Transcript: 407. Maria Rosa Antognazza on Early Modern Toleration

An interview on the nature of religious tolerance, and the forms it took during the Reformation and in the thought of early modern thinkers like Locke and Leibniz. Maria Rosa Antognazza is Professor of Philosophy at King's College London.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

PA: Today's episode will be an interview about religious tolerance in the Reformation and early modern Europe with Maria Rosa Antognazza. You've published on this topic before and in a recent article you wrote about it, you said, and there's a quote from you, "whether there is or there is not such a thing as religious truth is in itself neutral as regards to toleration". So can you explain why? 

MA: Yes, you will have already been discussing the problem of religious wars and all the disruption which is terrible violence has brought to Europe and in particular in the modern Europe. So one typical way to address this sort of problem is to think, well, if religious wars were the result of a fight over the fine points of theology, wouldn't it be the best thing just to try to eliminate that by saying that there is no such thing as objective religious truth? And this is in fact what historically has been done by certain prominent thinkers, for instance, Spinoza. One distinctive thesis of Spinoza is to say that religion, theology, does not have to do with truth at all. It has to do with other things, with piety, with obedience, not with truth. Truth has to do with philosophy. 

So the question I have been asking in this article is - is it really the case that a fruitful path to religious toleration will be to think that there is no such thing as an objective religious truth? And my thesis is that this question is actually neutral to the question of religious toleration because when we are dealing with toleration, the question is not whether a doctrine or some proposition is true or is false. The question is can what one believes to be true be tolerated? So the question is not whether a group of believers are or are not believing something true. The question is whatever they believe to be true - is that to be tolerated. 

PA:  So I might, for example, think that your beliefs about God are false or your beliefs about, let's say, the Eucharist are false. But as long as I think that it's okay that you believe something false in some sense of okay, then I'll tolerate you. 

MA: Yeah

PA: So it's not whether I think there is a fact of the matter about the Eucharist. It is more maybe like at a second order or like a meta level. It is really what I believe about the status of your religious beliefs and how important it is or the way in which it's important that they're true. That's what makes the difference. 

MA:  Yes, I think so. Because in fact, if you are a religious believer, and for instance, if you believe that it is integral to your religious beliefs to pray five times a day turning toward Mecca, say, it would not be tolerant of your beliefs to say, no, look, that is really not something which is true in order to have a proper worship of God. And in fact, I think that historically, this move has been done in saying, well, we can ground religious toleration in a minimal set of beliefs. In the most extreme versions of this, as in the case of Spinoza, it has been said we can just say that religion does not have to do with truth at all. But I don't think that that is in itself tolerant of the beliefs of people who are actually religious believers. Because from their point of view, that is true. And if you are telling them, no, that has nothing to do with truth, you are not tolerating their beliefs. 

PA: It's almost like you're not taking their religion seriously. 

MA: Exactly. 

PA: Would it make a difference if we said that although a lot of religious beliefs, like let's say the Trinity or what happens with the host and the Eucharist, so some of these things that we've seen being matters of controversy during the Protestant Reformation, would it make a difference if we said, sure, those things are kind of like mysterious, and it's not very clear what we should think about them. They're very difficult, deep theological issues. But there will be a core of things that everyone should agree with, for example, the existence of God. And the reason everyone should agree with those things is that just the natural use of reason should establish them. And so then you might think someone could say, I'm tolerant because I only require that people agree to whatever natural reason should establish. But although I require them to believe that, I don't require them to have any particular views on, let's say, the Trinity or the incarnation. 

MA:  My view is that that is not in itself a particularly tolerant position, because as I said before, toleration is not about finding agreement on certain fundamental truths. There might be substantial disagreement on that. Toleration is about respecting differences in what one believes to be true also on fundamental matters like it's got the one or it's got the three, and polytheism versus monotheism. So as regards specifically religious toleration, I think it would not do to tell a polytheist, say, well, you can be tolerated in your beliefs as long as you recognize that by natural reason, there is only one God. I don't think that that would be a particularly tolerant position. Or to tell people who are completely committed to the Eucharist, well, you can be tolerated as long as you recognize that it doesn't matter whether there is really or not the body of Christ. Because to them, it matters. To tell them you can be tolerated as long as you think it doesn't matter is in fact not tolerating their beliefs. 

