Book title: How The Idea Of Religious Toleration Came To The West
Author: Perez Zagorin
Publisher: Princeton University Press
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THE title of this excellent study oddly appears to suggest that the concept of toleration “came to the West” from some external source: its thesis, however, is that toleration was essentially the “offspring of European civilisation”.
The main influences were the religious disruptions of the 16th century, the religious pluralism within Western Christendom which the Protestant Reformation ushered in, and individual writers and thinkers whose ideas of religious toleration shaped the contours of the debate.
The main substance of the book comprises an analysis of the arguments of these writers, beginning with the seminal ideas of Sebastian Castellio, critic of Calvin, and opponent of the execution of Servetus for heresy in Geneva in 1553.
There had been, among the fathers, and before that even, a current of thought about how those who deviated from orthodoxy should be treated. Most adhered to the conviction that they should be left alive in order to allow time, through the remainder of their years on earth, for repentance. This followed the words of Christ, recorded in St Matthew’s Gospel, that the wheat and the tares should grow side by side until the harvest.
In medieval Europe, heretics were handed over to the civil authority for punishment. It was not until the 13th century that the penalty of death became established.
The West still existed as a Christian unity; the changes of the 16th century introduced a religious pluralism that permanently altered the conditions in which enforcement of uniformity was either practical or religiously desirable. It was, however, a context in which both Catholics and Protestants initially resorted to penal legislation in order to protect purity of the faith.
It now seems so alien to modern observers that people should kill one another in the name of religion, that the historical record of religious intolerance is fast becoming a major cause of criticism of all religion.
But people who really do put truth above material welfare usually resort to legal prohibitions to protect or propagate their opinions. It is a growing feature of our own secular cultures — as the penalties now being attached to racism, for example, make plain.
We would rather not resort to death as a means of achieving uniformity of opinion, but our predecessors did. Indeed, there was not only a death penalty for heresy, but also for stealing sheep or for the most minor public offences. These things, disagreeable as they are, need to be retained in the changing perspectives of each moment of historical change.
And most religious authorities in the past punished heresies. Here, it has to be said, Professor Zagorin lets off the non-Christian religions too lightly.
It was the Islamic special courts set up in medieval Spain in order to stamp out impurities of faith which became, when taken over by the Catholic re-conquerors, the basis for the Spanish Inquisition; and this accounts for the greater severity of punishments inflicted in Spain, when compared with the Inquisitions in the rest of Europe.
People do unpleasant things to one another: religious fervour has little to do with it — except to the extent that it reminds men and women that they stand in need of redemption.
The Revd Professor Edward Norman is Canon Chancellor of York
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