Good Faith

Good Faith

Two authors posit very different views on the problem of religious conflict in a supposedly secular age.


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.

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.

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,

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.

Such confusion is also evident in God’s Crucible, an account of Islamic-Christian warfare over the course of some seven centuries. Although occasionally vivid and exciting, God’s Crucible is essentially a case of a stirring narrative in search of a theme. The nearest Lewis comes to finding one is when he argues that the Franks were wrong to resist a Saracen incursion in 732. If the Moors had prevailed at the Battle of Poitiers (or Tours, as it is also known), Europeans not only would have been exposed to astronomy, trigonometry and Greek philosophy–all of which Muslims knew but Christians did not–but also would have gained entrée to “a cosmopolitan, Muslim regnum unobstructed by borders…one devoid of a priestly caste, animated by the dogma of equality of the faithful, and respectful of all religious faiths.” Indeed, Lewis calculates that they would have leapt ahead by exactly 267 years, nearly to the year 1000, that is. But since it was the Franks who won, Europe was doomed to continue on a path that God’s Crucible characterizes as “economically retarded, balkanized…fratricidal.” By “defining itself in opposition to Islam,” Lewis writes, Europe wound up making a virtue “out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.” The result, it would seem, has been religious warfare, riots in Parisian banlieues and rising levels of economic inequality. Evidently, we’re still paying the price.

It would be nice to report that Lewis, a professor at NYU and the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, is being satirical in suggesting that the West would have been better off going Muslim. But he is all too serious. Perhaps hearing a long line of historians from Edward Gibbon to Victor Davis Hanson describe Charles Martel’s triumph at Poitiers as a victory for civilization got Lewis’s dander up to the point that he decided to write a book saying the opposite. In any event, the basic problem with God’s Crucible has to do with the linkage of Islam and cultural advancement, a connection Lewis seems to regard as so simple and self-evident as to render further thought unnecessary. Since tenth-century Córdoba was a large and glittering city–“the brilliant ornament of the world,” in the judgment of a visiting Saxon nun named Hroswitha of Gandersheim–at a time when Paris was little more than a country town, then, no doubt about it, it was the Muslims who were ahead and the Christian Franks who were behind.

What Lewis fails to recognize is that while a society can be deficient in some respects, it can be advanced in others that eventually prove more important, even if the benefits are not immediately apparent. Lewis points out that the caliphate had a sophisticated system of taxation while the Franks had virtually no tax system at all. But the absence of a tax system was a relief to the peasantry, since it meant that the economic burdens on them would remain comparatively light. He notes that the Muslim emir Abd al-Rahman I had a sophisticated army at his command, whereas all Charlemagne had was a promise from his nobles to assemble every spring with their horses, armor and weaponry. But Rahman I’s army was a slave force, whereas Charlemagne’s was free, which is no doubt why the Christian side eventually came out on top.

Lewis further notes that gold coinage had disappeared from Western Europe, especially the portion of Northern France controlled by the Franks; that trade had come to a near standstill; that spices, jade and other imported luxuries “were dimmest memories”; and that the Western European economy had cut itself off from “the Mediterranean engine that had once quickened it.” This is all quite true. But he also observes that “food, however, was plentiful” in the Frankish territories, that cattle breeding had improved and that production of brine-preserved fish “made for an energy-fueled diet sufficient to grow the big-boned frames of the typical blond Frank warrior.” The question, which he does not address, is what one had to do with the other, what a decline in trade had to do with a rising level of agricultural productivity.

Very much, in fact. In pulling away from the Mediterranean, Northern Europe was indeed closing in on itself. Economic isolation of this sort did not result in economic decline, as Lewis all too readily assumes, but in what sociologist Michael Mann describes as a process of economic intensification. As trade contracted, lords and peasants turned their attention to raising output on their estates and plots of land. Since rents were comparatively low and taxes nonexistent, peasants had an incentive to boost productivity. Humble but important technological innovations began to spread as a consequence: the water mill, the heavy iron plow, the three-crop rotational system (which allowed each field to be used a third more often), plus the horseshoe, the horse collar and more efficient types of harnesses. The upshot was more effective use of animal power, more efficient transport and, from the ninth century through the early thirteenth, a doubling in crop yields, a breakthrough that economic historian Georges Duby has rightly described as the first great agricultural revolution.

Frankish society was rude and unpolished, in other words, but economically dynamic. It was also, relatively speaking, free. Whereas slavery on the northern side of the Pyrenees essentially disappeared by the eleventh century, it remained as widespread as ever on the other. The balkanized European power structure that Lewis decries was equally a two-edged sword. It was inefficient, certainly, but also made autocracy unthinkable. Indeed, that is why Charlemagne’s empire ultimately collapsed. The Byzantine political methods that he imported failed to work amid the highly complex structures of the West.

What would have happened if the Muslims had prevailed at Poitiers and then marched to Paris? Assuming they imposed their social system on the Franks’ realm rather than looting and moving on, the results might well have been a victory for civilization. But it would have been civilization of a highly autocratic type. Detaching itself from the Mediterranean turned out to be the best thing European society could do, because it ended up charting a different course. Lewis is right to be outraged by the sort of Eurocentric arrogance that leads to denigration of the Muslim world’s legitimate cultural achievements. But an equal and opposite Islamocentrism is no less absurd. Whereas his goal is to heal the breach between Islam and the West, the real task is to come up with a revivified Enlightenment frame of reference that renders the entire split irrelevant.

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