PA: Right. Okay. And I guess that there's a difference between tolerating in the sense of actually using, let's say, violence to compel belief as opposed to tolerating in the sense of actually taking their views seriously or something. So are we talking here about tolerance in terms of something like respect of other people's beliefs or are we just talking about whether political compulsion is being brought to bear? 

MA:  I think I am talking about both because as a minimum, I think there shouldn't be political compulsion to believe certain things if these things are not against the law and are not harmful to other people. I do think, and early modern people I have studied, I do think that there are certain limits to toleration. And these limits are the limits of what is against the law and what is harmful to other people. So as Leibniz says, for instance, opinions should be tolerated as long as it does not include something like bringing violence to the state on the principle of religion. Obviously, we see this also nowadays. One can tolerate all sorts of religious beliefs as long as that does not result in terrorist attacks or violence to other people. So I am definitely talking about tolerating beliefs in a way which does not result in a coercion toward the people who do not align with what is said to be the mainstream religion of a certain country. But I am also talking about a higher level of toleration, which is respect for other people who have different beliefs with which you might genuinely disagree. You might genuinely think that they are false. But still, I think toleration requires that you respect people who in good faith have a different view. 

PA: Yeah. And of course, even debating someone in good faith is a way of respecting. 

MA:  Yes, as again, early modern authors, I have studied what they said is the way to combat if you like a doctrine that you think is false is not coercion, but persuasion. You can engage in debate. You can engage in dialogue. You can reason with these people with whom you genuinely disagree. But it should not be in terms of your beliefs cannot be tolerated in this country. And therefore, either you accept that what you are believing is not true, is not important, is indifferent to worship of God, or it cannot be accepted. 

PA: Historically speaking, was the concept of a natural law here, source for intolerance in this period? Because looking back over the last few things you've said, you said, well, you have to abide by the law, and I guess you meant there the law of the state. But if like say Aquinas, you believe that there's a natural law that would include things like the responsibility to believe in one God, then you might say, well, anyone who doesn't believe in monotheism is violating the natural law and therefore is subject to compulsion. So, I mean, is it even possible to believe in the natural law in this period while still having what we would now today consider a tolerant viewpoint on religious belief? 

MA: Well, actually, I think that natural law, if it is intended as Aquinas intended, is actually conducive to toleration. Because I can, for instance, quote one definition Aquinas gives of natural law. He says, it is nothing other than the light of intellect, which has been gifted to us by God. Thanks to this, we know what must be done and what must be avoided. This light or this law has been given to all human beings. So really natural law boils down to the way in which what Aquinas called eternal law is specific to human being. And at the end of the day is the light of reason to which all human being, if they use that, should be able to come to an agreed view about what should be done and what should be avoided. So I think that actually endorsing natural law in this broad sense of recognizing that all human beings have a rational nature and that this rational nature should give us certain ways to behave toward other human beings. For instance, the rule of reciprocity do not do to others what you don't want to be done to you, which is something which can be in a way regarded as part of the natural law, is I think an excellent way to have a universalized view of toleration. 12.35

PA: It also seems like there's a kind of puzzle to me when I think about intolerance regarding religious belief, namely that it doesn't really seem plausible to say that people's religious beliefs are fully up to them, right? Because people believe whatever they believe based on, let's say, their upbringing, but also the evidence that they've considered and so on. It's not like you can just believe whatever you want, right? 

MA: Indeed. 

PA: And so I'm wondering whether in the period we're thinking about, like maybe the 16th and 17th century, did they make a distinction like that? Did they say, well, even if we are in favor of compulsion, let's say, and intolerance, we'll only compel your outward behavior and not your inner belief, maybe because we can't even compel your inner belief. So we'll make you go to church, but we won't make you believe in God, for example. 

MA: Yes, indeed. This is a problem which is very much debated in the early modern period. And one way to go, which is way historically attested in many authors like Hobbes, for instance, or Spinoza, is to say, well, belief is not subject to the will, nobody can coerce your inner thoughts, but what can be coerced is your behavior. So as you were saying, well, let's say that there is an official religion of this country. Everybody has to go to church according to this official religion. But anybody, of course, can in the inner core of their own mind believe whatever they want. Now, I don't think this is a truly tolerant position because it could be that an integral part of your religious beliefs is to worship God publicly as part of a community, is to go to church, to the synagogue, to the mosque. And if you say to somebody for whom that is an integral part of their religion, well, it doesn't really matter, by yourself at home you can think whatever you want, but you cannot go to the synagogue. You cannot go to the mosque. And I am only coercing your external behavior, anything else you can think whatever you want. I don't think that is really tolerant of their beliefs. 

