How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the Westby Perez Zagorin
Religious intolerance, so terrible and deadly in its recent manifestations, is nothing new. In fact, until after the eighteenth century, Christianity was perhaps the most intolerant of all the great world religions. How Christian Europe and the West went from this extreme to their present universal belief in religious toleration is the momentous story fully told… See more details below
Religious intolerance, so terrible and deadly in its recent manifestations, is nothing new. In fact, until after the eighteenth century, Christianity was perhaps the most intolerant of all the great world religions. How Christian Europe and the West went from this extreme to their present universal belief in religious toleration is the momentous story fully told for the first time in this timely and important book by a leading historian of early modern Europe.
Perez Zagorin takes readers to a time when both the Catholic Church and the main new Protestant denominations embraced a policy of endorsing religious persecution, coercing unity, and, with the state's help, mercilessly crushing dissent and heresy. This position had its roots in certain intellectual and religious traditions, which Zagorin traces before showing how out of the same traditions came the beginnings of pluralism in the West. Here we see how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinkers--writing from religious, theological, and philosophical perspectives--contributed far more than did political expediency or the growth of religious skepticism to advance the cause of toleration. Reading these thinkers--from Erasmus and Sir Thomas More to John Milton and John Locke, among others--Zagorin brings to light a common, if unexpected, thread: concern for the spiritual welfare of religion itself weighed more in the defense of toleration than did any secular or pragmatic arguments. His book--which ranges from England through the Netherlands, the post-1685 Huguenot Diaspora, and the American Colonies--also exposes a close connection between toleration and religious freedom.
A far-reaching and incisive discussion of the major writers, thinkers, and controversies responsible for the emergence of religious tolerance in Western society--from the Enlightenment through the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights--this original and richly nuanced work constitutes an essential chapter in the intellectual history of the modern world.
James Q. Wilson
Robert L. Perkins
Kimberly A. Bresler
One of Los Angeles Times Book Review's Twenty Best Books for 2003
"The best introduction to the ideas of religious freedom can be found in Zagorin's volume. . . . [It] is never dull and often exciting."--James Q. Wilson, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Ever since the Enlightenment, most Western governments have accepted religious toleration. In this superb intellectual history, noted early modern historian Zagorin traces the evolution of this concept from the first through the18th centuries; a brief conclusion carries the story to the present. . . . A well-written tract for our times."--Choice
"Americans who regard Islamic fundamentalists as peculiarly intolerant have much to learn from distinguished historian Zagorin. . . . A book to dispel complacency about a priceless liberty."--Booklist (starred review)
"A deeply scholarly but ultimately engaging argument for the origins of religious toleration in Western culture since the Enlightenment. Combining elements of theology, philosophy, history, and politics, this intellectual history is less focused on thinkers than on a singular ideal: how the concept of religious toleration and freedom was born."--Library Journal
"Zagorin's exposition of the ideas on toleration emerging in the west in the early modern period is richly illuminating."--Kimberly A. Bresler, Theology Today
"This is an altogether excellent, readable, and comprehensive survey of the development of "Christian" intolerance in the post-Constantinian world and the gradual emancipation from the evil in the modern period."--Robert L. Perkins, Journal of Church and State
"Perez Zagorin, a scholar who specializes in the history of ideas, traces the checkered progress of permitting diversity of belief in his book. . . . At the end of the book, Dr. Zagorin expresses the hope that religious freedom may extend to the parts of the Islamic world and the remaining communist countries where it doesn't exist today."--Darrell Turner, National Catholic Reporter
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How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West
By Perez Zagorin
Princeton University PressPerez Zagorin
All right reserved.
