Thoughts on economics and liberty

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.


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.

The first hero of religious toleration Zagorin identifies is Sebastian Castellio, a sixteenth century French theologian, whose opposition to the persecutory doctrines of Calvin and Theodore Beza—an influential disciple of Calvin—earns him the title of the first major advocate of religious tolerance. His major work, Concerning Heretics and Whether They Should Be Persecuted, and How They Should Be Treated, originally published anonymously in 1554 out of concerns for Castellio's safety, was a short, but ambitiously comprehensive and groundbreaking collation of the case for tolerance. Zagorin goes on to detail the manner in which religious toleration developed in England and the Netherlands. In Holland, Hugo Grotius, Simon Episcopius and the proto-atheist Benedict Spinoza were opposed to Calvinist persecution. And in England, John Locke, Francis Bacon, John Milton, Roger Williams, John Goodwin, and the Levellers developed a philosophy of tolerance and then exported it to the nascent American colonies. It is perhaps a reflection of the importance of religious tolerance that the Netherlands, England, and the United States have been strongly commercial societies and have each at one time dominated international trade.
[L]iberal philosophy is incomplete if it ignores the intellectual foundations of religious diversity and toleration. In the long expanse of history, economic and political liberty are second order issues—the importance that religious belief and doctrinal differences had for our intellectual ancestors requires us to view tolerance as the biggest development in the history of liberalism.
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2 thoughts on “Everyone agrees that Christianity was the most intolerant religion of all
  1. Bhagwad Jal Park

    The moral of this story is that no religion "per se" is tolerant/intolerant. After all, Christianity itself hasn't changed even a bit since the bible was written. The words are the same etc. Similarly, Islam ITSELF hasn't changed at all.
    What has changed is the people and the environment. And this is what we need to address and not blindly persecute today's flavor of the most intolerant religion. The solution lies with humans and not what some books say.

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Well said, Bhagwad.

    Hinduism hasn’t changed, either but the interpretations of RSS and other crazy fanatics have changed. They even misuse Vivekananda, who was at heart a great open minded Hindu, someone I look up to (for the most part).

    Religions are essentially political parties, but pretend they are not. That’s the problem.


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