On the Enlightenment

John Stackhouse busts some myths.



John Stackhouse busts some myths.


The idea that some of the best features of modern life, particularly universal human rights, emerged out of the Enlightenment, and are to be credited to the Enlightenment and not to Christianity, is an oversimplification in at least a couple of respects.

First, the Enlightenment isn’t itself a secular movement. There are lots of Enlightenments, and they range from anti-Christian vitriol, in the case of Voltaire on his bad days – Diderot, almost every day – to Christian figures like John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, who are every bit as Enlightenment-ish as anybody else. We’d also have figures in the Scottish Enlightenment like Thomas Reid and of course Adam Smith. So the Enlightenment is quite a wide-ranging spectrum that includes Christian elements.

When we look at the Enlightenment, we have to realise that the Enlightenment emerges out of Christian civilisation. It doesn’t emerge out of anybody else’s civilisation. And so what we see in the Enlightenment are certain themes and concerns of Christian civilisation that are being deployed by different people in different ways. Some of them against Christianity itself, some of them on behalf of Christianity, but all of those ideas are easily traceable to the Christian heritage of the West.