Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Religious Tolerance: Reformation and Enlightenment

Way back in 2004, my co-blogger at Positive Liberty, Jason Kuznicki, wrote a long post, quite eloquently, on religious tolerance, Christianity & Enlightenment, who really deserves credit for the concept of religious rights? Dr. Kuznicki has a PhD in history from John Hopkins University and specialized in the French Enlightenment.

I'm going to reproduce the first half of the post and then let you (if interested) read the second half at the original location. As he wrote:

...Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars has recently suggested I should support my claim that the Enlightenment, not the Reformation, was the true source of religious tolerance as we now understand it.

He asks, “Didn’t the Reformation pave the way for the Enlightenment in many ways?”

In a sense, the answer to his question is yes–but the Reformation paved the way for the Enlightenment in much the same way that the existence of smallpox paved the way for vaccination, or in the same way that Marxism paved the way for the Austrian School in the twentieth century.

And yet I often hear just the opposite: “Martin Luther… ah, he helped establish religious tolerance!”

Would that it were, but it is not.

It could be that a good deal of what I’m about to write won’t even address Mr. Brayton’s original concern; quite possibly, he shares none of the misconceptions that I’m about to attack. And on the off chance that he does share them, I will gladly look the other way if he wants to abandon them in private.

To state the key contention as baldly as possible: Christianity is more tolerant than any other world religion, and that it owes this tolerance to the Reformation.

No doubt it is a comforting belief. And in practice, both Protestants and Catholics today do tend to be quite tolerant. A few exceptions exist, but we need not consider them here. In general, one could do far worse than to live in a majority-Christian country.

But there is nothing inherent about Christianity’s tolerance. On the contrary, Christianity became tolerant almost in spite of itself, and it only did so when the other alternatives had been exhausted.

I say this not to deprecate Christianity, but because there is a grave danger in thinking that we need no longer attend to the problem of religious tolerance. In every age, the urge to intolerance presents itself anew. We must not become complacent about the freedom of conscience any more than we would take for granted the other rights that we now enjoy.

I will argue in this essay that the Enlightenment is the true intellectual origin of tolerance as we know it, and, while there could not have been an Enlightenment without a Reformation, it is a serious mistake to confuse or equate the two.

Nor do individual instances of tolerance before the Enlightenment tell us very much about the origins of present-day attitudes: Until the Enlightenment, wherever an official tolerance existed, it was almost always a particular and revocable license to practice one specific minority religion, and to do so only under highly restrictive conditions. In a sense, these were merely truces in the fighting, often agreed to simply because it was impossible to eradicate the religious minority. These early and frankly misnamed “tolerances” were in no sense predicated on the notion that an individual has a moral obligation to seek the truth for himself, unconstrained by the civil authority.

This last is what we now expect, and until the late seventeenth century, nothing even close to it could be found in Europe. It was also not until this time–the era of John Locke and Pierre Bayle–that an organized, philosophical defense appeared for the principle of general religious toleration.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.


For the rest, read it here.

18 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Unfortunately, after a lengthy indictment of Christendom, Jason's argument for the Enlightenment comes down to a single quote from John Locke,
that basically says you can't be saved by faith in a religion you don't have faith in.

Jason's claim that the Reformation had no influence on religious tolerance might be true, and his assertion the the Enlightenment gets the credit might also be true.

He tosses off the Netherlands as a weak government, and that might also be true. But you can't toss off Hugo Grotius [even though he was forced into exile himself] or necessarily claim Grotius for the Enlightenment. Grotius influenced Locke.

Now, Locke argued for religious tolerance, it's true, but he also excluded Catholics and atheists. England itself also excluded unitarians.

A more likely explanation for the whole deal was that "Christendom" was getting sick of the bloodshed, and it took America, with a proliferation and diversity of sects so great that none had a majority, to make religious tolerance a practical reality, as it was a necessary one.



[If Lori's around, perhaps she can explain this intriguing bit I found on the internet:

"In what respect was religious freedom expanded through insistence on the freedom of conscience? The question is all the more important because even under the new dispensation it is agreed that religious freedom has its limits. When Adamite sectarians were informed by their consciences that the naked truth of God would best be represented by walking in the street without clothes, even a Roger Williams drew the line."

