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Religious belief, fundamentalism, and intolerance

Religious belief has been allied, for centuries, with fundamentalism and intolerance. It’s possible to have one without the other, but it requires a degree of self-criticism that is not easily acquired.

When Calvin endorsed the execution of Michael Servetus in 1553, he justified his decision by appeal to (1) the certainty of his own religious faith and (2) the obligation of civil authorities to protect the citizens of Geneva from what he classified as heresy. Théodore de Bèze later defended that rationale in a lengthy Treatise in 1560.

When the Jesuit Cardinal Bellarmine subsequently considered how the Catholic Church should treat heretics, he invoked Calvin’s principle; he quoted Bèze to show that the state must support the eradication of heresy and, if necessary, execute those whom the Roman church classified as heretics (i.e. Calvinists!).

The two Christian churches were symmetrically intolerant of each other. They each appealed to the certainty of their own (incompatible) religious beliefs and to a political theory based on their common reading of the Bible. There followed, in France, decades of religious wars, which petered out only with victory for the majority church at the end of the century.

Two centuries later, a biassed Catholic court in Toulouse sentenced an innocent Huguenot shopkeeper, Jean Calas, to torture on the wheel and public execution. He was accused of murdering his son to prevent him becoming a Catholic, although the son had taken his own life. This monstrous miscarriage of justice prompted Voltaire to write A Treatise on Toleration (1763), in which he pleaded with the civil authorities and the Catholic citizens of France to cease persecuting their Christian fellow citizens. For Voltaire, religious persecution was absurd, and it was inconsistent with the Christian command to love God and one’s neighbour.

The logic of intolerance has been remarkably consistent over many centuries, within different churches and cultures. It can be used equally by those who read the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the Koran. St Thomas argued, in the thirteenth century, that the harm caused by heresy (the eternal punishment of apostates) was much greater than the harm inflicted on heretics (torture and the mere loss of life); therefore, the latter was preferable to the former. The common feature throughout this blight on humanity is the uncritical conviction that supports both what is believed—the sheer variety of which alone undermines its alleged certainty—and the political theory that justifies its enforcement on others.

“For them, the Kalashnikov is the modern equivalent of burning at the stake.”

John Locke helped liberate readers from the constraints of a political theory based on the Bible. He argued, in A Letter concerning Toleration (1689), that civil powers have no competence or jurisdiction to decide disputed religious questions, and that they should avoid either enforcing or restraining the religious beliefs of citizens.

Locke also contributed to a critical assessment of the certainty with which religious doctrines are held. Believers first believe that their preferred scriptures were divinely inspired, and then believe what they appear to teach (which is disputed even by those who accept their alledged origins). One belief rests on another.

Despite these historic developments, the default setting of many believers’ self-criticism remains stuck at zero. They believe, like children, that God chose them as a special people—as Cromwell claimed during the English civil war—or that he (or she?) allocated a geographical region to them as their earthly home. Many assume, as Aquinas did, that an uncompromising implementation of their religious convictions is rewarded by eternal bliss.

It’s easy to see why fundamentalism fits so well with religious belief. If one begins to question a literal or naïve reading of one’s preferred scriptures, one slides quickly into seeing that none of us has a direct line to God. We are merely human, and must rely exlusively on fallible reason. God did not choose us or condemn others, and they are not our enemies.

In many western democracies today, the defensive strategies of churches—to protect their members from ‘contamination’ by non-members—are limited to demands for separate schools, in which they can indoctrinate those who had been made members involuntarily soon after their birth. Peaceful non-engagement with other citizens has replaced civil war. Those who still endorse the logic of Aquinas and Calvin, however, are not restrained by the uncertainty of their convictions. For them, the Kalashnikov is the modern equivalent of burning at the stake.

Technology changes; poor philosophy survives in the closed minds of religious fundamentalists.

Featured image credit: Procession de la Ligue 1590 Carnavalet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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