Friday, May 23, 2014

Freeing the Mind
Part I
The emergence of Religious Toleration in the West

Book Cover
One of the most important features of our modern Western societies is religious tolerance. In fact it is such an intrinsic / organic feature of our societies that it gives the appearance of always being so. Well that is not the case at all.

The fact is religious tolerance is a fairly new development in the west. In fact the evidence indicates that by the year 1200 C.E., Western societies had developed a social system that was basically intolerant in many ways but more specifically in a way that was religiously intolerant.1

In fact religious intolerance was an intrinsic feature of Western societies. The general rule was religious uniformity and the suppression of religious dissent. Thus we get the routine use of coercive means to suppress religious un-orthodoxy.

The only exceptions to this was the repressive "tolerance" of Jews, who were allowed to continue to practice their faith although subject to persecution and severe disabilities. A very unedifying story.2 The other was the division of Christendom between Catholic and Orthodox variations of Christianity. However the division between Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic beliefs systems related mainly to the question of the primacy of the Pope and differences in religious ritual not to any, even remotely, doctrinal differences.3

Aside from the above very partial exceptions Roman Catholic Christendom was very intolerant of doctrinal deviation of any kind. Heresy was regarded with total horror has one of the ultimate of sins requiring severe punishment and if persisted with punishment by death, often by burning alive.4

Thus a bureaucratic system was set up by which heretical beliefs were ferreted out and destroyed along with the individuals who exposed them. This was of course the Inquisition whose presence and actions blighted many lives.5
However tolerance did eventually emerge and it did not emerge and become established because people got the idea that tolerance was a good thing in and of itself or because people felt that persecution was ineffectual in destroying dissent. In another posting the point was made that force quite frequently DOES work in suppressing opinions one does not like.6 We quite frequently like to think it does not work but sadly that is simply not the case.
The book How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West,7 is a overall look at the emergence of the idea of Religious Toleration in the west in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Although the book does not go into much detail about it the first emergence of religious toleration was Bohemia / Moravia in the 15th century when due to the fact that Catholic and Hussite belief systems were unable to eradicate each other by force it was decided to locally at least tolerate each other. In other words it was a doctrine of expediency brought on by exhaustion after a interminable succession of wars and violence and bluntly looked on with horror by much of educated Europe.8
It was the advent of Protestantism that brought the issue of toleration to the fore front. Protestantism, with its many sects, proved to be impossible to suppress by force and just has importantly it proved impossible for Protestants to suppress Catholicism or variant Protestant creeds by force. This was because the various different belief systems were able to acquire permanent status in in different European countries and thus different belief systems could not be eradicated because each belief system had a secure territorial base. In fact intolerance threatened to damage relations between states by poisoning relationships between potential allies. Further the horrors of religious warfare didn't help.9
The result was the gradual, slow and halting triumph of doctrines of religious toleration in the west that triumphed out of reasons of state. This does not mean that those who argued for Religious Toleration were motivated by reasons of expediency mainly.
The book reviewed here rediscovers a whole slew of forgotten writers and thinkers who worked for and argued for Religious Tolerance on moral and humanistic grounds. They have been largely forgotten but they deserve to be remembered and honoured.
Thus in the book along with John Milton and John Locke both well known writers we read about such forgotten figures has Sebastian Castello, the Spanard and Dirck Volckertszoon the Dutchman.10 Who deserve to be rescued from historical obscurity and recognized for their work in trying to alleviate human misery and end a particular form of human cruelty.
 Also of interest is the look at one of the most remarkable of the early works concerning toleration; William Rogers' The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution.11 Written by a man who can in my opinion, be described has a Christian religious fundamentalist, not only does it endorse a wide ranging tolerance that includes not just variations of Christianity but all faiths including even "Satanic" faiths, it also includes a sustained argument for the state to be rigorously excluded from interfering for and against religion altogether. It is important to remember that William Rogers was no universalist or believer that all would be saved, he remained throughout his life a believer that only a very few would be in fact saved.
William Rogers however thought that coercion was corrupting and was in effect what he called "soul rape". It was in fact evil and the secular power should have no such power. The state had no business deciding who was saved and how to be saved, that would be known only to God. At another time I may further explore this truly remarkable book.
As this book outlines perhaps the seminal point in the birth of the modern doctrine of Toleration was the hideous death by burning of Michael Servetus in 1543.
Michael Servetus was a highly unorthodox thinker who exposed several doctrines considered heresy. He for example doubted the Trinity. This got him into trouble with both Catholics and Protestants. In fact the founder of Calvinism Jean Calvin had had an acrimonious exchange of letters with Michael Servetus and had threatened to execute him if he ever fell into his hands for heresy.
Michael Servetus while fleeing the Catholic Inquisition foolishly decided to pass through Jean Calvin's theocracy of Geneva. There Michael was arrested tried and executed by being burnt alive for heresy.12
This provoked a controversy which is examined in this book. Sebastian Castellio condemned this judicial murder has simply wicked while pointing out that Catholic's would similarly execute Jean Calvin for heresy also. Basically Sebastian accused Jean Calvin of abrogating to himself the powers of a Pope to judge what was and was not heresy. Jean Calvin's defence was the utterly feeble argument that the difference was that he John Calvin was right so it would be unjust to burn him but since Servetus was wrong it was just to burn him. Castellio's reply was that Catholics were convinced that they were right and Jean Calvin was wrong. So who could possibly judge the truth? Jean Calvin's replies were basically special pleadings and reiterations of I am right because I am right.13
The book goes through many, many authors now forgotten who worked to end the rule of coercion over men's conscience and who deserve to be remembered for their efforts.
1. See Cohn, Norman, Europe's Inner Demons, Revised Edition, Pimlico, London, 1993, pp. 35-78, Richards, Jeffrey, Sex, Dissidence and Damnation, Routledge, London, 1991, pp. 42-73, Moore, R. I., The Formation of a Persecuting Society, Second Edition, Blackwell, Oxford, 2007, pp. 144-171.

2. See Moore, pp. 26-42, Richards, pp. 88-115.

3. For the schism between Orthodox and Catholic faiths see Jenkins, Romilly, Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries AD 610-1071, pp. 348-360.

4. Moore, pp. 11-25, Richards, pp. 42-73, Cohn, pp. 35-78.
5. See Moore, pp. 62-93, 144-171, Richards, p. 1-21.
6. See Here, Here, and Here.    
7. Zagorin, Perez, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2003.
8. See MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Reformation, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pp. 668-708. For an overview of the ultimate in Europe's religious wars and its effects (The Thirty Years War), see Wilson, Peter H., Europe's Tragedy, Penguin Books, London, 2009, pp. 751-778.
9. IBID, Wilson, MacCulloch, pp. 674-678.

10. Zagorin, pp. 93-144, 152-164, for Sebastian Castello and Dirck Volckertszoon. John Locke and John Milton are at pp. 246-267, 213-224.
11. IBID, pp. 196-208.                
12. IBID, pp. 93-102.
13. IBID, pp. 114-122.

Pierre Cloutier

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