Despite its long-standing reputation for skepticism and irreverence, the
Enlightenment took religion quite seriously. Historians have long recognized this fact, and have often represented the intellectual history of the eighteenth century in terms of the struggle between religious faith and philosophical skepticism. One common view of the period holds that religious dogmatism and intolerance, memorably condemned by Voltaire as l’Infâme, served as the negative pole against which the positive Enlightenment ideals of secularism, reason, and tolerance were articulated. Nearly a century ago, Ernst Cassirer characterized this view (which he did not entirely share) by writing, “French Encyclopedism declares war openly on religion,” accusing it of “having been an eternal hindrance to intellectual progress.” Around the same time, Carl Becker argued that the eighteenth-century philosophes sought to recast the “heavenly city” imagined by church fathers such as St. Augustine into a vision of a terrestrial utopian future. A generation later, Peter Gay described the philosophes as “modern pagans,” who “used their classical learning to free themselves from their Christian heritage.” For such scholars, the historical signifi cance of the Enlightenment lay in its break with religious tradition and embrace of “modernity”, defined primarily by secularism and rationality.