Religion and Civil Society
Spain and the modern idea of tolerance
The rise of the ideal of tolerance in the Age of Enlightenment and the Revolution (1650-1850) has almost always been attributed to the success of philosophical theories from John Locke, Pierre Bayle, and Baruch Spinoza. But this is just part of the story.
In reality, there has never been a theoretical consensus around the nature of, limits to and reasons for religious tolerance. The Enlightenment spread the conviction that progress and tolerance go hand in hand or, in other words, that tolerance is an indispensable requirement in modern societies. This conviction did not just spread through philosophy, but also circulated in sermons, newspapers, political speeches, history books, novels, dramas, etc.
The modern ideal of tolerance was not based on abstract reasons, but rather on narratives about the history of Europe. Among them, narratives about Spain were especially important, including its alleged religious fanaticism and its presumed national decadence. Enlightenment thinkers and liberals presented the Spanish Inquisition as the epitome of fanatical violence and attributed the economic, demographic and cultural decline of Spain to religious intolerance. While the economic glory of Great Britain and the United Provinces was seen as proof that tolerance and progress are closely linked, Spain’s decline demonstrated definitive proof that Catholicism is incompatible with freedom and progress and that fanaticism can only be defeated by completely submitting the church to the state.
On the other hand, for centuries many Catholics mutually identified Spain, Catholicism and intolerance. Far from combating the enlightened narrative, they supported it by blinding themselves in the defense of Spanish intolerance.
This research aims to trace the role that stories about Spanish fanaticism have played in the construction of the conception of religious tolerance that still prevails in Western culture. By revealing the distant origins of said conception, this project will explore its limited usefulness for solving the problems that religious diversity poses in the twenty-first century.