To understand the natural world and human society solely on the basis of reason and without recourse to religious belief was the goal of the Enlightenment, a wide-ranging intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries. Accordingly, today scholars and the general public largely agree that the relationship between religion and secularization is an antagonistic one.
But William J. Bulman, assistant professor of history, argues that during this important period of secularization in the West, the Church of England was itself responsible for many intellectual innovations that led to secular understandings of religious and other social phenomena.
His forthcoming book, Anglican Enlightenment: Culture and Religious Politics in England and its Empire, 1648–1714, re-interprets the relationship between religious struggle and intellectual innovation in late Stuart England.
Bulman argues that the early Enlightenment was never inherently conducive to religious freedom, dissent or irreligion. Instead, the technical and theoretical achievements of the early Enlightenment were in part the product of an interdependent relationship between intellectual innovation and the forces of religious persecution, theological orthodoxy, absolutism and imperialism.
Bulman’s research suggests that religions’ most significant moments of internal and intellectual innovation tend to result from their most active attempts to resist or respond to that very process.
A shifting role for the Church of England
“In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Church of England defended itself by stressing its utility for the maintenance of social and political order,” he says. “The advertised benefits of the established church came to center less on its role as a protector of theological orthodoxy and more on its role as an adjunct of the state and a guarantor of social stability.”
Bulman argues that this intellectual and apologetical shift was a product of the English Civil Wars and Revolution (1642-1649).
“The church leadership was trying to re-engineer the relationship between faith and society in order to avert another descent into chaos and bloodshed,” he says. “In doing so they joined other elite sectors of society in what we might call an Enlightenment project, but they vehemently disagreed with other elites about the precise content of that enterprise.”
Church leaders, says Bulman, argued that catechizing, ritual and a clerical order played central roles in all civilized religions. On the basis of wide-ranging research into the world’s religions, both past and present, they maintained that Anglican Christianity was a peculiarly rational faith. As both a natural religion and a civil religion, it epitomized two of the central ideas of the Enlightenment.
For Anglican elites, this meant that the Church of England was perfectly suited to command broad acceptance in English society and provide a foundation for civic virtue and polite public discourse, both of which were essential for moving England beyond an age of religious war.
Other English elites, says Bulman, believed that a Presbyterian or Roman Catholic established church would best prevent religious zeal from destroying civil society. A more famous but tiny minority also offered a series of more radical proposals. Thomas Hobbes, for instance, proposed a non-theological form of civil religion, while John Locke argued for the secular benefits of a relatively tolerant religious settlement that nevertheless criminalized Roman Catholicism and atheism.
Bulman and Robert G. Ingram, associate professor of history at Ohio University, recently received a two-year, $100,000 grant through the Religion and Innovation in Human Affairs Program of the John Templeton Foundation and The Historical Society of Boston University. The grant will enable Bulman to continue his studies of the relationship between religion and intellectual innovation in Europe between the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries.
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