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After witnessing the horror of religious warfare during the Reformation era, European philosophy began to explore the idea of religious toleration within political society. As the Enlightenment movement gained momentum during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, western civilization turned to science, empiricism, and reason as sources of wisdom and knowledge. This movement was accompanied by a shift away from purely religious discourse as innovative thinkers began to take up more secular pursuits than they could have in centuries past. With this shift thinkers like Locke, Voltaire, Spinoza, and Williams began to question whether states had the right to dictate their subjects’ religious beliefs. These questions led these Enlightenment thinkers to begin believing that political society would better respect its citizens’ rights if it were to adopt policies of religious toleration.
Religious pluralism became a reality in Enlightenment-era Europe. The Protestant Reformation of the previous centuries had given rise to a number of Protestant-dominated secular states which had carved out a right to remain independent of the Catholic Church after decades of bloodshed and warfare. In the following centuries, thinkers like Spinoza and Voltaire reflected upon the dangers that intolerance can pose to a peaceful society. In 1670 Spinoza’s anonymously published “Treatise on Theology and Politics” radically asserted that “men are very prone to error on religious subjects, and, according to the diversity of their dispositions, are wont with considerable stir to put forward their own inventions, as experience more than sufficiently attests.” (Spinoza, “The Chief Works of Benedict De Spinoza,” 163). However, rather than calling for the abolition of religious toleration, Spinoza uses this idea that religious difference breeds conflict to suggest that states should abandon any effort to control their citizens’ beliefs, and should instead simply protect the people’s right to their own thoughts. In a state built on principles of toleration instead of religious unity, religious conflict would be less likely. A century later, Voltaire came to a similar conclusion in his 1775 “Treatise on Tolerance.” In this work, the Frenchman writes that “toleration, in fine, never led to civil war; intolerance has covered the earth with carnage,” and asserts that “the whole of our continent shows us that we must neither preach nor practise intolerance” (Voltaire, “Toleration and Other Essays-Online Library of Liberty”). By linking the idea of religious toleration to the need for states to maintain law and order within society, both Spinoza and Voltaire began to identify religious freedom as an essential facet of a well-ordered state.
Another important Enlightenment idea that contributed to the identification of the right to religious freedom was the argument that God may will that religious toleration be extended throughout the Christian world. After centuries of warfare, much of it based on the principle that members of the one true religion must fight infidels in the name of God, this was a relatively novel idea. In his 1644 work, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, Roger Williams rejects this idea and states that “it is the will and command of God, that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most pagan, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries...” (Williams, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution”). The Tenant even goes as far as to claim that “God requireth not an uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state…”(Williams, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution”). Williams’ work was not well-received by his audience in England, especially considering that the country was still in the midst of a religiously-motivated civil war. However, the idea that the civil state should not enforce any religion was hugely influential in the colony of Rhode Island, of which Williams is considered the sole founder. Decades later, in 1689 following the French King Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Locke wrote something very similar in his “Letter Concerning Toleration.” In this letter, he asserts that “the toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ...that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light” (Locke, “A Letter Concerning Toleration”). The desire to follow God’s will had long guided European thoughts about the connection between church and state, but thinkers like Williams and Locke presented important challenges to this notion. This allowed for discussion over the right to religious freedom to flourish as the Enlightenment wore on.
Though discourse on religious toleration was still considered fairly radical during the seventeenth century, Enlightenment philosophers also questioned whether it was indeed even possible for a state to dictate its citizens’ religious beliefs. Spinoza’s “Treatise” is heavily concerned with the idea that a person’s right to think freely is a natural right which cannot be deprived by any political society. He writes that “however unlimited, therefore, the power of a sovereign may be, however implicitly it is trusted as the exponent of law and religion, it can never prevent men from forming judgments according to their intellect, or being influenced by any given emotion” (Spinoza, “The Chief Works of Benedict De Spinoza,” 194). This, Spinoza believes, necessarily implies that a state could never enforce a person’s belief or religious faith because it is not possible for a state to take a person’s mastery of their own thoughts. Voltaire expresses a similar sentiment in his essays when he states that “it does not depend on man to believe or not to believe: but it depends on him to respect the usages of his country” (Voltaire, “Toleration and Other Essays-Online Library of Liberty”). Writing about a century after Spinoza, Voltaire also explored the idea that the state is unable to change how a citizen believes, as long as the belief is not inherently detrimental to the state itself. With this in mind, Voltaire advances the idea that because states cannot change its citizens’ beliefs, it should embrace a diversity of beliefs by incorporating the principle of religious freedom into its governance.
Among the most radical Enlightenment-era ideas concerning religious toleration was the thought that civil states did not have the inherent right to dictate citizens’ religion at all. Locke’s “Letter” asserts that “nobody, therefore, in fine, neither single persons nor churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other upon pretence of religion” (Locke, “A Letter Concerning Toleration”). Spinoza similarly states that “government which attempts to control minds is accounted tyrannical, and it is considered an abuse of sovereignty and a usurpation of the rights of subjects” (Spinoza, “The Chief Works of Benedict De Spinoza,” 194). This idea that citizens of a political society could have the innate right to decide their own thoughts and religion built upon the initial identification of religion as a multifaceted issue, which originated centuries earlier during the Reformation. As early as 1644, former Massachusetts Puritain Roger Williams rather controversially wrote that “all civil states and their officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the Spiritual or Christian state and worship” (Williams, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution”). The principle that civil states could not serve as spiritual authorities directly influenced the development of political states such as the Rhode Island Colony and the United States of America, in which freedom of religion was identified as an essential right with which the government could not interfere.
Though the idea of a right to religious freedom was first conceived during the religious wars of the Reformation era, Enlightenment thinkers deserve credit for identifying religious freedom as an essential right. Questions of whether God’s will dictated religious uniformity, the dangers of combating religious pluralism, as well as issues of citizen and states’ rights all contributed, decades and centuries after they were originally pondered, to the inclusion of religious freedom in mainstream political discourse. Williams and Locke both made important contributions to the growing American discussion of essential rights and liberties, while writings from thinkers like Spinoza and Voltaire gradually invited Europeans to consider the benefits of granting religious freedom to their subjects.
Locke, “Letter Concerning Toleration”
Spinoza, The Chief Works of Benedict De Spinoza
Voltaire, Voltaire. Toleration and Other Essays. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1755. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/mccabe-toleration-and-other-essays.
Roger Williams, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution”
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