August 14, 2012
The Enlightenment marked a fundamental shift from faith and focus on an afterlife to the material world and the pursuit of happiness in this life.
The beliefs of Thomas Jefferson continue to create controversy
even though the Founding Father and third President of the U.S. died
nearly two centuries ago. Just this past week, for example, World magazine reported that the large Evangelical publishing house, Thomas
Nelson, decided to cease publication and distribution of David Barton’s controversial book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always
Believed about Thomas Jefferson, saying it has “lost confidence in the book’s details.” Barton is the president of the WallBuilders organization
and a frequent guest on the Glenn Beck radio program; his book has been criticized
for portraying Jefferson as sympathetic to Christianity while
downplaying, or even ignoring, Jefferson’s criticisms of orthodox
following essay, written by Dr. Edmund Mazza of Azusa Pacific University,
situates Jefferson within the broader context of the Enlightenment,
which was generally antagonistic to what Jefferson dismissed as the
ignorance and priestly superstition” of the Catholic Church.
Most Americans know Thomas Jefferson as the principal author of the
Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third president. But
Jefferson is also the famed founder of one of America’s oldest
higher education, the University of Virginia. In this connection he is
reported to have quipped that he hoped it would never retain a faculty
nor ever become a den of “monkish ignorance and priestly
superstition.” I have always found Jefferson’s pontificating to be
quite ironic since it was precisely these prelates of the Church who
university system in the first placesome six centuries before he did!
Jefferson, however, was a man of his age, a period in history
known as the Enlightenment. An ironic appellation to be sure, for it
ushered in unprecedented shadows of doubt, obscuring centuries of
by the medieval masters of higher education. John Locke, another
“luminary” of the Enlightenment took a similarly “dim” view of medieval
“scholastic” thinking when he wrote:
the Schoolmen… aiming at glory and esteem, for their great
and universal knowledge, easier a great deal to be pretended to than
acquired, found this a good expedient to cover their ignorance with a
curious and inexplicable web of perplexed words, and procure to
admiration of others, by unintelligible terms, the apter to produce
wonder because they could not be understood: whilst it appears in all
that these profound doctors were no wiser nor more useful than their
neighbours, and brought but small advantage to human life or the
wherein they lived…
The key phrase in Locke’s statement is that the scholastics were not
“useful” to their neighbors and brought almost “no advantage” to their
practical lives as individuals or society writ large. Whether or not
Locke’s statement is an accurate one, it betrays a fundamental shift:
and focus on an afterlife to the material world and the pursuit of
happiness merely in terms of this life, instead of the pursuit of the God
bestows happiness in the next.
This Enlightenment utilitarianism was first expressed a century earlier by fellow Englishman Francis Bacon
in the New Atlantis, in which he spoke of the promise of science, which would give us: “things of use and practice for man’s life.”
This was the age of the Scientific Revolution. Galileo’s claim to have
proven that the earth was not the center of the universe but that it
revolved around the sun seemed to challenge the accuracy of the teaching
authority of both the Catholic Church and the Bible, as well as the
science of the ancient Greek philosophers, notably Aristotle.
Sixteenth-century empirical observations through crude telescopes and
microscopes revolutionized man’s view of his place in the universe and
intellectuals question their common patrimony: the authority of received
“tradition,” which had been the basis of medieval education. Or as
put it: “It is surely time for men to think for themselves, and to throw
off the authority of names so artificially magnified.” Chancellor Bacon was another such skeptic of “established authorities” and famously
advocated the inductive “Scientific Method” instead:
But even though Aristotle were the man he is thought to be I
should still warn you against receiving as oracles the thoughts and
of one man. What justification can there be for this self-imposed
servitude [that]…you are content to repeat Aristotle’s after two
thousand [years]…But if you will be guided by me you will deny, not only
to this man but to any mortal now living or who shall live hereafter,
right to dictate your opinions…you will never be sorry for trusting your
own strength… (Emphasis mine)
Aristotle and the scholastics are to be rejected because the new
science has proven many of their assertions erroneous. Common patrimony
individual must only accept as certain what he can first rationally
demonstrate to himself, Descartes’ “I think, therefore, I am.” This is
beginning of the end of medieval metaphysics, which asserted that a
person’s existence must certainly precede any act of
the loss of metaphysics, the entire celestial hierarchy, along with
concomitant notions of sin and salvation, death, judgment, heaven and
by the wayside. We have only the empirical knowledge of the here and
now concludes Bacon: “Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature,
and understand so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of
the course of nature: beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do
anything.” As John Donne lamented in less prosaic verse:
New Philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The Sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and
Prince, Subject, Father, Son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a
Phoenix, and that then can be,
None of that kinde, of which he is, but he.
