Historian Connects Modern Humanism to the Enlightenment

For Immediate Release: March 20, 2012
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director
press@centerforinquiry.org - (207) 358-9785

AMHERST, NY–In a groundbreaking work of scholarship in the April/May 2012 edition of Free Inquiry titled “The Enlightenment, Naturalism, and the Secularization of Values,” historian Alan Charles Kors describes the evolution of thought and inquiry that led to the Enlightenment, and how the new conceptions of a secular morality set forth in the Enlightenment would blossom into what we now know today as modern humanism. Voices in the humanist movement frequently and proudly hearken back to the thinkers of the Enlightenment as their philosophical forebears, but little has been documented that explicitly spells out this connection, until now.

Kors, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and editor of The Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, tells the story of a Europe emerging bruised by centuries of sectarian strife and violence, and therefore increasingly receptive to the thoroughly modern concept of tolerance of diversity. “It is a remarkable moment of the history of human consciousness,” writes Kors, “this generation that thought of itself as leading Europe from a phantasmagoric past into a world closer to the heart’s desire for happiness.”

Enlightenment-era thought challenged a long-hold belief in the presumptive authority of the Church and its clerics. Kors explains, “Anticlericalism was the most common denominator of the Enlightenment. Primarily deistic, it believed that God spoke to mankind through nature and nature alone and that the priests had usurped and falsified God’s voice in sectarian religions.” This idea that the nature of reality could be understood through careful, reasoned inquiry and experimentation, rather than through religious doctrine, serves as the underpinning for the secular humanist movement.

Gordon Gamm, a lawyer and longtime humanist activist, generously provided the funding for this essay and assisted Free Inquiry in commissioning this essay.

Also in this issue of Free Inquiry: a fascinating interview with “New Atheist” author Daniel Dennett on misconceptions about free will (available only in the print version); Greta Christina makes the case that atheism requires a commitment to social justice; Ronald A. Lindsay discusses the implications of the decline in religious belief; Tom Flynn theorizes as to why nonbelievers do not always take to even secular rituals; and Eddie Tabash eulogizes on behalf of the secular humanist community on the sad passing of Christopher Hitchens–all this and much more.

Free Inquiry is a bimonthly magazine featuring thoughtful and provocative commentary from such leading political and social commentators as Richard Dawkins, Arthur Caplan, Wendy Kaminer, and Nat Hentoff. Launched in 1980, Free Inquiry has a paid circulation of approximately 34,000 worldwide. The Free Inquiry website is at www.secularhumanism.org/fi/.

The Council for Secular Humanism—housed at the Center for Inquiry—is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization promoting rational inquiry, secular values, and positive human development through the advancement of secular humanism. The Council, publisher of the bimonthly journal Free Inquiry, has a website at www.secularhumanism.org.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization based in Amherst, New York; it is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. CFI‘s web address is www.centerforinquiry.net.

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at centerforinquiry.org.