Good Faith | The Nation


Good Faith

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All these episodes of religious-fueled strife lead Kaplan to a bold and simple conclusion: the Enlightenment has been oversold. The story of a new spirit of secularism chasing away the medieval fog is, he writes,

About the Author

Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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an ideological construct that perpetuates our ignorance. It is a myth, not only in being at variance with known facts, but in being a symbolic story, with heroes and villains and a moral--a story told about the past to explain or justify a present state of affairs. According to this myth, toleration triumphed in the eighteenth century because reason triumphed over faith. It triumphed because religion lost its hold on people, and hence its importance as a historical phenomenon.

To the contrary, Kaplan argues that the Enlightenment did not filter down to the masses for the most part and that, in the countryside at least, churches remained as crowded as ever. Rather than suffer a loss of influence, religion changed. New forms of pietism arose among Catholics and Protestants that were private and individualistic. A new generation of theologians argued that there was nothing in religion at odds with strengthening state institutions, educating the masses or upgrading manners and morals. Where previously the Holy Roman Empire had been a bastion of reaction, Emperor Joseph II issued his famous Patents of Toleration in the 1780s declaring that faith is not something that can be forced but "a gift of God." While Catholicism was still the "only saving faith," there was nothing the authorities could or should do with the "unhappy wretches" who refused to accept it other than entrust them to God's mercy. "Without this approach," Joseph said, "we shall not save any greater number of souls, and we shall lose a great many more useful and essential people." The "welfare of the state" and Christian teachings both demanded toleration.

Kaplan does not flinch when it comes to suggesting what all this might mean for global politics in the twenty-first century. Instead of swallowing the Enlightenment line that religion is the enemy, he says, we should recognize that "bona fide religion" comes in all shapes and sizes and that not all are fanatical and intolerant. Rather than defending the myths of the eighteenth century, we should look to the practical, small-bore achievements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: "As limited, tension-ridden, and discriminatory as their accommodations and arrangements were, they can open our eyes to the unique qualities of the toleration we practice today and the possibility of other options." Instead of battling the religious tide, we should concentrate on steering it in a more benign direction.

It's a tempting story, but an erroneous one. Contrary to Divided by Faith, secularization did not begin with the Enlightenment but instead emerged during a considerably earlier period. Its origins can be traced back to the rise of the politiques during the French wars of religion of the 1560s and after--people like Jean Bodin, the theorist who invented the modern concept of political sovereignty, and King Henry IV, whose famous remark, "Paris is well worth a mass," which the king supposedly uttered after converting from Protestantism to Catholicism in 1593, summed up the growing view that religion was an impediment to statecraft. Religious zealotry was obviously growing, but so too was the realization that sectarian warfare was a dead end, a view amply confirmed by the Thirty Years War. As Swedish, Danish, French, Dutch, Spanish and German troops rampaged across the countryside, religious considerations disappeared amid a welter of bloody betrayals and cynical backstairs deals so convoluted that it is still hard to sort them all out. By the time the slaughter was over, swarms of practical, hard-nosed politiques had descended on Westphalia to sort out the mess. With negotiators apportioning churches and jurisdictions among the various denominations, it was plain that their chief concern was not the victory of any one sect but putting a lid on the violence so Germany could recover.

Pace Kaplan, religion was a spent force before the Age of Reason came along. In fact, its exhaustion is what paved the way for the eighteenth-century pietism he celebrates. Not unlike the schuilkerken of the seventeenth century, pietism reflected a new appreciation that religion was increasingly explosive as a public force and could be defused only by being privatized forthwith. Instead of parading about with crucifixes, it was better to retreat into the vastness of the individual soul. Kaplan advances a tortuous argument to the effect that the shock that the freethinker Pierre Bayle expressed over Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes was a tacit admission that the Enlightenment did not go very deep. After all, if Louis's action showed that Catholicism was as "savage and intractable" as ever, as Bayle put it, then conditions were little changed. But Bayle's reaction shows the opposite. The Enlightenment created a new frame of reference, one that changed the way people looked at political events. As a consequence, what was formerly normal was now seen as intolerable. Whereas before, someone like Bayle would have merely shrugged at some religious atrocity or other, he was now beside himself with indignation. Intolerance of one sort had to rise so that another sort could fall.

In retrospect, the small-scale arrangements Kaplan extols seem like stopgaps or, worse, ways of filling up the time between explosions. Plainly, the Protestants who strolled through Vienna on their way to a private service singing "Maintain us, Lord, within thy word,/And fend off murd'rous Pope and Turk" were not seeking to ingratiate themselves with their Catholic neighbors. Instead, they were shouting defiance and steeling themselves for the next confrontation. What would be the equivalent of the Auslauf in today's Middle East--Shiite Muslims parading through Baghdad singing "Maintain us, Allah, and fend off the murd'rous Sunnis"? Or perhaps Jewish settlers chanting "Down with Islam" as they smash their way through the streets of Hebron?

It is quixotic to expect forces like these to act peaceably. While religion is not always intolerant, any ideology that elevates faith over such mundane considerations as reason and evidence is always prey to fanaticism. Meanwhile, it is impossible not to notice a hint of coercion in Kaplan's defense of "bona fide religion" as a possible force for peace and cooperation. What can this possibly mean--only those religions (or strains thereof) that meet Kaplan's ecumenical standard are "in good faith" and therefore worthy of support, while the ornery ones that insist they're right and everyone else is wrong are not? By the same token, what does this mean for the legions of irate atheists who also insist that they are the only ones who are right? Do they have a place in Kaplan's concordat? Or are they also too disruptive?

Rather than empowering "good" religions and repressing "bad" ones, which is what such distinctions imply, the solution, once again, lies in imposing peace by strictly subordinating religion to the needs of modern society. Whether this requires religion's marginalization, it certainly requires its neutering. Kaplan's postmodern skepticism vis-à-vis religion, progress and science may still be trendy in some quarters (although distinctly less so in the Age of W, with its anti-Darwinism and hostility to science in general). But it is not helping matters. Divided by Faith is proof that bad history can lead to bad prescriptions about contemporary politics--and vice versa.

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