Religious belief has for centuries been allied with fundamentalism and intolerance. It is possible to have one without the other, but it requires a certain self-criticism that is not easily acquired.
When Calvin approved the execution of Michel Servet in 1553, he justified his decision by appealing (1) to the certainty of his own religious faith and (2) to the obligation of civil authorities to protect the citizens of Geneva from what he called heresy. Théodore de Bèze then defended this logic in a long Treaty in 1560.
When the Jesuit Cardinal Bellarmine then reflected on how the Catholic Church should treat heretics, he invoked Calvin’s principle; he quotes Beza 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. Decades of religious wars followed in France, which only ended with the victory of the majority Church at the end of the century.
Two centuries later, a biased Catholic court in Toulouse sentenced an innocent Huguenot trader, Jean Calas, to torture while driving and public execution. He was accused of murdering his son to prevent him from becoming a Catholic, despite the son having committed suicide. This monstrous miscarriage of justice prompted Voltaire to write A treatise on tolerance (1763), in which he begged the civil authorities and Catholic citizens of France to stop persecuting their fellow Christians. For Voltaire, religious persecution was absurd, and it was incompatible with the Christian commandment to love God and one’s neighbor.
The logic of intolerance has been remarkably consistent over many centuries, across different churches and cultures. It can be used interchangeably by those who read the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament or the Koran. Saint Thomas argued in the thirteenth century that the harm caused by heresy (the eternal punishment of apostates) was far greater than the harm inflicted on heretics (torture and the mere loss of life); therefore, the latter was preferable to the former. The characteristic common to all this scourge of humanity is the non-critical conviction which supports both what one believes – the mere variety of which undermines its supposed certainty – and the political theory which justifies its application to others.
“For them, the Kalashnikov is the modern equivalent of the pyre.”
John Locke helped free readers from the constraints of Bible-based political theory. He argued, in A letter regarding tolerance (1689), that the civil powers have no jurisdiction or jurisdiction to decide disputed religious issues, and that they should avoid imposing or restricting the religious beliefs of citizens.
Locke also contributed to a critical appraisal of the certainty with which religious doctrines are held. Believers first believe that their favorite scriptures were divinely inspired, and then believe what they seem to teach (which is disputed even by those who accept their alleged origins). One belief rests on another.
Despite these historical developments, the default setting for self-criticism for many believers remains stuck at zero. They believe, like children, that God chose them as a special people – as Cromwell asserted during the English Civil War – or that he (or she?) Assigned them a geographic region as their earthly home. Many assume, like Aquinas, that an uncompromising implementation of their religious beliefs is rewarded with eternal bliss.
It’s easy to see why fundamentalism fits so well with religious belief. If we begin to question a literal or naive reading of our favorite scriptures, we quickly slip into seeing that none of us have a direct connection to God. We are only human and must rely exclusively on fallible reason. God did not choose us or condemn others, and they are not our enemies.
In many Western democracies today, churches’ defensive strategies – to protect their members from “contamination” by non-members – are limited to demands for separate schools, in which they can indoctrinate those who do. were involuntarily members soon after birth. Peaceful non-engagement with other citizens replaced civil war. Those who still adhere to the logic of Thomas Aquinas and Calvin, however, are not held back by the uncertainty of their convictions. For them, the Kalashnikov is the modern equivalent of the pyre.
Technological changes; bad philosophy survives in the closed minds of religious fundamentalists.
Featured image credit: Procession de la Ligue 1590 Carnavalet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.