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April 26, 2006

The Enlightenment and Religion: The Myths of Modernity - S. J. Barnett

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Enlightenment and Religion: The Myths of Modernity
by S. J. Barnett
Pp. vii+244. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003
Hardback, 49.99; Paperback, 14.99

The Enlightenment and Religion is an important revisionist study that questions assumptions about religion and modernity in the eighteenth century and, specifically, the role of deism. Barnett, Subject Leader in History of Ideas at the University of Kingston-Upon-Thames, argues that an exaggeration of the role of deism has led to a failure to engage with more traditional forces for religious change.

Barnett also takes issue with the extent to which the concept of public opinion has focused on the writings of the philosophes and on what he sees as the dominance of the traditional top-down approach to intellectual change. Barnett claims with reason that the philosophes' perception of enlightenment in class terms led them to ignore the bottom-up process of intellectual change. Correctly taking issue with the Habermas approach, Barnett claims there was a reciprocal intellectual relationship between the various orders.

Barnett does not address adequately, however, the argument that religious conservatism was the defining characteristic of popular religiosity, nor the attempt to focus on the extent to which there was an anti-Enlightenment. The use, for example, of the culture of print for preserving tradition and traditional learning as well as for disseminating new ideas and influences, is a reminder of the ability of traditional influences to respond to new opportunities, and also of the dynamic possibilities of traditional learning.

Furthermore, to focus on "popular" views, it is necessary to consider the economy and culture of the poor. The troubled character of their experience and imagination was not one that readily lent itself to a conviction of the superior value of earthly government. Similarly the desire for inexhaustible supplies of food and wealth central to many folk tales was not one that could be fulfilled by economic growth. Indeed the combination of these beliefs reflected the harshness of the life of the poor and their need to turn to magical solutions. The very sense of menace and danger helps to account for the energy devoted to religious issues and this serves as a reminder of the need to consider the populace as more than a passive recipient of policies and initiatives from the more powerful.

Barnett's book makes a worthwhile contribution to debate on the eighteenth century and on historiographical method, but does not exhaust the material available for considering the role of religion and the nature of enlightenment in that period.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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