Religious Toleration: The Historical Problem
Of all the great world religions past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant. This statement may come as a shock, but it is nevertheless true. In spite of the fact that Jesus Christ, the Jewish founder of the Christian religion, is shown in the New Testament as a prophet and savior who preached mutual love and nonviolence to his followers, the Christian church was for a great part of its history an extremely intolerant institution. From its inception it was intolerant of other, non-Christian religions, first Greco-Roman polytheism, then Judaism, from which it had to separate itself, and later on Islam. Early in its history, from the time of the apostles, it also became increasingly intolerant of heresy and heretics, those persons who, although worshipers of Christ, dissented from orthodox doctrine by maintaining and disseminating beliefs-about the nature of Christ, the Trinity, the priesthood, the church, and other matters-that ecclesiastical authority condemned as false, and incurring the penalty of damnation. During the fourth century C.E., following the grant by the first Christian emperor Constantine and his colleague Licinius of legal toleration to Christianity, and their imperial successors' decision to make it the sole legal religion of the Roman Empire, the Christian or Catholic Church, as we may now call it, approved both the Roman government's suppression of paganism as idolatry and its use of punitive laws and coercion against Christian heretics who denied Catholic teaching and formed schismatic churches. This initiated a development that led during the Middle Ages to the forcible conversion of pagan Germans and Slavs, Jews, and Muslims at the hands of Christian rulers, and to the long Christian enmity toward the religion of Islam, which gave rise to the crusading movement of holy war in medieval Europe. It likewise led, because of the prevailing hatred of Jews as enemies of Christ, to frequent charges of ritual murder against Jews and to the instigation by Catholic religious preachers of repeated massacres of Jews in Europe. And it led also to the medieval church's legitimation of religious persecution, the creation of the papal Inquisition and its machinery of heresy hunting and prosecution, the Albigensian Crusade in the thirteenth century against the Catharist heresy in southern France, and the killing of innumerable fellow Christians whom the church denounced as heretics.1
The sixteenth century, which witnessed the Reformation and the beginning and spread of Protestantism, was probably the most intolerant period in Christian history, marked not only by violent conflict between contending Christian denominations but by an upsurge of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in western Europe. When Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other outstanding religious reformers undertook their successful revolt against the Catholic Church and established their own Protestant churches, the latter showed themselves to be no less intolerant of heretics and dissenting Christians than was the Catholic Church. In the attempt by Catholic and Protestant governments in Europe to stop the spread of heresy, and in the civil and external wars of religion waged between Catholicism and Protestantism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, countless thousands of people on both sides perished or were forced to go into exile as the victims of religious persecution. It was the long and terrible history of the inhumanity of Christianity in its dealing with differences of religious belief, a history not yet ended even in his own time, that caused the famous eighteenth-century French thinker Voltaire to declare that "of all religions the Christian is undoubtedly that which should instill the greatest toleration, although so far Christians have been the most intolerant of men."2
It is at this point that we confront the problem mentioned in this chapter's title. If Christian Europe and the Western world were so intolerant in religion for so many hundreds of years, and indeed in some places down to the later nineteenth century and even beyond,3 how did it happen that their leaders and members came eventually to change their opinion and to endorse the principle of religious toleration? Anyone today who looks at the values and practices associated with Western liberal democracies in Europe and America can hardly fail to observe that most of their citizens prize none of them more highly than they do religious toleration and freedom of religion. To be sure, they regard political freedom as equally precious and indispensable; but they also commonly recognize that in our own time this freedom with its related political rights is so closely tied to the existence of religious toleration and liberty that the two have become essentially inseparable.4
Between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, therefore, a huge and enormously significant shift of attitudes and values regarding differences in religion gradually occurred in Western societies. Instead of the age-old assumption that it is right and justifiable to maintain religious unity by force and to kill heretics and dissenters if necessary, the opposite assumption came to prevail that it is wrong and unjustifiable to use force and to kill in the cause of religion, and, moreover, that religious toleration and freedom are morally and politically desirable and should be given effect in laws and institutions. This is the very momentous, far-reaching change in Western civilization that needs to be explained, and with whose origins and earlier development this book is concerned.
It will help us grasp the magnitude of this change if we keep in mind that it is in some ways even more novel than the emergence in the West of liberal and democratic societies during the past several hundred years in the aftermath and principally as the result of the English, American, and French revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I stress this point because some of the conceptions and practices underlying liberal and democratic polities were of very old origin, having been a part of the Western tradition since classical antiquity and familiar in both Greek and Roman political thought and experience. Ancient Athens in one of the greatest periods of its history was, despite the existence of slavery, a democracy of free (male) citizens, and there were other Greek city-states, although we know much less about them, that were also democracies. Similarly, republican Rome, the feudal regime in medieval Europe, and numerous cities of medieval and Renaissance Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany, were all well acquainted with certain ideas, institutions, and principles of civic and political liberty, ruler limitation, and self-government. In comparison with these, the fundamental principles and values that sustain religious toleration and freedom of religion are innovations and late arrivals in world history and did not become a part of the Western tradition until recent times. Imperial Rome, it is true, was tolerant in practice in permitting the existence of many diverse religious cults, provided their votaries also complied with the worship of the divine emperor as part of the state religion. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, Roman religion had no sacred scriptures and did not depend on any creed, dogmas, or ethical principles. It consisted very largely of participation in cult acts connected with the worship of various deities and spirits that protected the Roman state and were associated with public, family, and domestic life. At nearly all stages of their history the Romans were willing to accept foreign cults and practices; this de facto religious pluralism is entirely attributable to the polytheistic character of Roman religion and had nothing to do with principles or values sanctioning religious toleration, a concept unknown to Roman society or law and never debated by Roman philosophers or political writers.5
Rome's religious pluralism, however, although officially tolerant of Judaism, did not extend to Christianity. Christians were intermittently persecuted and put to death by the Roman government from the first century C.E. to the beginning of the fourth century, a history culminating in the great persecution under Emperor Diocletian between 303 and 305. The main reason for this treatment was the refusal of Christians to worship any god but their own or take part in the imperial cult by offering sacrifices to the gods on the emperor's behalf. Christians proclaimed that the pagan gods did not exist or were malevolent demons, an attitude deeply offensive to Romans, who believed that it endangered the relationship between gods and men and alienated the goodwill of the gods. On the other hand, the Roman regime tolerated Judaism despite its exclusive monotheism. The Jews were widely regarded as devotees of an ancient and venerable faith; unlike Christians, they did not attack Roman paganism as a religion of demons, and while they would not participate in the imperial cult, their priests could offer prayers for the emperor in the Temple at Jerusalem.6
Thus far in my discussion, I have been speaking of religious toleration and religious freedom as though they are closely related or synonymous. Before going further, however, I feel it essential to offer a few clarifications concerning the use of these two concepts.