CW VOL 11,
The Oxford Political Philosophers p 33.]

jimmiraybob said...

A more likely explanation for the whole deal was that "Christendom" was getting sick of the bloodshed...

So, it was the endless loop of intolerant religious "tolerance" and mass bloodshed inspired by the Reformation that laid the groundwork for embracing the more liberal Enlightenment ideology and expansion of individual liberty of conscience? Combined, of course, with the relative freedom afforded by the new American frontier.

Sounds like as good a foundation for separation of church and state and indictment of the Christian Nation founding myth and Christian Nationalism as any other I've heard.

Jonathan Rowe said...

A more likely explanation for the whole deal was that "Christendom" was getting sick of the bloodshed, and it took America, with a proliferation and diversity of sects so great that none had a majority, to make religious tolerance a practical reality, as it was a necessary one.

I think this is right. One reason I like Jason's post so much is the smallpox analogy. "Christendom" whether you can trace it to Protestantism, RCism, or Enlightenment gave us religious tolerance and religious rights, not because of anything inherent in its teachings, but rather as an antibody to the virus of sectarian bloodshed and persecution.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, the antibodies were there in Aquinas, that the only worthwhile religious experience was a heartfelt one according to conscience.

There is no doubt that religious tolerance in the Anglosphere arrived a posteriori: the need for it was evident, therefore, the religious justification of it was found. But the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom uses Aquinas' theological argument.

Thereafter, it could be considered an a priori claim, and to his credit, Aquinas discovered it on a priori grounds, although he admittedly didn't flesh it out into genuine liberty. That was to come later, in fits and starts. For instance, Spain had a religious liberty law in the 1500s, although it didn't take.

The question, of course is just how much the Enlightenment had to do with the whole affair, since the grounds for the Virginia statute, et al., were theological.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom,

I've read Aquinas on how government should deal with heretics which leads me to strongly doubt those antibodies were there with him.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom,

Also, I didn't mean my above post to sound dismissive. I think there is something to planting a seed and then seeing those principles grow, which, it could be argued is the case with both Thomas and the Protestant reformers, via religious liberty.

However, that gets us to the notion of "living" Thomism. Like "living" Calvinism -- remember I brought that up in the Babka-Frazer debate as I did with Herb Titus in our conversation; the anti-resist tyrannical government principles of Calvin "evolved" into the pro-resist tyrannical government principles of Rutherford. Or "living" Lockeans which America's Founders clearly were.

I don't have a problem with such concepts of living or evolving. Ideas start at a particular point and then grow in ways in which their formulators did not expect and personally (frozen in that time, place and context) wouldn't have approved of.

However, many traditional conservatives -- for a variety of reasons -- do have problems with such "living" logic.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, there's no way around the "living" Thomism or Calvinism, if these "conservatives," whoever they are, want to win their point.

It's undeniable that Aquinas and Calvin do not the rock the boat of their times and are not friends of liberty as we now know it. But Thomas also plants the seeds of revolution [or John of Salisbury did] or at least the rightness of revolution against a sovereign who violates natural law. Aquinas' "dignity of the human person" is an antecedent of what we now know as "human rights," although the idea is not yet developed in the political sphere.

And after the justification for revolution against tyranny and human rights evolve, the notion of political liberty is the most recent development prior to the Founding, and is perhaps its own unique innovation.

As for Locke, it's difficult to place him in or out of the Enlightenment in this respect: A careful reading of his ideas indicates he might have been a secular modern, a Hobbesian, or both; however, it's clear that Founders Samuel Adams' and James Wilson's great praise of Locke is based on their understanding of him as a thoroughly Christian thinker.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I agree with you on the Sam Adams point. I'm not convinced on Wilson's. Wilson's "Christian" Locke believed in the "mild" and "tolerating" doctrines of "Christianity."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well, there's no way around the "living" Thomism or Calvinism, if these "conservatives," whoever they are, want to win their point.

This is certainly true. I think the problem is when principles evolve in ways in which not only the formulators wouldn't have expected or approved but that traditionalist conservatives don't approve of either.

