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Good Faith | The Nation

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Good Faith

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Other than outright jihadis like Osama bin Laden and hard-core Zionist settlers in the West Bank, most people would agree that religious zealotry is out of control and ought to be reined in. The question is how to do it. On one side of the debate are the hards, those militant atheists who argue that the problem is not so much religious discord as religion itself, an idea that has given rise to repeated horrors not because it is misapplied or misunderstood but because it is false and therefore a poor guide to reality. Bad theories lead to bad outcomes, which is why the best way to deal with theism is to do to it what Copernicus did to Ptolemy, or Darwin to Lamarck--finish it off as quickly as possible so the world can move on.

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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On the other side are the softs, those nice ecumenicists who contend that since it's unlikely that the world's believers will endorse the writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett anytime soon, we had all better learn to live together in our present state. Religion is therefore tolerable as long as it's not used as a justification to harass thy neighbor or condemn him to hell over minute theological differences. Call it the Kumbaya coalition, if you will.

Although it is uncertain how David Levering Lewis fits into this debate based on his seriously misconceived new book, God's Crucible, there is no doubt as to Benjamin Kaplan. Judging from Divided by Faith, his account of the elaborate measures that small groups of Catholics and Protestants took to keep the peace during the wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he is what might be called a hard-core softie, a fanatical believer in religious compromise as the key to preventing conflict. Whereas other historians of the era chronicle all the horrible things that the religious combatants did to one another--Germany suffered more mass devastation in the Thirty Years War of 1618-48 than it did during World War II--he describes the ingenious mechanisms Europeans employed to avoid killing one another in the name of a peace-loving Christ. Since such measures were mainly modest and small-scale, the result is history with the big stuff like wars, treaties and affairs of state left out and the minor adjustments and adaptations left in. Exciting it's not. But since life is often unexciting (especially when it's peaceful), Kaplan's version of how people got along in between the era's great battles and confrontations is not unimportant.

We learn from Kaplan that because lords and knights in sixteenth-century Austria enjoyed the right to hold Protestant services in their castles, houses and estates, Protestants in nominally Catholic Vienna would parade through the streets every Sunday morning on their way to some nearby Protestant nobleman's estate, where they would worship freely before heading back home. No one killed them as a consequence of their Auslauf ("walking out"), no one arrested them and no one drove them into exile, no small thing in the fraught climate of the 1570s, when Dutch Protestants and Catholic Habsburgs were battling in the Netherlands and English Puritans were clamoring for the head of Mary, Queen of Scots. In Strasbourg and the southern German towns of Ulm and Biberach, all dominated by Protestants, it was the Catholics who marched every Sunday so they could pray outside the city walls. In Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), Socinians (otherwise known as Unitarians) marched to the nearby villages of Busków and Straszyn, while in Hamburg Mennonites marched to Altona, now a nearby suburb. All did so unmolested, even though elsewhere in Europe such displays would have been explosive.

Under a policy known as "simultaneum," Catholics and Protestants in biconfessional (dual religious) cities even learned to share the same church. If this sounds unremarkable, consider what would happen today if some rabidly Zionist rabbi and a firebrand imam were required to share the same synagogue or mosque. In liberal Holland--about which an English diplomat once remarked, "Religion may possibly do more good in other places, but it does less harm here"--the problem was how to square the freedom of conscience guaranteed by the Union of Utrecht, the 1579 treaty that gave rise to the Dutch republic, with the religious monopoly of the Dutch Reformed Church. The treaty allowed the Dutch to believe in any religion they liked but to practice only one. What to do? With their usual pragmatism, the Dutch settled on a policy of official conformity and unofficial laxity, a policy exemplified by the tiny schuilkerken (literally, "house churches") that members of Holland's substantial Catholic minority were permitted to build in attics, backrooms and courtyards. Cozy and gemütlich, these were the antithesis of the grandiose Baroque structures springing up in Catholic territories. Lacking such outward displays as crosses, bells or towers, they were nonetheless richly outfitted with altars, galleries, organs and vaulted roofs. Since keeping a low profile was essential, one such schuilkerk entered into an elaborate agreement with the Amsterdam town fathers not to park sleds out front, not to allow crowds to congregate or parade through the streets and not to schedule services so that parishioners would interfere with crowds of Protestant worshipers heading off to their own churches.

By seventeenth-century standards, such restrictions were so mild as to be positively disorienting. In 1660 a Dutch Mennonite named Thieleman van Braght waxed nostalgic for the good old days when his group was the most harshly treated sect in the country. Mennonites had stood bravely by their faith during the years of persecution, but with liberalization, he complained, had come a "pernicious worldly-mindedness," a decline in morals and a falling away of religious ardor. Just as the worst way to torture a masochist is to treat him nicely, the worst way to treat a would-be religious martyr is to bombard him with tolerance.

Clearly, then, minor adjustments to religious practice did for a time succeed in preventing religious strife in the early modern era, which is one reason Kaplan celebrates them. But there is another reason: they are all pre-Enlightenment measures instituted at a time when secularism was still in its infancy. After a detailed discussion of schuilkerken, Sunday parades and the like, Divided by Faith concludes by arguing that the age of secularization that the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia supposedly ushered in with the conclusion of the Thirty Years War may not have been as deeply rooted as is usually thought. Religious persecution was ostensibly on the wane, yet Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, depriving Protestant Huguenots of their civil rights and sending some 300,000 of them into exile. Shortly after, the Duke of Savoy succumbed to intense French pressure by summarily ordering descendants of medieval heretics known as the Waldensians to convert to Catholicism. When they revolted instead, he imprisoned some 9,000 of them for months, stood by as two-thirds of them died from their confinement and then sent the rest on a forced march through the snow-covered Alps to Switzerland. From 1702 to 1705, Protestants and Catholics traded tit-for-tat atrocities in the South of France in a particularly brutal conflict known as the War of the Cévennes. In 1731 Catholic authorities expelled some 19,000 Lutherans from the archbishopric of Salzburg, Austria. As late as 1780, rioting and mass destruction erupted in London in response to a modest bill in Parliament aimed at removing a few of the anti-Catholic legal indemnities left over from the previous century. Enlightened sectors of society had assumed that religious hatred was a thing of the past. But the Gordon Riots--named for the flamboyant Lord George Gordon, leader of the Protestant Association--showed that antipapism was still a force to be reckoned with.

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