flickering light bulb
Photo from Pond5

The philosophies that the Enlightenment thinkers formulated transformed the European perspective of the world. Reliance on reason and experience to understand nature brought to question the necessity of God, and even of his logical existence. Skepticism toward that which could not be tested made miracles and concepts like an afterlife ridiculous.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, two main groups emerged to wrestle with a rationalized world that supposedly had little need for God: the liberal Protestants and the existentialists.

Liberal Protestantism

Portrait of Friedrich Schleiermacher (Artist unknown)

Liberal Protestants aimed to make people both intelligent moderns and serious Christians. It developed in 19th century Europe through the thought of such men as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834).

Schleiermacher, regarded as the father of modern theology and a native of eastern Germany, like Kant grew up in a pietiest Moravian tradition. Unlike Kant, Schleiermacher held to his Christian roots. In his major works On Religion and The Christian Faith, he viewed religion as a “feeling of absolute dependence” – surrender to the Infinite and Eternal [God]. Man knows God through emotions, not the evidence of rationality.

Central in liberal theology was the emphasis on orthopraxis (right practice) over orthodoxy (right doctrine). Liberal Protestants downplayed the importance of traditional Christian doctrine in favor of “experiencing” God and pursuing a progressive ethical vision.

Illustration of power loom weaving, by T. Allom (1835)

During the Industrial Revolution of the early and mid-1800s, liberal Protestantism manifested in the Social Gospel. As the Enlightenment transformed thought, so the Industrial Revolution transformed work. Urbanization grew and machine-driven manufacturing dominated. The nature of the new labor arrangement divided the boss from the workers (the bourgeoisie from the proletariat) and allowed for much abuse. Workers were not assured work or living wages.

The Social Gospel’s goal was the alleviation of the poor’s suffering. Based on the Golden Rule and the belief that God’s saving work included corporate structures and society in general, liberal Protestants of the Social Gospel movement rallied for “equal rights and justice for all men in all stations of life”, protection of workers, labor unions, abolition of child labor, minimum wages, and other workers’ rights (“The Social Creed of the Churches”).


The focus of existentialism is the human subject and his freedom to choose and live against pre-existing thought and theories. Now that God has gone and philosophies are questionable, what remains to man is himself; nothing exists beyond he as he exists now. In this reality he must find new purpose.

Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Albert Camus
Photographer unknown

Some research heralds Albert Camus’s The Stranger as a novel representative of the existentialist view. The Stranger features the emotionless Meursault, who did not cry at his mother’s funeral, murdered a man because the light off his knife irritated Meursault, and welcomed execution. However, Camus himself disliked the term existentialist; his writings lean more toward absurdism, a belief that the search for meaning is futile because humans exist in a chaotic universe.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

Jean-Paul Sartre
Photographer unknown

A more obvious existentialist is Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote Existentialism is a Humanism. In this work he repeated a few times the line “existence precedes essence.” By this he meant that we, humans, are before we have meaning. Thus, we must create our own meaning, striving to be God. “[W]hat man needs is to find himself again,” Sartre wrote, “and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God.”

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Søren Kierkegaard; drawing by Niels Christian Kierkegaard, circa 1840
Portrait by cousin Niels Christian Kierkegaard (c. 1840)

Sartre was an atheist and an existentialist. Theists, too, had their moment in the existential limelight – earlier than the atheists, in fact. Søren Kierkegaard, perhaps the first existentialist, echoed Schleiermacher’s concern for the doctrinal over-emphasis and over-rationalization of Christianity. Kierkegaard saw truth as a paradox of outward objectivity and inward subjectivity.

In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he defined faith in a similar way: “the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty.” Faith is subjective insofar as it concerns only the seeker and God. Given this, man reaches Kant’s noumenal not by reason, but by a leap into the absurd. The conflict of objective and subjectivity in faith demands an irrational commitment.


A third existentialist, and one of the more popular, Friedrich Nietzsche, shall have the honor of his own post.

To read Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, see this page.

To read some of Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, see these excerpts.