The English word "tolerance," which is virtually identical in other Western languages (French tolérance, German Toleranz, Italian tolleranza, etc.), stems from the Latin verb tolerare, which is defined as "to bear or endure" and carries the further meaning "to nourish, sustain, or preserve." Some philosophers and historians, taking the first of these meanings as their point of departure, regard toleration and religious freedom as quite distinct things and emphasize the differences between the two. They understand toleration to signify no more than forbearance and the permission given by the adherents of a dominant religion for other religions to exist, even though the latter are looked upon with disapproval as inferior, mistaken, or harmful. In contrast, these thinkers see religious liberty as the recognition of equal freedom for all religions and denominations without any kind of discrimination among them. In the case of toleration, it is also pointed out that those in authority who have the power to tolerate a religion have likewise the power to refuse or withdraw toleration, whereas in the case of religious liberty, no one is rightfully possessed of the power not to tolerate or to cancel this liberty. A typical formulation of this view of the subject is the statement by D. D. Raphael that "toleration is the practice of deliberately allowing or permitting a thing of which one disapproves. One can meaningfully speak of tolerating, i.e. of allowing or permitting, only if one is in a position to disallow."7
I do not deny that this distinction is a valid one, or that it can be very useful at times in its application to certain historical circumstances. It is also feasible, nevertheless, to think of religious toleration in its broadest terms as equivalent to the condition of religious freedom, and this, I believe, is not only how it is widely understood today, but also how some of the best-known historians of toleration, such as W. K. Jordan and Joseph Lecler, have often regarded it in tracing its evolution.8 The British historian Henry Kamen states in his Rise of Toleration that in its widest sense toleration means "the concession of liberty to those who dissent in religion" and "can be seen as part of the process in history which has led to a gradual development of the principle of human freedom."9 Johannes Kuhn, a German scholar of the subject, speaks of the historical sense of toleration as encompassing both forbearance toward another and treating another with respect.10 In the latter formulation, we can perceive the germ of an approximation to the condition of religious freedom. The Swiss historian Hans R. Guggisberg, one of the foremost recent students of the history of toleration, noted that among the latter's synonyms in European tongues were such terms as souffrance, "indulgence," caritas (love or charity), and mansuetudo (gentleness or mildness), and also pointed out its close relationship to phrases like "religious freedom," "liberty of conscience and belief," and "freedom of worship."11 In the 1560s in France, we find the words liberté de conscience beginning to be used to oppose the forcing of consciences as a form of oppression.12 As we shall see later, moreover, the most noted early fighters for toleration, such as Sebastian Castellio, Roger Williams, and John Locke, also tended to conceive of religious toleration as related to religious freedom. Unless I indicate otherwise, therefore, I shall treat the concept of religious toleration as also implying religious freedom in some measure. In this sense, the belief in and the practice of toleration, as they have evolved and become established in the United States and other countries of the Western world, depend on a very simple and basic principle. This principle is that society and the state should, as a matter of right, extend complete freedom of religious belief and expression to all their members and citizens and should refrain from imposing any religious tests, doctrines, or form of worship or religious association upon them. I take this to be the proper understanding of religious toleration, in its fullest meaning, as it would be conceived today. The struggle to achieve such toleration has the further significance, moreover, that its effects extend beyond the domain of religion and are closely connected with the broader goals of freedom from censorship and intellectual freedom. For the centuries in which intolerance reigned also witnessed the attempt by religious authorities and governments to censor and control the expression of philosophical, political, and other ideas in speech and writing in the interests of a dominant religious orthodoxy. Hence the advance of toleration, by helping to weaken such efforts, played a major role over time in widening the scope of freedom of thought and expression in areas other than religion.
Toleration entails at a minimum the willingness to recognize and accept a degree of religious coexistence and pluralism. In Europe it has pertained historically to the acceptance of coexistence both with members of non-Christian minorities, like Jews and Muslims, and with people who were defined as heretics or belonged to other Christian churches.
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Meet the Author
Perez Zagorin (1920-2009) was Joseph C. Wilson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Rochester and a Fellow of the Shannon Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was the author of many books, including "Francis Bacon" and "Thucydides: An Introduction for the Common Reader" (both Princeton).
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