James M. Byrne. Religion and the Enlightenment: From Descartes to Kant. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
I decided to get this book so that I could read a clear explanation
of Immanuel Kant’s epistemology, plus I figured that I could solidify
and build on whatever I knew about the Enlightenment. I found this
book, overall, to be rich and lucid. It has chapters about the history
of the Enlightenment, deism, and atheism, and it also profiles the life
and thought of Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and
Immanuel Kant. While it has chapters specifically on these figures, it
also discusses others in the course of its narration, such as David
Hume, Joseph Butler, Isaac Newton, and the list goes on. This book is
about the relationship among science, reason, and the Christian religion
during the time of the Enlightenment, as old authorities were being
challenged and questioned. The issues that were discussed included
arguments for the existence of God, whether the Bible was an adequate
revelation or should instead be replaced by looking at nature for God’s
revelation, whether nature was actually good, the question of what moved
the elements of nature (i.e., God, consciousness within matter?),
epistemology, and the basis for morality. Byrne went into what people
during the Enlightenment thought, as well as critiques of their
While I found my reading of this book to be very informative, there
are still areas in which I am confused. I am puzzled as to how Rousseau
could lambaste society in favor of the individual, while at the same
time promoting a society that many would consider to be totalitarian.
Moreover, while I learned that Kant was actually attempting to refute
David Hume’s epistemological skepticism, I believe that Byrne should
have gone into more detail about this: What I got was from the book was
that Kant believed that we could interact with phenomena, yet could not
know those phenomena in terms of their essence.
The book had humorous moments. For example, there was one figure who
tried to prove the existence of God in so tortuous a manner that
someone glibly remarked that nobody doubted God’s existence, until this
figure attempted to prove it!