26th March 2011
Everyone agrees that Christianity was the most intolerant religion of all
Chris Berg has written an excellent review of Perez Zagorin's 2003 book, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. This review, from the book, 100 Great Books of Liberty (2010), confirms many of the discussions in my draft manuscript, The Discovery of Freedom.
In brief the major world religions ranked (in the past) in this order, from most tolerant to most intolerant.
1) Hinduism, 2) Islam, 3) Christianity
Today the ranking has shifted into this order:
1) Christianity, 2) Hinduism, 3) Islam
It is possible, today, to practice all other religions in relative peace live in a predominantly Christian country. On the other hand, in India, there now exist many grave threats to non-Hindus, and in Pakistan/hardcore Islamic nations, the possibility of tolerance has virtually evaporated.
In Christian nations therefore lives the idea of freedom – a very strange outcome, given that Christianity started out with such extreme violence against others. If nothing else, it shows that the fundamentalism now harming Hinduism and Islam can be challenged by philosophers of liberty. These philosophers, however, must arise from WITHIN these cultures. John Locke doesn't resonate within Hinduism or Islam. They need their own – Hindu and Islamic – advocates of liberty.
EXTRACTS FROM CHRIS BERG'S BOOK REVIEW
It perhaps reflects the modern dominance of secularism that the issue of religious toleration is often neglected in surveys of liberal thought. Toleration is treated by many modern political theorists as a given, but as Perez Zagorin reveals in the functionally titled How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, it is a relatively recent historical invention.
Zagorin's book is invaluable because it emphasises the sheer novelty of religious toleration in the history of the West. His book opens with the powerful statement that 'of all the world's religions past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant.' The challenge is to reveal how that intolerant religion became the standard bearer for religious diversity and tolerance.
Zagorin's work is… a study of the development of the Christian doctrine that first supported widespread religious persecution, and how the idea that heresy was a crime was undermined by Christian intellectuals who developed a doctrine of tolerance between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. At least in part, the Christian traditions of tolerance evolved as a consequence of the work of these theorists.
The addition of the issue of religious tolerance into the history of liberal philosophy has the consequence of puncturing the reputations of many great thinkers. Zagorin traces the crime of heresy to the late Roman Empire and goes on to systematically demolish the humanist credentials of Thomas More, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, all of whom were strong proponents of religious persecution. Using religious tolerance as a focus in the search for like-minded thinkers before the enlightenment dramatically changes our understanding of the intellectual sources of liberalism.