The Enlightenment we all know happened exactly as Wikipedia summarizes:
"...a cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe and the American colonies. Its purpose was to reform society using reason (rather than tradition, faith and revelation) and advance knowledge through science. It promoted science and intellectual interchange and opposed superstition, intolerance and some abuses by church and state.
Originating about 1650 to 1700, it was sparked by philosophers Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, physicist Isaac Newton, and philosopher Voltaire. Ruling princes often endorsed and fostered figures and even attempted to apply their ideas of government in what was known as Enlightened Despotism. The Enlightenment flourished until about 1790–1800...
In France, Enlightenment was based in the salons and culminated in the great Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot with contributions by hundreds of leading philosophes (intellectuals) such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Some 25,000 copies of the 35 volume set were sold, half of them outside France. The new intellectual forces spread to urban centres across Europe, notably England, Scotland, the German states, the Netherlands, Russia, Italy, Austria, and Spain, then jumped the Atlantic into the European colonies, where it influenced Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among many others, and played a major role in the American Revolution. (emphasis mine) The political ideals of the Enlightenment influenced the American Declaration of Independence, the United States Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Polish–Lithuanian Constitution of May 3, 1791."
Some of the products of this Enlightenment were our Constitution (a national and secular set of laws where God is not mentioned) Darwin, Niels Bohr, Tesla, Einstein, Karl Popper, Crick and Watson and more.
However, the ideals of the Enlightenment have waxed and waned over the ages, since the formation of our country.
Starting in about 1978, with the defeat of the Consumer Protection Agency under President Carter, regressive, pre-enlightenment philosophies started to regain credence in our country, and as a result, around the world. In return, we have the current teetering economy, international instability, and a general uncertainty of a optimistic tomorrow to show for it.
However, within that same time frame, a 21st Century Enlightenment has begun to take shape. Led by the likes of John Brockman, Nassim Taleb, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Christopher Hitchens (recently deceased), Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Lisa Randall, for example.
Even more amazing are the millions of largely anonymous and unknown 21st Century enlightenment era thinkers and doers (The Mass Enlightenment) that will always remain nameless; yet, nonetheless have exponential influence on the growing body of knowledge that Brockman's group like's to call the 'Edge.' As he said in his editorial named 'The Third Culture': "Throughout history, intellectual life has been marked by the fact that only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody else. What we are witnessing is a passing of the torch from one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new group, the intellectuals of the emerging third culture."
As I said on my Facebook page recently, "The edges of human knowledge are pushed further out by the nano-second. It seems strange that it would run in parallel with the Tea Party [ignorance as a value] movement. Perhaps it's the 2nd renaissance [enlightenment] that caused the uproar of ignorance the Tea Party espouses. Sometimes the truth, (or additions/challenges to our perceived reality) can feel very frightening, alarming, discomforting, shocking, unsettling, and most of all...inconvenient to dogma and static ideologies."
It's the dialectical existance of both of these movements at the same time that make me feel slightly insecure about the future of humanity. If history is any guide, one of these ideals can exist in the majority, but if enough of the general population subscribes to the other, the tension rises beyond congenial discourse and demotes itself to violence and self-destruction.
For what it's worth, as long as the Internet remains as an untamed and free range source of information disbursement (similar to how paper and moveable type spurred on the Rennaissance, and it's child, the Enlightenment,) our battles will remain mostly that of ideals and less likely the mangled dismemberment of humanity.