Since ancient and medieval authorities had proven incorrect about the
natural world, early modern intellectuals threw the baby out with the
bath water, and rejected nearly all of what those commonly accepted authorities had said about the human world: God, man, and
public society. Aristotle’s dictum, “man is by nature a social
animal” was no longer acceptable. Human nature is not inherently
The human race is merely a gaggle of completely separate and unrelated individuals. Each of us is not a specimen of a class, but a class
unto ourselves! Each man is an island…a phoenix. As Jefferson wrote, "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know." This was also Locke’s thinking:
Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and
independent, no one can be put out of this condition and subjected to
political power of another without his own consent. The only way
whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the
civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a
community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one among
[is] absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the
greatest, and subject to nobody, why will he part with his freedom, why
give up his independence and subject himself to the rule and control of
any other power?
Rejection of received authority and the enshrinement of the
individual were believed to be effective bulwarks against tyranny, and
the promotion of
liberty, but had the unfortunate effect of forcing all but the most
basic religious beliefs to the private sphere. As Elshtain writes,
There was a worm in the apple from the very beginning of the
move for toleration. If one traces that beginning from John Locke’s
Letter on Toleration one discovers that in order for religion
to be tolerated it must be privatized. There is a realm of private
and, a realm of public statecraft, and never the twain shall meet…This
privatization, even subjectifying, of religion feeds into the bad odor
surrounding any hint of proselytization. Proselytizing seemed at best
bad manners; at worst a way to try and force something on me that I do
want, am not interested in, but may be gulled or intimidated into
accepting. The general animus against proselytizing flows from a
those driven in that direction will, almost invariably, be persons of
strong religious conviction: those, therefore, who, should they become
would move to end the very toleration that has made their open
proselytizing possible. So, in the name of preserving a regime of
toleration, we must
not tolerate unrestrained proselytism.
Voltaire, a contemporary French philosophe-atheist had affirmed as
much when he said that one religion was tyranny, two religions civil
the toleration of multiple factions, a just republic. In other words,
Enlightenment toleration is based on the supposition that there can be
certainty with regard to religious claims to truth.
“I never will,
by any word, or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit of a
right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others,” said Jefferson. Men may follow their private beliefs to their own peril, but should
not endanger the general welfare on account of their peculiar denominational folly.
This is the genesis of the notion of Separation of
Church and State and neatly summarizes the prevailing politically
correct consensus in Washington, various levels of the judiciary, the
media, and academia today. As my colleague Mark Eaton recently
Some would prefer to exclude believers from public discourse
altogether. Stanley Fish never tires of reminding us that religion
the litmus test of pluralism. Because there are always “some believers
who hold to their faith in a way that is absolute and exclusionary,” he
that religion is ultimately incompatible with pluralism and tolerance,
those twin pillars of secular modernity. The philosopher Jurgen
insists that believers must simply come to terms with the “inevitability
of religious tolerance,” while so-called new atheists like Christopher
Hitchens exclaim more shrilly that the “inevitable biases” of believers
“should be enough” to exclude them from rational debate. For these and
champions of secularism, religion is safe only when it is confined to
the private sphere, since any form of “deprivatized religion,” as
studies scholar Talal Asad puts it, is deemed “intolerable to
Just ask Amherst College President Anthony Marx about the “bad old days,” before religion was privatized:
In the medieval epochs of Europe, leading right up to the
edge of the modern, authority was established by deity or absolutism.
