Denis Diderot

Authored by: David Adams

Early Modern Philosophy of Religion

Print publication date:  July  2013
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9781844652228
eBook ISBN: 9781315729619
Adobe ISBN: 9781317546450


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Any attempt to assess the attitude Denis Diderot (1713–84) took towards religion has to cope with the fact that the eighteenth-century philosophes, of whom Diderot was among the most prominent, are still rather controversial figures. To some commentators, both in their own time and in ours, their influence was a negative and baleful one. One of Diderot’s contemporaries described him as a man “blind to the principles of religion and morality” (Chaudon 1759: 95), a comment echoed frequently during his lifetime (Trousson 1997) and even into our own day. Hence, the online Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that in the Encyclopédie:

Reason gradually freed itself from the superstition of the past and claimed absolute independence. Ancient, or rather Christian, conceptions of God and the world were not even deemed worthy of the serious consideration of a ‘thinker’ … soon the possibility of miracles and revelation was denied, while mysteries were regarded as absurd. Thus, in the place of traditional beliefs, new ideas were introduced, tending to rationalism, materialism, naturalism, and deism.

(Catholic Encylopedia n.d.) The persistence of these views (which certainly characterize much of what we now mean by ‘the Enlightenment’; see Israel 2006b) has coloured to a considerable extent the way in which Diderot’s attitude to religion has been perceived even by those with no theological axe to grind. His atheistic reputation has, conversely, helped to propel him into the ranks of those who are eulogized for leading the campaign against superstition and obscurantist religious dogma of all kinds. In his recent survey of modern intellectual trends, Francis Wheen hails the Encyclopédie as the very summa of Enlightenment thinking:

‘Enlightenment’ had two meanings, both evident in the Encyclopédie: the discovery of truth and its diffusion … The Enlightenment had many critics, but its illuminating influence and achievements were apparent in the history of the next two centuries – the waning of absolutism and superstition, the rise of secular democracy, the understanding of the natural world.

(2004: 6)
At a time when, for reasons that the philosophes would have readily recognized, secular and spiritual forces are once again at odds in Western civilization, the invocation of Diderot’s name as a standard-bearer against religious intolerance points to his perceived importance as an enemy of anti-rationalism, and a champion of reason and rational enquiry. The question therefore arises of knowing to what extent this reputation is justified, and whether he can indeed be properly regarded as one of the founders of the Enlightenment campaign against religion in general, and against Christianity in particular.

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