A Brief History of Tolerance in Europe

The word “tolerance” is rampant in politics, law, media, and religion today. In a previous post, I discussed what the difference was between old & new tolerance today. So how did we get to the point we are at today in our definition of tolerance?

Presuppositions in Our Thinking
I have done much research into the English Puritans. I remember the first time I read about the “Toleration Act of 1689.” It struck me to hear them using such language in this era, so as I researched further I found that it was tolerance towards nonconformist preachers and teachers. The Toleration Act of 1689 meant something very different than it would mean if we created the “Toleration Act of 2015.”

In the time of the Puritans and up until the early part of the 19th century, the majority of people presupposed the existence of God. This increasingly was not the case after WWII.

Keep Calm and Be TolerantWhat this meant for UK & European society was that “tolerance” was often discussed within this presupposition (as in the time of the Puritans, for example). These societies shared a moral conscience and were more concerned with the good of the people and the family rather than their individual rights and freedoms (though those were still important to a lesser extent).

By the end of the 19th century, one of two things changed people’s attitudes towards tolerance in Europe:

  1. Some people no longer presupposed the existence of God
  2. Those who still presupposed the existence of God no longer believed that He was relevant to all the questions being raised in the public square

The result of this was that questions about tolerance and intolerance were being worked out in presuppositions that were either non-theistic or whose theism was weakened by the rise of secularization that they exercised little control

Church And State
It is interesting to read about how the church and state previously functioned together in European societies. With secularism on the rise, church and state became separated.

D.A. Carson writes:

“We start by insisting that the state can neither establish nor prohibit religion, and agree that, reciprocally, religion does not have the right to control the state. Then in a mighty bound many infer further that religion does not have the right to influence any of the decisions of the state, and therefore conclude that religion must be restricted to a small and privatized world or the great barrier between church and state is jeopardized. If this conclusion were ruthlessly carried out, millions of citizens would be disenfranchised on hundreds of topics. What seems like a simple and useful ideal – the separation of church and state – is suddenly fraught widely accepted cultural assumptions that few thinking Christians could ever accept.”

Not only did religion move out of the political realm, but it was being forced into being a matter of private affairs which had no place in any form of the public square. It is often said that we should not discuss religion outside of the religious community for fears that we are proselytizing others who disagree and that would be intolerant.

What did all this mean for tolerance? Issues of morality and how much we could tolerate moving away from those moral standards was no longer commonplace in public discourse after this point. Thus, we moved into the post-modern movement.

Post-Modernism is Dead
As a movement, Post-Modernism is dead in Europe. At one time, Europe was the leading voice of the Post-Modernism movement. That being said, Post-Modernism was like a hurricane which came and left countless parts of society in its destruction. Many people still find it difficult to think properly about right and wrong, good and bad, truth and error, etc. There are certainly some who refuse to let it die and insist on holding Post-Modern views of tolerance.

Some have said that we are now in the Post-Post-Modern age in Europe. What this means and how this will affect the issue and definition of tolerance in the future is a whole other discussion altogether.

God Bless,
Tyson Bradley

For more information on this topic, I would recommend “The Intolerance of Tolerance” by D.A. Carson

Full Bio Here: www.thesojourner.org/about/


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