#ReadWithMe: The Enlightenment Part 3: Toleration, Reason, and Religion

religion natural theology tolerance

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

Perhaps Robertson’s most interesting claim thus far is that toleration came initially as a result of political action. It did not spring from “enlightened” thinking, but was based on the practical need to resolve conflicts between nascent political units. 
As outlined in my first post in this series, Ritchie Robertson begins his tour de force treatment of the Enlightenment by asking his readers to rethink the Enlightenment. He follows this plea with treatments of various elements of the Enlightenment, beginning with science.

In the next set of chapters (3 through 5), Robertson turns to the topic of toleration, which does not start with a change in religious belief, though you might expect it to. Perhaps Robertson’s most interesting claim thus far is that toleration came initially as a result of political action. It did not spring from “enlightened” thinking, but was based on the practical need to resolve conflicts between nascent political units. (You leave me alone; I’ll leave you alone.) It’s not until much later that tolerance comes to be seen as a humane virtue. (Robertson equates this change with the Voltaire-Calas affair.)

As with science, Robertson argues that religion goes from being characterized by rules to being characterized by reason, allowing individuals much greater freedom in moral decision making. The approbation of others becomes more important than the specter of damnation. Says Robertson, “...principles give general guidance, but people’s decisions always apply to particular situations, where the influence of one’s principles is counteracted and usually annulled by passions, desires, and habits. And our passions are to be welcomed, because they ensure social order: the desire for other people’s admiration, and the fear of judicial punishment, do more than reason could to keep people on the straight and narrow.” (117) 

Again-albeit more subtly- Robertson is at pains to show that the Enlightenment ought not be regarded as hostile to organized religion. That said, Robertson recognizes it had a great influence on religion, especially in the later years of the Enlightenment. For example, he notes the increasing efforts of clerics to preserve religion by appealing to the ideals of the Enlightenment- an attempt to strike a balance between faith and reason with no need for conflict between the two. For example, Robertson draws attention to John Locke’s call for religious moderation as an attempt to seek a “middle way” between reason and revelation. Calls for divine doctrines to also make rational sense inspired an increasing divide between philosophy and theology. Robertson regards this as the dawn of widespread scholarly study of the Bible; “Biblical criticism originated not as an attempt to undermine the Bible’s authority, but as an endeavor to establish exactly what it said.” (182) And notably of course, such study was increasingly directed toward “Bibles”, rather than “the Bible.” Biblical texts became historical objects of culture (198), more broadly accessible than to just the devout. Robertson sees such study as less an attempt to identify inconsistencies in religious traditions than to allow individuals’ moral intuitions a greater role. Enlightenment thinkers sought less blind adherence to the divine; to do otherwise was contrary to reason and human dignity.

In the final chapter of this section, Robertson argues that compromises between claims of religion and reason were not the beginning of an inevitable secularization, but part of a much longer trend. Robertson describes pre-Enlightenment religion as more a way of life than a dogma; “belief” was purely functional. Certainly the Reformation caused many to question religion, and this was furthered by the expansion of educational institutions and increased access to education during the Enlightenment. Neither does Robertson see secularization as equivalent to the demise of religion. He writes, “...the secularization of public discourse does not mean that religion is vanishing, or is likely ever to vanish, from people’s lives. Religion is not only belief; it is also, perhaps more importantly, a matter of practice…The idea that religion is simply a set of false propositions ignores its strength as an emotional resource.” (211) Robertson’s Enlightenment thinkers only campaigned against religion when religious practice was made compulsory- it should be only “an intellectual and moral duty”  not a behavior enforced by the state. Just as the rural masses weren’t likely to obtain intellectual enlightenment, neither were they likely to cast off the functionality of superstition. And religious superstition would still offer social stability, so people should be left to believe what they chose. 

In the spirit of questioning, here are some questions that struck me as I read, and which I would love to hear your thoughts on.

  1. Do you believe tolerance to be a positive or negative virtue? (Or even a virtue at all?) Is the world today more or less tolerant than in the past?
  2. Robertson argues strongly that toleration is a fundamentally practical Enlightenment principle. What does the idea of toleration lose if it’s solely instrumental?
  3. Some see religion as one among many systems of exchange, and Robertson’s instrumental treatment of religion seems to make this claim quite plausible. That said, I suspect that Robertson would say that the terms of religious exchange changed during the Enlightenment (and may be changing again today.) If you look at religion as a system of exchange, who are the main parties to the exchange, and what exactly are they exchanging. And how have these relationships changed over time?
  4. Robertson makes much of religion’s ability to offer social stability. We also see more and more people in the world identifying as religious today (if not always affiliated with a particular religious group.) So by Robertson’s logic, shouldn’t the world today feel more stable? Is it? 

Want to explore more?
An Enquiry Concerning Hereafter, Duane Kelly's drama centered on the death of David Hume and his journey to the afterlife, at AdamSmithWorks.
Samuel Fleischacker, Adam Smith on Religion, at AdamSmithWorks.
Anthony Gill on Religion, an EconTalk podcast.