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 positions.
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!