Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Religious Origins of Religious Tolerance
The Religious Origins of Religious Tolerance

The Religious Origins of Religious Tolerance

The Religious Origins of Religious Tolerance

Philosophy is looking for a black cat in a coal mine. Metaphysics is looking for a black cat in a coal mine, but there’s no cat. Theology is looking for a black cat in a coal mine, there’s no cat, and someone yells out, “Look! There he is!”

This joke seems to epitomize a particular and reputable way of thinking about the trajectory of Western intellectual history, one according to which the West moves from an indefensibly theological frame of mind to a confusedly metaphysical one, and then finally to a respectably rational one. This is the standard story we tell ourselves about the rise of “modernity” and it attaches a particular significance to the period I study—the early modern period, and particularly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe. It was at this moment, we are told, that a titanic shift occurred in the way that European Christians thought about moral and political philosophy. In the previous period, they had approached these subjects from a fundamentally theologized perspective: the way you answered questions about how we should live was to ask the question, “How does God wish for us to live?” However, in this period, under the influence of a set of circumstances and events—the rise of the new science, philosophical skepticism, and the carnage of the religious wars—Western theorists turned away from religion, regarding its claims as lacking in authority, and also as being fundamentally dangerous and inimical to peace.

The result of all of this is supposed to have been something called the “Great Separation,” a decision made by Western theorists to sequester religion from moral and political theory and to allow those disciplines to get on according to their own rational criteria without any recourse to religious claims. This is an old and established view, but it’s one that has been defended recently with a great deal of intensity. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the global convulsions that followed, a number of Western scholars have devoted themselves to the task of recovering and highlighting the secular pedigree of our most central moral and political commitments, defending them against what they perceive to be a very different, retrograde and reactionary set of religious impulses which are to be resisted.

For a number of these scholars, this story, this way of cutting the deck, is not just about philosophy, and it’s not just about historiography. It’s also about politics. Their writings bear the unmistakable mark of the long controversy over the Iraq war, and they invoke the “secularization” narrative in order to insist, not only that we in the West should hold fast to our secularism, but also that because of the secular character of our values, we should not expect them to travel well. If liberal democratic norms depend for their coherence on a secularized world view that assigns religion no role in moral and political philosophy, then these norms will not be able to take root in cultures that have not experienced their own secularizing moment. The West on this account is once again exceptional, but for a new and different reason. As a result of a contingent set of circumstances in early-modern European history, we managed to emerge with a precious, fragile and utterly idiosyncratic moral and political inheritance. It follows that while we should fiercely defend this inheritance at home, we should emphatically not attempt to export it abroad.

Now, it may or may not be a good idea to try to export our values abroad. That is an argument for another day. But what I want very much to insist on is this: If it is a bad idea to try to do this, it is not because the central commitments of Western modernity emerged out of a secularizing moment. Nothing, I want to suggest, could be further from the truth. Many, if not most, of our most fundamental commitments emerged instead out of a deeply theologized context, and were explicitly justified in the first instance on the basis of religious claims. Today, I want to talk about one of these—religious toleration.

This E-Book is an expanded version of Dr. Nelson’s Templeton Lecture, delivered in Philadelphia in November 2010.