Peter Steinfels has a very interesting column in yesterday’s New York Times on a new perspective on the development of the concept of religious toleration. While the typical history is a story of intellectual history involving scholars and other elites, Benjamin Kaplan, a professor of Dutch history at University College London and the University of Amsterdam, offers a history focused on the popular culture and every day believers in Divided by Faith, just published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. With this perspective, the radical nature of religious tolerance becomes much clearer:
Every town and village was a microcosm of the body of Christianity. Civic rituals were not separate from sacred ones. Daily, weekly and seasonal time had a religious dimension. Communal welfare depended on divine wrath or favor, which might bring on flood, famine or bountiful harvest. Tolerating heretical deviations was a high-stakes business.
“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” Jefferson could write in 1781. A century earlier, such individualism was unthinkable to most Europeans. Indulging heresy, as Mr. Kaplan points out, threatened not only to pick their pockets but also to endanger their souls.
. . .
Without grasping the very different mentality prevailing in post-Reformation Europe, one cannot fully appreciate what the heroes of Mr. Zagorin’s more familiar account achieved. In that account, religious toleration comes across as obvious common sense. Resistance to it could only stem from irrationality or vice.
That impression is exactly what worries Mr. Kaplan. As usually told, the story of the rise of toleration becomes a myth, he writes, “a symbolic story, with heroes and villains and a moral” — the moral being that the precondition of toleration is the triumph of reason over faith.
Kaplan tells how toleration developed in small communities in a Europe ravished by religious conflict:
Contrary to the once-popular notion that religious toleration rose steadily from the Middle Ages through the Protestant Reformation and on to the Enlightenment, Mr. Kaplan maintains that religious toleration declined from around 1550 to 1750.
This was the age of frightful religious wars, as rulers yoked religion to dynastic ambitions. But religious wars did not usually mean neighbor against neighbor. Religious violence among neighbors tended to be sporadic, often ignited when one religious group engaged in public rituals that a rival group felt contaminated communal space.
In response, believers devised intricate boundaries allowing them to live more or less peaceably with neighbors whose rival beliefs were anathema. Mr. Kaplan describes shared churches, where Protestants worshiped in the nave while Catholics used the choir space around the main altar, and what the Dutch called “schuilkerkerken,” supposedly clandestine churches that maintained their facades as houses but were in reality well known to officials and neighbors.
This new perspective on tolerance could be critical as we try to understand the persistence of religious intolerance in many areas of the world today:
“If toleration depends on the adoption of certain contemporary Western values,” Mr. Kaplan warns, “its fate in the rest of the world, and perhaps in our own future, is uncertain.”
Yet a fuller understanding of European history suggests that “even in communities that did not know our modern values, people of different faiths could live together peacefully.”
“Even in profoundly religious communities where antagonisms were sharp,” he writes, “religion was not a primitive, untameable force.”
“Divided by Faith” ends with five words that sum up its message and could serve as a motto for historical studies generally: “the possibility of other options.”
Read it all here.