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Secularism and religious tolerance

By David Fisher - posted Monday, 26 July 2010

Secularism holds that a person’s religious belief or lack of same is no business of the government. Separation of religion and state is secularism in action. Secularism is an outgrowth of the struggle for religious tolerance: both religious and anti-religious groups have opposed secularism.

Religious governments tried to impose their beliefs and practices on the entire community. Anti-religious governments have tried to promote atheism and totalitarian governments, whether religious or non-religious, have authorised official churches. The Marxist governments opposed secularism as they wished to wipe out or control religion.

One step towards tolerance was the outrage at Michael Servetus’ burning at the stake for heresy on October 27, 1553 in John Calvin’s Geneva. Servetus was condemned by the government after a two-month trial. Most of the leading European religious figures of the day, both Protestant and Catholic, supported the execution.


However, Castellio, who disagreed with Servetus’ ideas, led the protests. He published in 1554 Concerning Heretics: Whether they are to be persecuted and how they are to be treated. It was the first major treatise in early modern Europe arguing for religious toleration. Divided by Faith by Kaplan described the situation, and much in this essay is taken from that book.

Calvin defended Servetus’ trial by attacking its critics:

Those who would spare heretics and blasphemers are themselves blasphemers. Here we follow not the authority of men but we hear God speaking as in no obscure terms He commands His church forever. Not in vain does He extinguish all those affections by which our hearts are softened: the love of parents, brothers, neighbours and friends. He calls the wedded from their marriage bed and practically denudes men of their nature lest any obstacle impede their holy zeal. Why is such implacable severity demanded unless … devotion to God's honour should be preferred to all human concerns and as often as His glory is at stake we should expunge from memory our mutual humanity.

Theodore Beza’s refutation of Castellio appeared later in 1554. Beza pointed out that Castellio, in selecting from the writings of Protestant reformers, had drawn solely from the authors' early works. The same reformers had often adopted far less tolerant stances in their later, more mature works, from which Beza offered counter quotations. Concerning the status of dogma he wrote:

There is one way that leads to God, namely, Christ; and one way that leads to Christ, namely, faith; and this faith includes all those dogmas which you reject as unnecessary. ... If Christ is not true God, coeternal and consubstantial with the Father, how is He our Saviour? How is He our sanctifier? How is He victor over sin, death, and the devil? Unless He is true man, save for sin, how is He our mediator?

Castellio's arguments to the contrary, said Beza, were themselves blasphemous and heretical. In making them, he had betrayed the cause of the Reformation. The license he demanded was worse than "papal tyranny". When a heretic committed blasphemy and impiety, scorning God's Word and resisting all attempts at correction, the death penalty was fully justified. Indeed, it was required, so as to stop heresy from "infecting" other people and destroying the church from within. Magistrates are "guardians and protectors not only of the second table of the [Mosaic] law," that is, the moral code embodied in the second half of the Ten Commandments, "but also, indeed principally, of the pure religion, in matters concerning external discipline". Those who protested against Servetus's trial were "servants of Satan," Beza declared, "mortal enemies of the Christian religion".


Castellio had an eloquent rebuttal, “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man."

In The Right to Heresy: Castellio Against Calvin Stefan Zweig, described Calvin’s Geneva:

Policing the Flock

From the days when so universal a control of private life was instituted, private life could hardly be said to exist any longer in Geneva. With one leap Calvin outdistanced the Catholic Inquisition, which had always waited for reports of informers or denunciations from other sources before sending out its familiars and its spies. In Geneva, however, in accordance with Calvin's religious philosophy, every human being was primarily and perpetually inclined to evil rather than to good, was a priori suspect as a sinner, so everyone must put up with supervision. After Calvin's return to Geneva, it was as if the doors of the houses had suddenly been thrown open and as if the walls had been transformed into glass. From moment to moment, by day and by night, there might come a knocking at the entry, and a number of the "spiritual police" announce a "visitation" without the concerned citizen's being able to offer resistance.

Monthly Examinations

Once a month rich and poor, the powerful and the weak, had to submit to the questioning of these professional "police des maeurs". For hours (since the ordinances declared that such examination must be done in leisurely fashion), white-haired, respectable, tried, and hitherto trusted men must be examined like schoolboys as to whether they knew the prayers by heart, or as to why they had failed to attend one of Master Calvin's sermons. But with such catechising and moralising the visitation was by no means at an end. The members of this moral Cheka thrust fingers into every pie. They felt the women's dresses to see whether their skirts were not too long or too short, whether these garments had superfluous frills or dangerous slits. The police carefully inspected the coiffure, to see that it did not tower too high; they counted the rings on the victim's fingers, and looked to see how many pairs of shoes there were in the cupboard. From the bedroom they passed on to the kitchen table, to ascertain whether the prescribed diet was not being exceeded by a soup or a course of meat, or whether sweets and jams were hidden away somewhere. Then the pious policeman would continue his examination of the rest of the house. He pried into bookshelves, on the chance of there being a book devoid of the Consistory's imprimatur; he looked into drawers on the chance of finding the image of one of the saints, or a rosary. The servants were asked about the behaviour of their masters, and the children were cross-questioned as to the doings of their parents.

Diabolic Vice of Cheerfulness

As he walked along the street, this minion of the Calvinist dictatorship would keep his ears pricked to ascertain whether anyone was singing a secular song, or was making music, or was addicted to the diabolic vice of cheerfulness. For henceforward in Geneva the authorities were always on the hunt for anything that smacked of pleasure, for any "paillardise"; and woe unto a burgher caught visiting a tavern when the day's work was over to refresh himself with a glass of wine, or unto another who was so depraved as to find pleasure in dice or cards. Day after day the hunt went on, nor could the overworked spies enjoy rest on the Sabbath. Once more they would make a house-to-house visitation where some slothful wretch was lying in bed instead of seeking edification from Master Calvin's sermon. In the church another informer was on the watch, ready to denounce anyone who should enter the house of God too late or leave it too early.

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David Fisher is an old man fascinated by the ecological implications of language, sex and mathematics.

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