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Throughout the 1600’s to 1800’s, there was a considerable amount of change in widely held belief systems. When change comes too quickly, it can often be difficult to apply without friction.

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The degree to which this friction presented itself in Europe and America during the 17th, 18th,   and 19th centuries shows the destructive nature the clash of ideologies can have, particularly when those conflicting ideologies challenging centuries-old beliefs.

This essay will examine the clash that occurs when traditional ideologies are challenged. Taking a look at the deadly results in Europe, before analyzing the consequences of enlightenment efforts in America, provides a clear picture of the inevitability of conflict arises from a change in ideology, no matter where that change takes place. The Thirty Years’ War is just one of the examples where change can create a considerable amount of conflict. The war affected much of Europe, including France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. However, the Holy Roman Empire was not the first to be challenged by the issues.

Virtually every European nation was struggling with attempting to cope with the various changes that were occurring in this period. The continent was strife with conflict about religion, fueling angry political, economic, and social backlashes against the traditional tenets established by religion. France is one of the greatest examples of the conflict that was being faced at the time due to its active participation in historical events that helped define the boundaries between religion and secularism. Assassinations and widespread warfare that occurred in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries was fueled by contempt that was ignited by Enlightenment Reformation, Counter-Reformation and the rise in coffee houses, clubs, and social gatherings, which would spread throughout Europe.

Moving The Church

One important way to view the changing currents in politics, religion, social order, and science during the spread of enlightenment is to evaluate the contributors to the movement. Key figures in the Age of Enlightenment are due ample credit for having led Europe and the world toward a more modern and secular way of life. Also important in shaping the course of the continent and societies around the globe are the figures who worked to halt that advancement of enlightened ideals and push society back toward the previously dominant methods of theological governance. Both sets of actors in this transformative era play vital roles in the progression of Europe.

While it is arguably the leaders of Europe who fill starring roles in this tumultuous episode of change, there is a strong case to be made for the philosophical giants of the age. Those from the world of science also contributed mightily toward advancing more comprehensive understanding of the world and the region. All of these disparate groups of (almost exclusively) men were burdened with confronting a more established and powerful adversary in religion.

Religion has long held a pivotal position as arbiters of custom and unifiers of people.1Religion has also been used as a banner for some of the most oppressive and regressive aims in world history. The most powerful and influential religious organization in Europe in the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was the Catholic Church. The Church held massive amounts of wealth and influence and claimed the allegiance of Europeans across the continent.[1] As is the case with nearly every religion, tradition and the Catholic Church were seemingly inextricably linked. Any attempt to subvert the will of the Church was sure to face stiff and well-resourced resistance.

The Church’s power was not an ingredient of reform lost on anyone in Europe during the time. Catholic Church interests were fiercely defended and opponents were often ferociously confronted. This aspect of life meant that anyone who dared challenge the established truths set forth by the Church did so out of a significant measure of courage.[2]Among the most important parts of the Enlightenment was a set of circumstances that aligned philosophical, political, and religious interests toward a common goal. With the aid of moderate Catholics, figures such a John Locke advocated for separation of church from the political happenings in Europe and this movement reached as far as the American colonies across the Atlantic Ocean.2

The idea of detaching religion from government was important in fostering progress and an expansion of rights among the citizenry of Europe. Moderate and influential members of the Church were helpful in this pursuit because of a sense of fortification for both society at large and the future existence of the Church. The ideas that dominated this aspect of the movement included sentiments widely held by reformers and influential religious leaders alike, that curtailed the Church’s direct influence on politics so that episodes such as the Thirty Years War and other bloody conflicts in the name of religion would be less likely.[3]

This time also corresponded with a growing movement toward relatively new and unique brands of faith. Both Deism and atheism began to permeate members of society, further weakening the hold hard-line Church officials hoped to maintain on society. In order to affirm that morality was not exclusively derived from adherence to religious doctrine, Pierre Bayle and others were supportive of farthing the ideas that morality and atheism were not mutually exclusive.[4] Among the voices opposed to having this notion widely adopted was the noted position that absent faith and abiding allegiant to God and the tenets of religion, atheists would be without a moral compass, having no other compulsion to be righteous, and therefore would represent a degradation of he moral fiber of society. Locke, who previously assisted in separating the Church from government, had reservations about the consequences of promoting atheism.[5] Issues surrounding morality in the absence of God centered on the code a non-believer would abide as well as worries about atheists believing themselves to be abreast with God in stature.[6]
Political Shakeup

