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The Golden Rule of Toleration
300 years ago, Pierre Bayle offered a Protestant defense of religious pluralism.
Bayle's interpretive style incensed Christian authorities, who often disregarded the grammatical and historical context of the Bible for the sake of dogma. At the same time, he rejected the Enlightenment philosophers who despised Christianity as irrational and inherently divisive. Bayle's goal was a society that protected each religious sect with equal vigor, as well as churches that granted one another mutual toleration. "If the Multiplicity of Religions prejudices the State, it proceeds from their not bearing with one another but on the contrary endeavoring each to crush and destroy the other by methods of Persecution," he reasoned. "In a word, all the Mischief arises not from Toleration, but from the want of it."
It was a revolutionary appeal. The assumption, shared by Catholics and Protestants, was that "Kings and Princes cou'd never be safe when their Subjects were of a different Persuasion." Claims for freedom of conscience were considered a pretext for sedition. Bayle turned the conventional wisdom on its head: religious pluralism, he argued, was the surest path to social and political stability.
No Gospel of Coercion
There were, to be sure, limits to Bayle's toleration. He remained deeply suspicious of Catholicism, for example, no doubt because his brother died in a French prison at the hands of Catholic magistrates. Nevertheless, Bayle criticized Protestant supporters of coercion for their betrayal of Christian ideals. He lamented the "havock which Religion has made in the World" because of the clerical lust for power. He defended unpopular religious groups and even suggested that atheists could be good citizens—a view considered scandalous by his contemporaries.
Like his friend and fellow advocate for religious freedom, English philosopher John Locke, Bayle's writings were hotly debated in Europe. Modern scholars disagree over Bayle's ultimate religious beliefs; he has been called a deist, rationalist, Unitarian, and atheist. We can't be certain about his personal commitment to Christian orthodoxy. What seems clear, however, is that Bayle's public defense of religious liberty drew its strength from biblical doctrines. His arguments pushed Protestant principles, such as the sanctity of conscience and the intelligibility of Scripture, toward their logical conclusion. His theory of toleration later earned the esteem of the American Founders: Franklin praised his defense of atheists and Jefferson recommended that his work be included in the original Library of Congress.
Modern thinkers often associate toleration with the decline of religion. For many skeptics and cultural elites, the secular Enlightenment provided the remedy to the religious disease by subjugating Christian teachings to democratic values. In Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, Benjamin Kaplan notes the persistence of the secularization theory among historians and other scholars. He describes a consensus that "rationalism and secularization, not Protestantism, had brought about a long-term rise of toleration in the West."
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