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  • Dissensus and Toleration: Reconsidering Tolerance in the Age of Enlightenment
  • Ourida Mostefai (bio)

What do we mean when we speak of the Age of Enlightenment as the Age of tolerance? This contribution seeks to address what may at first glance seem an obvious question but turns out upon reflection to warrant serious consideration. For we know that the so-called Age of Reason was also an era of religious and political strife during which violence and fanaticism were omnipresent. Indeed, Enlightenment Europe was largely dominated by the conflicts that arose from the presence of rival faiths vying for political power and control. In the British Isles as well as on the continent in the lands regulated by the Treaty of Westphalia, violence and war fueled by religious zeal were regular and common occurrences. The period witnessed countless cases of intolerance and persecution, some of which continue to be uncovered even today.1 Thus the legacy of the Enlightenment includes numerous examples of fanaticism, of which the Calas Affair, thanks to Voltaire, is arguably the most famous.2

Indeed, recent studies have challenged the narrative of tolerance. A number of revisionist histories have shown in particular that in early-modern Europe the relatively peaceful coexistence of individuals of different faiths—Christians, Jews, and Muslims—was the result of a series of negotiations and arrangements that affected the rituals and practices of everyday life.3 Today, however, Western Europe seems to have forgotten this history of [End Page 269] dissension, and together with it the lessons it ought to have learned from the experience of conflict. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo affair, it seems essential to recall the fanaticism and persecution that continued to exist during the Enlightenment.

It is time to revise the myth of the age of tolerance as a period of consensus and to focus instead on the antagonisms surrounding this question. Recalling the violence and sharpness of this dissensus might actually lead to a better understanding of the current phenomenon of religiosity and plurality of beliefs in the West today. It might help us reconceptualize models for peaceful coexistence between different groups and help formulate new ways of handling what Etienne Balibar refers to as “dissonance” in the public sphere.4 More specifically, a return to the dissensus produced in and by the Enlightenment around the question of the free exercise of religion might also help us understand the problems raised by the new visibility of non-Christian religions in the west (Islam and Judaism) and allow for a better assessment of the phenomenon of religiosity today.

But first, it is important to recall that the idea of toleration that emerged from the period of Enlightenment does not consist in a minimal form of acceptance reluctantly granted to minority groups but in a true theory of human freedom and civil rights. A brief examination of John Locke’s A Letter concerning Toleration, one of the key texts of this tradition, reveals a forceful argument for an active duty of tolerance and a truly global vision of the question of religious freedom.5 Locke’s Letter offers a theoretical discussion of toleration as the foundation for the possibility of political freedom and civil rights that is accompanied by a series of pragmatic proposals. Largely neglected today, this text deserves serious reconsideration. In the context of the new rise of intolerance and fanaticism, Locke’s Letter still holds important lessons for us and for our modernity.

Written in the wake of the Exclusion Crisis and in the immediate aftermath of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Locke’s Letter argues that religious persecution is as much a crime against religion as against the state.6 Locke opens his argument by positing tolerance as grounded equally in the Gospel and in human reason, defining toleration as “the chief characteristic mark of the true church.”7 For Locke, “true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind” (18), and sincerity of belief is fundamental to salvation. To coerce or be coerced into believing are properly sins against God and incompatible with salvation: thus, nobody (no person or institution) has “any just right to invade the civil...


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pp. 269-273
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