History, Literature, Religion, Reviews.

Is religious tolerance religious freedom?

Book Review, Title Divided by Faith, Author Benjamin J. Kaplan, Rating 3.0, Is religious tolerance religious freedom?

Divided by Faith

Benjamin J. Kaplan


The ensuing religious fragmentation of Western Christendom following the advent of the Reformation created fissures in the fabric of European society so large that, after a century of warfare, borne by the exhaustion of bitter hatred and its accompanying destructiveness, the only option left for a more peaceful existence was the grudging co-existence of groups with religious differences. This is an account of the aftermath of the European Wars of Religion, and the rise of religious tolerance in Europe after the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation hell-on-earth, described so because all Western Christendom stood ex-communicated and bound to perdition, at least according to one or another of the warring Christian sects, Protestant and Catholic. (note 1)

In traditional histories of this Enlightenment period, the rise of religious tolerance is ascribed to the leadership of intellectuals and newly enlightened rulers such as Locke, Voltaire, and Frederick the Great, and the idea that ‘reason triumphed over religious fanaticism, toleration over persecution’ is emphasized. While there is much truth in this, Kaplan notes that to this day violence has not been eradicated, even in societies and nations formed by the history of the Enlightenment (note 2); he suggests that the rise of religious tolerance was neither inexorable or inevitable.

There are other factors at play; the author employs what he describes as a current trend in historical analysis to include more of those ‘without history’, the non-elites, to broaden our understanding of events. Based on wider evidence, he suggests that the rise of religious tolerance was as much a narrow and pragmatic reaction to the unpleasant realities of newly minted societal divisions, and not a mutual acceptance of differences, but a tolerance defined by mere endurance, quoting Goethe: "Toleration should, strictly speaking, be only a passing mood ; it ought to lead to acknowledgment and appreciation. To tolerate a person is to affront him. "(J. W. Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, maxim 356) 

Kaplan also demonstrates that there was religious toleration that existed in parts of Europe before the Enlightenment, even during the time of religious warfare preceding the Enlightenment, and that religious intolerance after the adoption of enlightenment ideals in law has continued to exist and flare up, which points to a limit to using these ideals to completely explain the wider adoption and practice of religious tolerance.

-PD-US, William R. Shepherd

Attrib: William R. Shepherd, PD-US. Click to view enlarged picture

The author carefully points out that the development of religious tolerance was a step towards religious freedom, but not its complete realization. The religious tolerance of the late 17th century was by and large a tolerance extended by the powerful, and could be more readily withdrawn, as was sometimes the case, not just in Europe but in colonial America. Kaplan quotes Thomas Paine on the subject: "Toleration is not the opposite of intoleration, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, and the other of granting it. The one is the Pope, armed with fire and faggot, and the other is the Pope selling or granting indulgences. The former is church and state, and the latter is church and traffic."(Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, part 1, Amendment I (Religion))  (note 3)

Kaplan points out that even as governments write religious freedoms into law, the populace does not necessarily embrace those freedoms as extended to others, or always follow the law. This can be extended to today’s societies that operate with some semblance of a Bill of Rights. Kaplan finally suggests that the idea that toleration triumphed in the 18th century because reason triumphed over irrational faith, or the idea that this triumph ushered in a modern era of secularization, where the world improved because religion played less of a role in the public sphere, are rather muddy ones. Again, there are substantial grains of truth in these ideas, but they do not provide fully satisfactory answers to questions such as: Are devout people necessarily intolerant? Are societies with customs and laws shaped by religion necessarily violently intolerant? Are societies with secularized laws inherently more tolerant or less violent?

For each of these questions, there is evidence in early modern Europe that there were communities where people of different faiths lived together peacefully, even while the great religious conflicts raged about them, and their religious differences were sharp, and great evidence to modern times that violent conflicts could be fought over secular and not just religious disagreements. While Kaplan reinforces the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of religion today, he suggests that is still much to learn about the nature of intolerance, including from religious communities who practice tolerance even without external requirements to do so.



1. The deep irony of overlapping and all-encompassing ex-communication of Christian souls during this period was not new: During the Great Schism of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, for around 40 years, there were two Popes, each of whom ex-communicated the followers of their rival; in the scramble to repair this problem, a third Pope was appointed by a Council of bishops, who immediately added his own ex-communicatory ‘blessing’ upon those who followed the other two Popes, who refused to relinquish the seat of St. Peter, who of course returned the favor.

2. Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East, India, and Indonesia are mentioned by the author as current regions where violent religious conflicts have arisen during the 20th century.

3. To extend the author’s arguments to colonial America, the 18th century radicalism of Roger Williams, Paine and Thomas Jefferson in insisting on the separation of church and state as codified in law, and the companion insistence on religious freedom was deeply influenced by the obvious shortcomings of religious toleration as practiced in the Europe and in the American colonies of their own time. George Washington said it well in 1790, after the new Constitution had been created, but before the new Bill of Rights had been ratified, in his letter to the Touro Synagogue regarding their right to religious freedom in the newly constituted United States:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

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