Religion: from enlightenment toleration to 21st century offence
A Battle of Ideas panel discussion at University in One Day.
One of the significant intellectual shifts heralded by the Enlightenment concerned attitudes to tolerance and religion.
Until the seventeenth century, being intolerant of other religions was considered a virtue. But in 1640, parliament abolished the Court of the King Star Chamber, which had previously silenced the voices of political opponents and religious dissenters, allowing the likes of poet and polemicist John Milton to argue openly for the ‘spiritual liberty’ to follow one’s conscience. In his 1659 essay, A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes, he wrote that ‘no man ought to be punished or molested by any outward force on earth whatsoever’ because of their ‘belief or practice in religion according to [...] conscientious persuasion’.
Liberal philosopher John Locke explicitly explored tolerance in his 1689 essay, A Letter Concerning Toleration, which was about ‘settl[ing] the bounds that lie between… the business of government and that of religion’. He argued that the authorities had no business interfering in the affairs of men’s minds or hearts; if people were to be truly moral beings, it was unacceptable that people should ‘quit the light of their own reason, and oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly resign themselves up to the will of their governors’. So the modern ideal of tolerance, even for those who hold views with which we strongly disagree, emerged from this principled philosophical opposition to the right of governments to determine what private religious groups and individuals could believe and think.
Yet now, more than three centuries later, policing the realm of the conscience is back in fashion. For example, one reaction to the rise of Islamic extremism has been a hardening of the public mood against the ‘special pleading’ of faith groups, whether relating to Halal meat or the injunctions that cartoonists should not depict the Prophet Muhammad. Meanwhile, contemporary equality legislation has led to demands to circumscribe religious groups’ rights, such as those who have been prosecuted for discriminatory actions relating to their views on homosexuality. Conversely, many religious people cite theological hurt to demand censorship. And of course, there are constant contemporary rows about the validity of faith schools.
Yet neither is the debate solely confined to state regulation today. Increasingly, university campuses pride themselves on a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to speech and beliefs deemed harmful to students, ranging from religious societies holding anti-abortion events or imposing sex segregation at their own meetings through to banning speakers with controversial views on issues around race, sexuality, transgenderism and even climate change.
Are the Enlightenment concepts of freedom of conscience and tolerance no longer relevant to the modern world? Is religion a threat to secular notions of free speech? Are some views simply beyond the limits of tolerance, or are we at risk of creating a new set of modern heresies?
chief executive, British Humanist Association
professor of law and director, Kent Law Clinic, University of Kent, Canterbury
senior UK religious journalist; formerly religious correspondent for The Times (for 27 years); contributing editor, Christian Today
executive member, National Association of Teachers of Religious Education; as of September 2015, Head of RS at Pipers Corner School, High Wycombe; educational adviser for TrueTube
Dr Shirley Dent
associate fellow of the Academy of Ideas; co-author, Radical Blake; communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team).