The modern state, not ideas, brought about religious freedom

Mark Koyama writes: Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood.

According to the conventional narrative, freedom of religion arose in the West in the wake of devastating wars fought over religion. It was catalysed by powerful arguments from thinkers such as John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Pierre Bayle and Voltaire. These philosophers and political theorists responded to the brutality of the religious wars with support for radical notions of toleration and religious freedom. Their liberal ideals then became embedded in the political institutions of the West, following the American and French Revolutions.

In broad outline, such is the account accepted by most political philosophers and social scientists. But the evidence does not support this emphasis on the power of ideas in shaping the rise of religious freedom, and underestimates the decisive role played by institutions.

The ideas of the philosophers were indeed important. In his Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1697), Bayle pointed out that if one religion claimed to be the only true faith, it by implication possessed the right to persecute all the others, and all other faiths possessed an equal right to make such a claim. Showing the inherent volatility, for society, of such religious-truth claims, Bayle also argued that if people turned out to be mistaken about their religion, they could hardly be guilty of sin for nonetheless trying, in their sincerity, to observe its dictates.

Locke argued that true faith could not be compelled. It followed, he claimed, that restricting the rights of religious minorities should only be done for reasons of state, that is, not for reasons of faith or salvation. Voltaire took a no less effective course, relentlessly documenting and mocking cases of religious persecution. Time and again, he made zealots and enforcers of religious dogma look ridiculous. These are compelling and consequential ideas, and worthy of continued study and reading.

But focusing on these ideas does not fully explain how religious freedom came to the West. The intellectual importance of Bayle, Locke and Voltaire does not mean that their ideas were central to religious freedom as it developed and came to be in actual political and social life. [Continue reading…]

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