Toleration in the Dutch Republic – A changing picture? A summary of Prof Jonathan Israel’s Lecture at the University of Groningen

An image of the great Dutch philosopher Spinoza, a key thinker of the Enlightenment, from Overval op Spinoza. Uit: Historie der Joden, vervolg op Flavius Josephus; bij J. van Gulik, Amsterdam. 1784. Afmetingen: 133x89 mm
An image of the great Dutch philosopher Spinoza, a key thinker of the Enlightenment, from Overval op Spinoza. Uit: Historie der Joden, vervolg op Flavius Josephus; bij J. van Gulik, Amsterdam. 1784. Afmetingen: 133×89 mm

On Wednesday 4 November 2015, Jonathan Israel gave a University Colloquium lecture in Groningen, organised by Studium Generale. In his talk, Israel focused on the still very relevant notion of tolerance in the Dutch Republic, from the early Enlightenment period onwards. In today’s post, Aukje Muller and Roos Feringa summarise and review Prof Israel’s lecture.

During the 16th and 17th century, The Dutch Republic was known for its high valuation of religious tolerance, and it is arguably still considered to be an item of national pride. However, its leading position in the Western world with regard to tolerance declined by the 18th century, when the Dutch Republic was forced to ‘compete’ with the United States, Britain and France, as they surpassed the Republic regarding the freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and eliminating religious intolerance. The main question underlying Israel’s lecture, is how and why the Netherlands lost its primacy in the sphere of (religious) tolerance.

According to Israel, early Enlightenment philosophers, such as the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, considered religious intolerance not as part of ‘true religion’, in which the sole universal and valid criteria of true piety consisted of those of ‘justice’ and ‘charity’. Israel stresses the importance to realize that on the philosophical level, religion cannot involve intolerance and coercion of individuals and groups. However, the later modern period, the 19th and 20th century, has shown a strong contrast with the early modern period, as other ideological frameworks were employed to justify and to organize intolerance, for instance what Israel refers to as ‘racial theories’, and other totalitarian and authoritarian ways of providing a pretext for justifying intolerance.

In today’s world, in the context of contemporary examples of intolerance, whether it’s intolerance of criticism, intolerance of sexual preferences, or intolerance of other types of moral conduct, the most used format, and by far the most important format for organizing intolerance, according to Israel, is religious intolerance. We can see a clear alignment between strong dictatorial tendencies and institutionalized religion, for instance in Russia and Turkey, where religious intolerance is most employed to organize intolerance.

A contrast exists with the pre-1800 period, when intolerance was not mostly religious intolerance, but was in fact the only present intolerance. Whether intolerance was directed towards homosexuals, women or to religious or cultural minorities, intolerance was always justified on the basis of theological or religious arguments. Prof Israel suggested that there is no other way we can explain strong coercive pressures being applied to minority groups, except by using religious intolerance and theology as justification for intolerance.

The first ‘real’ separation of church and state, which Israel considers to be the United States Constitution of 1787, marked a certain decline of the justification of tolerance by using religious intolerance and theological arguments, although this did not create perfect toleration. This process can be traced back to a certain influence of the ‘radical enlighteners’ Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who found freedom from religion, by means of weakening religious authority, equally important as freedom of religion and the related freedom of conscience. At the time the Constitution was drawn up, everyone was comparing it with the Dutch Republic. In both 19th century America and the Dutch Republic, almost all churches were basically minority churches and no single church was hegemonic or constituted a majority. Both were also considered to be the most tolerant states in the modern world at that time. However, neither reached what we would call ‘full tolerance’. Israel argued that this is a general misconception that a separation of church and state automatically entails full (religious) tolerance.

The Dutch Republic was born out of the Revolt against Spain, and out of a religious conflict. According to Israel, you could say that the Revolt was religiously inspired, in the sense that the ‘old church’ was fighting Protestant reform. The Catholic Church lost a lot of ground in the early ‘bottom up’ Reformation in Holland. In other European contexts, a ‘top down’ Reformation was mostly initiated by a monarch, and as such had very different results.

Although the Catholic Church consisted of the largest part of the Dutch population, Catholic commitment among the people dramatically declined. According to Israel, this can be seen as a historical marker of a radical change regarding Dutch tolerance. In this very unstable period in Holland, the Reformed Church was adopted as the ‘public Church’, however it was not what we call a ‘state church’. However, in contrast to Britain, a wide diversity of minority religions remained. There was a public church, not a state church, but at the same time, religious pluralism and diversity was still very much present. In small political spheres, a growing acknowledgement for the relevance of tolerance as a virtue, combined with more general concerns regarding religious toleration led to the installation of dei facto religious toleration in the Dutch Republic.