This is the point of Bork, Kraynak, Bloom etc., that "liberty" and "equality" as the Founders articulated the concept in the DOI "grew" into modern liberalism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Equality is in Genesis, that we are made in God's image, and is the foundation of liberal values, as you won't find that essential equality in the ancient Greeks. Political liberty as we know it today is another matter, however.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "Equality is in Genesis, that we are made in God's image, and is the foundation of liberal values, as you won't find that essential equality in the ancient Greeks. Political liberty as we know it today is another matter, however."

I think there is amble inequality in the Bible as well. In my opinion, progressive values of equality descend from reason, not from scripture.

Tom Van Dyke said...

We're all God's chillun, Ben. If you can prove fundamental inequality from the Bible, I'm willing to listen to your proof.

I think we can find enough rejection of fundamental inequality in the Greeks, however. And any empiricist could quantify how all men aren't created equal. Look at the post-Darwin eugenicists, for instance, as some of us are obviously smarter or stronger or better-looking or whatever. Look at "ethicist" Peter Singer, who aptly notes some of us have birth defects. Surely by observable and quantifiable standards, all men are not created equal.

And we haven't even touched on the Eastern notion of karma, which accepts fundamental inequality in this life as a function of the cosmic scheme of justice.

Just a tickle here, no big deal.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Tom,

You actually hit upon something with the "God's children" point. There is a point of view in orthodoxy that views only "saved" regenerate folks as "God's children" and the rest "children of the devil." Though they would admit, all are created in God's image.

I would argue it's this narrow orthodox view (that regards only the regenerate as "God's children) that is in tension with universalism or universal human rights and is again precisely NOT the kind of theology to which the Founders turned.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "If you can prove fundamental inequality from the Bible, I'm willing to listen to your proof."

Proofs only work with positive assertions.

It is a positive assertion to claim that inequality is is a fundamental principle of Biblical scripture. All that is needed is one example of equality to disprove that. However, I am not making a positive assertion.

It is a negative assertion to claim that equality is not a fundamental principle of Biblical scripture. That is not something that can be proven. Proofs only apply to, and only rely upon, positive assertions.

Please to do dismiss this as sophistic. It is not. The proper word is pedantic ... not exactly a compliment, but at least is it accurate ;-)

In any event, regarding the positive assertion that equality is a fundamental principle of Biblical scripture

That may be disproven without the need of addressing the claim that inequality is fundamental to Biblical scripture.

The claim that some men have the special priviledge to hear/witness God's words/acts and that others must/should obediently accept their claims (generally, referred to as revelation) is an excellent example of inequality. Notice that two special priviledges are present.

The first is God granting priviledge to particular individuals, which is God's priviledge.

The second is that we must/should grant the priviledge of dominion over our own sense of reason to those making unsubstantiated claims that they have been priviledged by God.

It is the second that is inconsistent with equality and individual liberty.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think equality can be gleaned from the Bible, but it's a "selective" reading. Just like all children v. only the regenerate are children of God could be gleaned from the Bible, but each is a selective reading.

A selective reading could lead either to what the Founders did or to divine right of Kings and no rights of man whatsoever. Perhaps this is why we need more than just Sola Scriptura but some kind of natural law reasoning to supplement the "incomplete" Bible. Though, Robert Kraynak, a Thomist, still doesn't think orthodox Christianity properly points in the direction of the Declaration of Independence and "natural rights."

Tom Van Dyke said...

The second is that we must/should grant the priviledge of dominion over our own sense of reason to those making unsubstantiated claims that they have been priviledged by God.

It is the second that is inconsistent with equality and individual liberty.


I don't know where that's in the Bible. Asking you to prove the acceptance of fundamental inequality in the Bible isn't the same as asking you to prove a negative. Geez Louise.

You're also conflating equality and political liberty, after I explicitly bifurcated them.

Jon, I suppose in some sense, all readings of the Bible are selective. But as we look at the thrust of development in Christian thinking [we are not all sola scripturists!], it certainly does run toward fundamental equality.

Now, political liberty, as previously acknowledged, brought up the rear. And Paul's Epistle to Philemon is indeed problematic.

But the issue was certainly of concern throughout the ages, and the D of I [and the American government] settled it no sooner than did Christianity. In fact, Christianity appears to have got there first.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "I don't know where [revelation is] in the Bible".

Did you misunderstand my response? or is the above a proper understanding our your knowledge?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Huh?