The state and tolerance

Ian Hunter discusses how, in European Catholicism, the sacred is the presence of a transcendental God on earth, whose presence is mediated by specific individuals, practices and places (chapter 10). It is this that makes other places, individuals and practices profane. Sacrilege is the abuse or violation of sacred individuals, places or practices. Crossing the boundary of the sacred and profane is where sacrilege occurs. Where this boundary is also the boundary of a community—of communicants—then sacrilege threatens the community itself and results in violent self-protective responses by the community. In early Modern Europe, Christianity and the political community were one, and the religious and political community was one. Hence sacrilege was both a transgression against God and a crime, enshrined in canon and Roman law across Europe, under the centralised authority of the papacy. Sacrilege was then linked not just to the transgression of the sacred but to heresy, blasphemy and witchcraft. Those outside the community threatened not just the civil survival of the community but also the community’s ability to communicate with God.

As Hunter shows, the bloody sectarian conflicts of early Modern Europe were calmed and resolved in different ways across Germany, France and England. However, there are some features in common that can be identified. There was the gradual acceptance of European public law as the language for negotiating peace. Jurists came to accept the permanency of heresy, notwithstanding the attitude of church leaders. Religious truth was dropped as a criterion for peace in treaties and social peace given priority. This meant that the political domain was secularised. The church was to pursue salvation, the state social peace. This development was backed up by the ‘spiritualisation’ of religion. In this movement the individual’s relationship to God became a matter of their personal spirituality, and not tied to orthodoxy or membership of the church. Hence, with the changing definition of the sacred, the nature of sacrilege changed. The outcome was that individuals could hold and develop a range of personas: Christian and citizen, while the state, with no religious objectives of its own, provided a space for voluntary religious association.

However, it does not follow from this that the culture of secularisation is a result of the separation of church and state. We expect the separation of the church and state, and increasing levels of education and industrialisation, will be accompanied by a decrease in religious dogmatism. In short, we expect that the benefits of modernity will lead to greater toleration of religious and ethnic differences, and therefore peace within and between nations. Yet, as Riaz Hassan shows in his contribution to this volume, modernity and the separation of the church and state does not necessarily lead to a decrease in religious commitment and to the secularisation of society (chapter 11). Rather, the secularisation of the state may be accompanied by an increase in private commitment to religious values.[10] Hassan’s research, conducted in seven Muslim countries, shows that there are paradoxical relations between religion and modernity. Conventional sociological wisdom, the secularisation thesis, argues that with modernisation comes secularisation and privatisation of religious beliefs, with religion increasingly losing its significance. However Hassan’s findings suggest that where religion plays a strong role in the provision of services in modern societies, there may be higher levels of personal religious commitment. This research, if correct, has implications in relation to domestic policy. If modernity and the separation between the state and religion increases rather than decreases people’s personal commitment to religious ‘truth’, the policies of toleration and multiculturalism may create the conditions for the kind of dogmatism and domestic conflict for which they are supposed to be the cure.