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.