PA: And I guess that in a way, when people say we will compel your behavior, but not your inner belief, you kind of get the sense that they wish they could compel your inner belief, and the only reason they're not going to try to compel it is that it's not possible. 

MA: Indeed. 

PA: But then on the other hand, maybe just to play devil's advocate here for a second, maybe there is a way in which you can try to compel inner belief, right? Because you might think, well, I can't tell you now to believe in God if you don't just by an act of will, but I can, for example, require you to do things that would make you more likely to acquire the belief in God, like, for example, go to church. And so actually what I make you do with your body or with your behavior may down the road have an impact on your belief, right? 

MA: Yeah, absolutely. And again, this has been historically attested as a position. And this is something which we still see nowadays, unfortunately. And the view is this. Okay, it is true that beliefs, one cannot believe at will. So it's not that just by coercing somebody to believe, say that God is triune, you can really achieve this belief. But one thing that you can do is to coerce people, especially when they are young, to go to Sunday classes. Or as we are seeing nowadays in China, you can get all the Muslims into camps and re-educate them until, through this re-education, they come to internalize a certain set of beliefs. And this is a position which has been put into practice in the early modern period. And it has been put into practice also nowadays. So I think it is not sufficient in order to reject coercion in matters of religion to say, well, you cannot coerce people because belief is not subject to the will. Because there is a way around that saying, sure, I cannot make people believe things at will, but say if I take away their children when they are young enough and I educate them in a completely different system of beliefs, I may not convert the parents, but the children probably will grow up with this different set of beliefs. 

PA: I guess that actually leads us to another rationale that was used at the time in favor of coercion, which is that even if I respect your right to be wrong, I might not want to let you lead other people into false belief. So for example, I might say, sure, if you want to deny the Trinity in your heart, go ahead, but don't do it in public. Because if you do it in public, then you'll corrupt other people. And so I'm protecting other people from your false beliefs. 

MA: Yes. So that was indeed also something which was done at the time and resulted in prohibiting certain communities to teach or to have their own educational institutions, precisely because the idea is these pernicious or false or mistaken beliefs should not be spread to other people. And again, I don't think that that is a truly tolerant attitude. 

PA: Because to be truly tolerant would be to, as you said before, combat that with rational argument or persuading. 

MA: Yeah, to enter in a dialogue with these different belief systems. And if you think that you have a better view of certain matters, the way is to discuss it with others, amongst the communities. 

PA: I actually like your point that the belief in the natural law would actually be a support for that procedure, because it sort of expresses this optimistic faith that if everyone's just rational, then we'll get there in the end, or at least we won't come up with irresolvable conflicts that can only be sorted out through violence. 

MA: Indeed. At the very least, you should not sort out conflicts with violence. I think that when it comes to religious toleration, we do have to accept that at the end of the day, there will be communities which will continue to hold different beliefs. But I think a truly tolerant society should be able to have a dialogue amongst these different system of beliefs, and you can do that only, in my view, if you recognize that we are all human beings with reason, and on that basis, we can reason together. 

PA: That leads me to another question about the political and historical context, because in the early modern period, there emerged this idea that in each geographical location, the people who live there should just follow the religion of the ruler. The ruler's faith determines the faith of the people. On the one hand, that might sound intolerant, because it sounds like everyone in that kingdom is required to follow the faith of the ruler. But on the other hand, at least it sounds like a recognition of the pluralism you were just describing. So would you see the emergence of that compromise more as a source of tolerance or intolerance? 

MA: Historically, I think that was more an engine of tolerance, actually, because that was the arrangement which emerged in Germany, speaking broadly about the central Europe after the Thirty Years War, when after these really terrible fights between different religious confessions, the solution which was hammered out was that each principality or each free sub-political entity inside the Holy Roman Empire will have to follow the religion of the ruler of the principality, say. What happened, in fact, is that first of all, all the three main religious confessions, the Roman Catholic, the Lutheran and the Reformed, were protected by the law and were tolerated under the protection of the law under one political entity, which was the Holy Roman Empire. What happened in practice is that there was a balance between a Roman Catholic, a Lutheran Reformed, in the sort of parliament which was loosely ruling the Holy Roman Empire, that is to say, the Regensburg Diet. I think historically that was a way in which different confessions could actually live together in a broader political entity. 