Concurrent with the notions of separating Church from state and tolerance for those of no theological affiliation, a reshaping of the political system was also afoot. An ideal dubbed, “consent of the governed,” advanced by historians Alexis de Tocqueville and Hippolyte Taine, held that the divine right of kings was a system of governance that had no place in an enlightened world. Instead, those who would be governed were to be provided a means for addressing governors — a condition that could never be achieved if the defied rulers were to never be sincerely challenged. Another important motivator for this political shift was the resistance to make likely future wars. Under the presiding political system, war was an inevitable product of ruling families who rivaled adjacent kingdoms.

Prominent Actors

Those most instrumental in opening the public debate that would start and advance the Age of Enlightenment were members of a variety of disciplines and nationalities. Change agents can be found throughout the history of the enlightened movement that practiced philosophy, government, theology, science, and the arts.[7] The philosophers among them were most adept at compelling the intellectual and privileged classes of Europe toward change by offering logical definitions for both the times as they were, the consequences of continuing to operate in similar fashion, and the possibilities of sweeping reform. History would judge these appeals as successful and inspirational to societies outside of Europe.[8]

One of the earliest influencers of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe was English philosopher, Francis Bacon.2 The Baconian Method of investigative experimentation put emphasis on observation and reasoning, as opposed to dogma and all that was helpful in stunting progress by way of religious assertion and the followers of the Church.2 Bacon’s influence was felt by another transformative figure of the age, French philosopher and scientist, Rene Descartes.3 Descartes is most remembered for his exploits in mathematics (namely algebra and geometry) and his groundbreaking philosophical statement, “I think therefore I am,” known as Cogito ergo sum in original French.

Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher and author of “Leviathan,” is an integral figure in sparking the English Enlightenment. Leviathan asserted the point of view that human beings are basically self-driven and evil. The reaction to Hobbes call for a singular and powerful monarchy government was the catalyst for reform in England.[9]

In science, no person cast a more imposing shadow as Isaac Newton. Newton’s discoveries fueled a scientific revolution that would be the genesis of a wealth of advancements in math and science still marvelous today. Most notable among Newton’s scientific discoveries are his theories defining and explaining gravity as well as the principles and laws of motion.[10]

Of the influential writers who would create compelling works to further ideals of Enlightenment, there is hardly a figure more prominent than Voltaire. Voltaire’s positions on religious freedom, separation of church and state, and general biting rhetorical attacks of the Catholic Church would elevate both his stature and the prevalence of enlightened ideology.

Coffee and Civil Debate

Considering the age and the technological limits of holding a broad debate that would lead to large-scale reform, coffeehouses provided a unique and valuable forum.4 What made the coffeehouses such an important meeting place were the same reasons many in the noble class loathed their very existence. In a coffeehouse, all pretenses of class and other manner of hierarchical divisions were ignored. This leveling environment allowed those who would rarely if ever have occasion to communicate openly, the opportunity to do so to great effect.

The diversity of the patronage was only part of the appeal. Others saw the coffeehouse forum as a means for furthering the debate culture overall. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele published a daily news magazine of sorts called “The Spectator.”4 This was the first such publication and catered to the discourse commonly engaged at coffeehouses. “The Spectator” and Steele’s “The Tatler” would go on to become seminal achievements in modern journalism.


Brewer, Daniel. The Enlightenment Past: Reconstructing Eighteenth-century French         Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Bronner, Stephen Eric. Reclaiming the Enlightenment toward a Politics of Radical                        Engagement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Cowan, Brian William. The Social Life of Coffee the Emergence of the British       Coffeehouse.New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005.

Gascoigne, John. Cambridge in the Age of the Enlightenment: Science, Religion, and        Politics from the Restoration to the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge           University Press, 1989.

Sorkin, David Jan. The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from     London to Vienna. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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