Saturday, July 09, 2005

Religious Tolerance and Montaigne

Other than from a historical perspective, Montaigne's essay "On Freedom of Conscience" isn't all that interesting. Freedom of conscience in Montaigne's time meant freedom of worship, a big deal considering the Catholics and the Protestants were big into killing one another not to mention all of the little sects that sprang up. In his essay Montaigne tries his hand at religious tolerance. He points out that before Catholicism was backed by law and the state "zeal provided many with weapons to use against all sorts of pagan books, causing the learned public to suffer staggering losses. I reckon that this inordinate zeal caused more harm to literature than all the fires started by the Barbarians." Barbarians--did I say he was trying? He goes on to write about Emperor Julian the Apostate, so named for having "abandoned" Catholicism. Julian was a sometimes harsh but just ruler according to Montaigne. He never prosecuted anyone on the basis of religion. In fact, he "commanded that every person, without let or fear, should follow his own religion." Montaigne is suspicious as to why he did this, however, instead of forcing everyone to be pagans. In giving everyone freedom of religion, Montaigne suspected that Julian was hoping that so many divisions and schisms would occur that people would not be able to unite and resist his rule. Since Julian had not the strength to crush the Christians, he would let them defeat themselves. Montaigne, a devout Catholic who fought in the War of Religion, obviously does not believe in freedom of conscience even though he appreciates justice. It is unfortunate that someone so liberal in so many other ways could not see his way clear on this one. Far from weakening religions, I think freedom to worship has only strengthened them especially when combined with state endorsement. It is a sad thing that even in the 21st century we are still fighting Wars of Religion. Why do we have to see each other as a religion--Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan, etc.? Why can't we just see each other as people first? A Million dollar question to be sure. Next week's Montaigne essay: "We Can Savour Nothing Pure"