So at the beginning of the 17th century, in Israel’s analysis, religious toleration was a fact to a certain extent, but it was not a reality as a system of values or as a way of thinking. It was not really conceivable to have toleration in the sense of complete separation of church and state, and in the sense of complete freedom of thought. According to Israel, this had to do with the fact that governments couldn’t survive in the Europe of 1600, unless it was very clear that they were buttressed by and buttressing religious authority. As such, what Israel would label ‘true tolerance’ was largely impossible to achieve. The closest you could get to toleration, was what Hugo Grotius tried to achieve, which was to distinguish between a small number of fundamental Christian precepts and then declare most theological issues to be secondary and debatable, and not as things that need to be enforced by the government or by religious authority. This would lead to a public church that would be strong institutionally and legally to demand silence on the part of people concerning the distinguished vital and undebatable theological core precepts. On the other hand, this created significantly more room for discussion and disagreement. Consequently, minority religions, who were not absorbed in the public church and its teachings, could still be tolerated, but tolerated with very heavy restrictions.

Such restricted tolerance mainly affected the Jewish community in the Dutch Republic, as has become clear from texts written by Grotius, in which he provides ‘guidelines’ to tolerate Jews in the Republic. As a result, the Jews were tolerated in society, but this toleration was strongly restricted. The Reformed Church wanted even more restrictions applied to religious minorities and thus less a less tolerant society. However, the Reformed Church retreated quite a lot, due to attempts from the outside to make the Church more Calvinistic. By the 1630s, toleration was thus given more space, and according to Israel, toleration in the Dutch Republic has gone through very different stages.

What is interesting in the development of Dutch toleration is the alignment with Enlightenment philosophy in the end of the 17th century and through the 18th century, and with individuals who had previously belonged to the public church and had refused to commit to Calvinist criteria. This fraction developed a different Christian vision, as a completely separate and minority church. Already in the 1620s, their texts sketched out a wider conception of toleration. The nature of Christian theology was rethought, and a much heavier emphasis on the importance of toleration was included. According to Israel, some very tolerant religious groups developed in the Dutch Republic during the 18th century who didn’t have a theological government, which gave much room for discussion and debate, and a fully tolerant character. In such religious traditions, a rather egalitarian approach was promoted, so that women were also given a more prominent role.

Going back to the philosophical and Enlightenment aspect in this process, Israel stressed that even though Spinoza had just a small group of people around him who were convinced by his ideas, an important fringe concerning toleration came into being. This constitutes the beginning of the Radical Enlightenment, as this was the first group to make the linkage between democratic Republicanism and a systematic attack on religious authority. What worried Spinoza, amongst others, and what was expressed in a great political crisis in 1650, was the way religious authority was still employed to hold great political power over society.

Spinoza was a prominent figure in the search for a way to build a tolerant Republic, with limited to no religious authority. To broaden the support of such a Republic, more people would have to be included in a democratic process to build a Republic. On a more philosophical level, Spinoza argued that if you want a democratic Republic, it must go together with the destruction of religious authority, as it was deeply embedded in all layers of society and the moral order. To create more political liberty, and especially more liberty in the sense of freedom of thought, religious authority and accompanying coercive power had to be weakened. In Spinoza’s view, religious authority was not about true religion, rather it entailed superstition and ignorance.

Going back to the notion of restricted tolerance, Israel points out that Spinoza and other philosophers, adhesive to the Radical Enlightenment position on toleration, did not gain that much support from other thinkers and from the public. Philosophers like John Locke came up with a different, more restricted conception of toleration. Locke was in favor of a more tolerant society, but he questioned the way in which such as society should and could come into existence. Moreover, Locke was in favor of freedom of religion, but certainly not of freedom from religion and a full separation of church and state. Locke’s ‘half-way house’ toleration was much more popular in the 18th century than Spinoza’s notion of toleration.  According to Israel, the 18th century does mark a gradual development of toleration in the Dutch Republic. The Enlightenment included an expansion of knowledge of other religions in the world, which incited a certain neutral standpoint and more tolerance towards other religions. Some minority religions grew a lot, however, according to Israel, mainly because of immigration, whereas some older minority religions decreased. The Dutch society has become a more tolerant society. Nevertheless the formalities of discrimination and intolerance were preserved. As church and state were more and more separated, religions were given equal status in their thoughts, and the state aimed to remain neutral with respect to religion in general.

A full video of Prof Israel’s talk and responses from the discussants is available here 

Aukje Muller is a masters student in the program Religion, Conflict and Globalisation, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen

Roos Feringa is a masters student in the program Religion and the Public Domain, Faculty Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen

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