humanity is something to be excited about, but not as a replacement for the divine.

      Many medieval Muslim thinkers pursued humanistic, rational and scientific discourses in their search for knowledge, meaning and values. A wide range of Islamic writings on love poetry, history and philosophical theology show that medieval Islamic thought was open to the humanistic ideas of individualism, occasional secularism, skepticism and liberalism. Certain aspects of Renaissance humanism has its roots in the medieval Islamic world, including the “art of dictation, called in Latin, ars dictaminis,” and “the humanist attitude toward classical language.”

      Humanistic Judaism is a movement that holds that Jewish culture and Jewish history, rather than religion, are the source of Jewish identity.

      Humanistic Mormonism is a movement and a form of religious humanism that holds that Mormon history, Mormon culture, and those who self-identity as Mormons based on their personal life experiences rather than religion, are the key sources of Mormon identity.

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