and priests directed humanity’s understanding of nature, of sickness and
health, of earth’s horizon, of the motion of the stars. It is hard for
now to imagine that way of life, in which such authority was not
questioned. But the power of individual insight, yearning and industry
beginning to coalesce, producing revolutions that replaced despotism
with democracy, feudalism with capitalism and fundamentalism with
Amherst prizes individual reason over unearned authority…We
believe in “progress”: that new knowledge advances us. Just
as we believe in science, we also respect and take strength from faith,
not as a closed system but as an inspiration [i.e. private not
as another kind of journey, for each to examine and decide for herself or himself. Although we know we cannot reach perfection [i.e.
certitude], we believe in striving for the improvement for all.
Religion may serve as personal “inspiration,” but may not condition
philosophy, science, or societal structure. According to this view,
Cardinal Ratzinger explained, faith is definitively divorced from
We could suggest that Descartes, Spinoza, and Kant are
points along the way in this process of separation. The attempt at a
comprehensive synthesis by Hegel did not give faith back its proper
place in philosophy but tried to transform it completely into reason and
away with it as faith. To this giving absolute status to the spirit,
Marx opposed a system of solely material values; philosophy was now to
upon exact science. Only scientific knowledge was knowledge at all…A
comprehensive theory of evolution, intended to explain the whole of
become a kind of “first philosophy”, which represents, as it were, the
true foundation for an enlightened understanding of the world. Any
involve basic elements other than those worked out within the terms of
such a “positive” theory, any attempt at “metaphysics”, necessarily
a relapse from the standards of enlightenment, as abandoning the
universal claims of science. Thus the Christian idea of God is
But what if the men of the Scientific Revolution and the
Enlightenment got it wrong? What if God is not merely a fact of
fact? What if sense-knowledge is not the only path to truth? And
what if individuals as a consequence have an obligation to obey not only
material truths, but transcendent truths, if (paradoxically) they truly
aspire to freedom?
While it is hardly to be doubted they made few
miscalculations with regard to planetary motion or representative government, early-modern thinkers were surely not endowed with
infallibility in their presumption that human knowledge (and therefore pursuit of happiness) was limited to this world. The statement “that
all propositions are meaningless unless they can be empirically verified,” is itself empirically unverifiable! And to insist: “There is no such thing as absolute truth,” is actually to proclaim one.
 Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Thomas Cooper, October 7, 1814, as cited in www.positiveatheism.org/
 John Locke, Essay on Human
Understanding, Book 3, Chap 10, ed. Jack Lynch; www. andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/locke-language.html.
 Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis, as cited in Thomas F. X.
Noble, Barry Strauss, Duane J. Osheim, Kristen B. Neuschel, Elinor A. Accampo, eds. Western Civilization, (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 531.
 Letter to William Short, August 4, 1820.
 Francis Bacon, The Refutation of Philosophies
 Bacon, The New Organon
 John Donne, “An Anatomy of the World”
 Jefferson, Letter to Ezra Stiles Ely, June 25, 1819.
 Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Proselytizing for Tolerance,” First Things, 2002
“The notion that all religions are ultimately equivalent
appears as a commandment of tolerance and respect for others…The
Christian has to resist this ideology of equality.” His Holiness Pope
(Joseph Ratzinger), Truth and Tolerance, Christian Belief and World Religions, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 105.
 Letter to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803.
 Mark Eaton, “Holding Fast to Our Beliefs: Religion and Pluralism Since 9/11,” in
APU Life, Azusa Pacific University Magazine, 23:1 (2010): 17.
 Anthony W. Marx, Convocation Address, September 3, 2007, Amherst College.
 Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 177-78.
 Charles Rice, Fifty Questions on the Natural Law, (Ignatius Press, 1997),
About the Author
Dr. Edmund J. Mazza
Dr. Edmund J. Mazza
is professor of history and political science at Azusa Pacific University. He is the organizer of the upcoming international Marian symposium in Rome (www.MarySignOfFaith.com
). Dr. Mazza's CDs and DVDs are available through Saint Joseph Communications.