Religion’s place in the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment (1685-1815) – often known as the Age of Reason – is frequently understood to have been an era focused on human intellect, science and philosophy. The University of Tulsa’s Chapman Associate Professor of English Laura Stevens takes a different approach, however, asking, “What was the place of religion during that period?”

The place of religion in the Enlightenment

Religion and The Enlightenment Conference with Matt Drever, Jennifer Airey, Megan Gibson, Ashley Schoppe, Sabine Volk-Birke, Laura Stevens and Daniel Fulda
Matt Drever, Jennifer Airey, Megan Gibson, Ashley Schoppe, Sabine Volk-Birke, Laura Stevens and Daniel Fulda

While serving on the international advisory board for Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg’s Interdisciplinary Centre for European Enlightenment Studies, Stevens and her colleague Sabine Volk-Birke, a Martin Luther University professor of English literature, helped organize The Place of Religion in the Enlightenment international conference in Halle, Germany (June 5-7, 2019).

“After a lot of discussions, we thought it was time to revisit the question of religion’s place in the Enlightenment,” Stevens said. “There has been a long-standing narrative of secularization that is the sort of received wisdom of what happened to religion in the Enlightenment, which is that it didn’t disappear, but there was a splitting of religion from secular arenas.”

The conference welcomed scholars all over the globe to present papers on a range of topics, such as overseas missionary work to religious debates taking place in 18th-century Germany. Thanks to an internationalization grant from the Consortium for Global Education, a contingent from TU was able to attend. Stevens was proud to have two former students and TU alumna present their research: Ashley Shoppe (MA ’14, PhD ’16) and Megan Gibson (PhD ’19).

Key takeaways

The three Religion and The Enlightenment Conference organizers: Sabine Volk-Birke, Laura Stevens and Daniel Fulda, Director of the IZEA, Martin Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg
The three conference organizers: Sabine Volk-Birke, Laura Stevens and Daniel Fulda, Director of the IZEA, Martin Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg

Participating scholars engaged not only with the period’s religious ideas but also with its spaces of worship. Questions addressing literal places, such as “What was happening in the churches, and where were various religions operating?” were discussed, but the notion of metaphorical and intellectual space was also addressed. “Where did human beings during this era consider the place of religion? Where did they worship?” Stevens asked.

Communing with nature was also associated with worship, Stevens noted. “One of the common ideas was nature is the book that God wrote for humans to read in order to understand his ways,” she said. This new ideology threatened traditional churches, especially as congregants reconsidered concepts such as the age of the earth.

As an outcome of increased literacy and the Protestant Reformation, worship for many Christians transformed into a more personalized and private endeavor. “There was a rise in individual prayer and personal devotion,” Stevens said. “When more people can read, they can have their own personal prayer books and retire to their homes and pray with their families.”

An international approach

TU Associate Professor of English Jennifer Airey enjoyed sharing thoughts with international colleagues and, especially, those who primarily work in other languages. “I learned about new approaches to the period, as well as areas of study and ideas I hadn’t considered before. More study of the Enlightenment across international boundaries would be extremely intellectually fruitful,” she said.

Considering the Enlightenment beyond the United States and Britain was a significant aspect to the conference, and even the choice to hold it in Halle highlighted an international perspective. Halle was the center of the Protestant Reformation, and it was also a center for German pietists, a sect of Lutherans that stressed personal faith versus the Lutheran church’s emphasis on doctrine over Christian living.

The contemporary impact

The modern world was born out of the 18th century and the Enlightenment. To fully understanding current religious debates, it is essential to delve into that history. “We are still very much negotiating the place of religion in our own society: To what extent should we privilege science over faith? What role should religion play in the political sphere?” Airey asked.

By examining the Enlightenment, a less oppositional and a more nuanced conversation on religion versus reason is possible. Stevens observed, “Revisiting this topic through the 18th century, when that narrative first came into play, can help us engage with more subtlety and complexity in order to tease apart these arenas of inquiry and belief.”