And it is different from what happened in roughly the same period in absolutistic states like France, in which there was Louis XIV, who was a Roman Catholic, who imposed Catholicism in an absolutist way to the whole of France. Or for that matter, of course, in England, in which despite having advocates of toleration like John Locke, that toleration was not extended to Roman Catholics. The toleration of which even Locke was talking at the time was toleration amongst different shades of Protestants, not really between Protestants and Catholics. I think that historically in the same period in the Holy Roman Empire, this sort of balance was achieved through this rule, at least in different parts of the empire, different religions, different religious confessions could be protected by the law and people could engage in it. As I was saying, what also happened historically is that sometimes the ruler will have a certain religion, say the ruler would be Calvinist, but will not impose that on his subjects who will remain mainly Lutherans - that is what happened in Brandenburg. And what that historically provoked is a stronger drive toward trying to reconcile different confessions. The same thing happened in Hanover, where for a period the ruler was a Roman Catholic convert, and the population was actually Lutheran. And the ruler recognized that it wouldn't have really been a good idea to impose his religion on the population. 24.10

PA: Yeah, I suppose it's also just a bit unrealistic and unfeasible to imagine, you know, from one week to the next, everyone in the whole country changes their religious belief because the king went from being reformed to being Lutheran or something. 

MA: Yeah, it would have been a political disaster. And in fact, in these two cases, for instance, it wasn't enforced in that way. 

PA: So just one last topic I wanted to touch on is something you just brought up, which is these figures of the 17th century like Locke, who are seen as kind of heroes of even free speech theory or certainly religious tolerance, because they argue very strongly for that. Leibniz also said that there's a natural right to express one's beliefs. And so I'm wondering how seriously we should take that. I mean, should we really think of them as forerunners of our modern day conception of religious tolerance? 

MA:  Well, I think that thinkers like Locke or Baylor had a huge impact in really opening up our modern conception of toleration. So I think that it should absolutely be given to them that what they said in their time was really extremely innovative in opening up a new way to think about the living together of confessions. Having said that, we have also to recognize that there were very significant limits to what they were proposing. For instance, Locke, as I was mentioning before, although he is routinely seen as an apostle of toleration, was excluding Roman Catholics from toleration. 26.00

PA: So a pretty big exception!

MA:  A pretty big exception because the Roman Catholics were half of Europe. Obviously, that was driven by the concrete political situation in which Locke was living, but even so, that was really not a minor exception. That is why I think that a certain historiography needs really to be rewritten, and we should also look at the other nations or other political entities, which at the same time in which Locke was writing had defined different ways to accommodate in the same political entities the main Christian confessions. 

PA: Wouldn't Locke say that he had a good reason for being intolerant of Roman Catholics, namely that the Catholics were themselves intolerant? Because that seems, I mean, at first glance, that seems like a pretty reasonable position. So I'm tolerant of people's beliefs as long as they don't themselves exercise coercion or intolerance towards people with different beliefs. 

MA:  Of course, this was one of the arguments which were presented. But the difficulty then is really to decide who is the tolerant and who is the intolerant in that situation. Because say if you are the Pope, let's say, and you see that in your political entity, there is somebody who is telling you that you are the Antichrist and is breaking the unity of your political entity, you might well think that breaking the peace is not something which can be tolerated. As regard the Roman Catholics in the England of Locke, it must be said that the idea that they would have been following what the Pope was telling them to do instead of being loyal to the authority in the English state, I don't think that was really substantiated by what most Roman Catholics were doing in England. And in fact, even in Locke's time, even people in Locke's circle were challenging this idea that the Roman Catholics, if they were tolerated, would have done what the Pope was telling them to do only because they were Roman Catholics. I'm sure that the Pope would have wished that Louis XIV would have done what the Pope told him to do because he was a Roman Catholic. Louis XIV had no intention of doing what the Pope was telling him to do, even if he was officially a Roman Catholic. And we should also remember that historically at the time, the two arch enemies on continental Europe were actually two Roman Catholics - Louis XIV and Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor. They were both Roman Catholics, so it's not that because they were both officially, as it were, subject to the Pope, they would somehow do what the Pope would tell them to do. 

PA: Well, thank you very much for that wide ranging philosophical and historical reflection on religious tolerance. 

MA: My pleasure. 

PA: And we'll be looking at a lot of these issues still as we go into the future. Eventually, we'll get to Locke and Leibniz and some of the other figures from the future that we've just mentioned. 


Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.