Manual The Media and the Far Right in Western Europe: Playing the Nationalist Card

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Summary The resurgence of religious violence at the start of the twenty-first century has reinforced the myth of secular tolerance — the notion that whereas religious believers are instinctively intolerant, tolerance comes naturally to the secular mind. This paper challenges the myth. It suggests that secular people are not immune from the temptation to persecute and vilify others, and argues that the Christian Gospel fostered the rise of religious toleration.

Do not be surprised if they are used. The horrible history of Christianity shows that whenever religion grabs temporal power it turns lethal. Those who believe theirs is the only way, truth and light will kill to create their heavens on earth if they get the chance. Secular commentators felt the need to vent their frustration at the religious zeal which had apparently motivated the suicide bombers. They were, however, anxious to avoid charges of Islamophobia.

Attacking Islam was taboo, but attacking religion per se was acceptable. Underlying the polemics of Dawkins, Toynbee and Parris was what we might discourse in modern societies, for he combined a commitment to tolerance with an equally strong commitment to free and aggressive speech.

He was surprisingly mealy-mouthed about the Roman persecution of the early Christians and the Japanese persecution of sixteenth-century Catholics — he seemed to favour worldly pagan persecutors over devout Christian martyrs. As the historian Richard Popkin has pointed out, the basically tolerant deism of the American Revolution stood in sharp contrast to the intolerant deism of the French Revolution.

Several thousand clergy were executed, and many more were imprisoned. Even nuns were sent to the guillotine.


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In this respect, the French Revolution established an ominous precedent. For among the greatest figures in the secular rationalist tradition was Karl Marx. The Russian Revolution ushered in a period of repression and martyrdom almost unprecedented in its scale. By , not a single monastery or convent remained open out of a thousand or more with which the Soviet period began.

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The number of churches was reduced to barely a hundred, and thousands of clergy were arrested and liquidated. Yet the mass murders of the 20th century were not perpetrated by some latter-day version of the Spanish Inquisition. They were done by atheist regimes in the service of Enlightenment ideas of progress. Stalin and Mao were not believers in original sin. Even Hitler, who despised Enlightenment values of equality and freedom, shared the Enlightenment faith that a new world could be created by human will.

Each of these tyrants imagined that the human condition could be transformed through the use of science. McLellan, Oxford University Press, , pp. McManners, ed. Craig, ed. The myth is not that secular people can be tolerant, for often they are. Rather, the myth of secular tolerance is that tolerance comes naturally to the secular person, whilst intolerance comes naturally to the religious believer. This is a myth in the vulgar sense that it is a commonly held belief without solid foundation, a figment; but it is also a myth in the technical sense — a moral tale that sustains and nourishes the culture and beliefs of those who hold it.

Before assessing the myth, we should begin with a definition.


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By contrast, intolerance involves the active attempt to suppress or silence the disapproved practice or belief. Of course, the means of suppression will vary greatly from context to context: a state may criminalise an activity and imprison or even execute those who practise it; a voluntary organisation may expel an offender from membership; and polemicists may attempt to discredit or destroy an opposing viewpoint by subjecting it to vilification and abuse. In this paper, we will concentrate on political intolerance the use of state coercion , and polemical intolerance the use of vitriol and stereotyping.

In the first part of the paper, I will question the myth of secular tolerance by arguing that secularists have often resorted to political and polemical intolerance. In the second half, I will suggest that the modern commitment to religious tolerance first emerged from within the Christian tradition. The reality of secular intolerance The roots of modern secularism are complex, but it is possible to identify a continuous tradition of secular rationalist thought stemming from the radical Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.

The Enlightenment was a complex phenomenon, and in many places it had a distinctly Christian complexion. But radical Enlightenment thinkers were fiercely anti-clerical and antagonistic to the claims of revealed religion. Some of these men were deists, whilst others were atheists. But all emphatically rejected Christian claims to special divine revelation, and championed a sceptical and anti-supernaturalist worldview. The founding fathers of this radical Enlightenment believed that their movement would form a steadily expanding oasis of secular tolerance in a desert of religious bigotry.

Voltaire was convinced that rationalism would rescue Europe from the violence of the Christian past and propel it towards a tolerant future. He himself campaigned against the persecution of French Huguenots, and other deists like Thomas Jefferson and Frederick the Great of Prussia made major contributions to religious toleration. However, it would be a mistake to think that deists, atheists and freethinkers have always been on the side of the angels not that they believed in angels.

Despite his impassioned pleas for toleration, Voltaire demonstrated little sympathy for traditional religions. A brilliant satirist, he was scathing in his attacks on Jews, Catholics and Calvinists, whose cherished beliefs he scornfully dismissed as absurdities. In this respect, Voltaire established a model for 2 Here then is a serious problem for those who subscribe to the myth of secular tolerance.

There is merit to this argument, as there is to the parallel claim that the Crusades and Inquisitions involved an ideological distortion of authentic Christianity. But there may also be distinctive features of the secularist worldview which foster intolerance. The secular myth of progress tends to create a triumphalist and intolerant eschatology.

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People who believe that the future is secular, and that only backward religions stand in the way of progress, face a strong temptation to give history a helping hand by aggressively clearing these roadblocks from the highway to human emancipation. In the radical Enlightenment tradition, contempt for religion has frequently been translated into policies of suppression. Dawkins and Toynbee, of course, clearly stand in the line of Voltaire rather than of Lenin and Mao.

Although they disagree with what believers say, they would one hopes be willing to defend to the death their right to say it. On one level, such fighting talk is harmless. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words do not. Yet one wonders whether modern commentators have not crossed the boundary-line between legitimate vigorous critique and the crude stereotyping which is the hallmark of polemical intolerance.

Casting off polemical restraint, they foster prejudice and undermine the possibility of genuine conversation. The worlds of education and politics should be religion-free zones. Rather than protecting legitimate diversity, it undermines it. Christianity and the rise of toleration What then of the second component of the myth, the claim that intolerance comes naturally to the religious believer?

This is clearly a central conviction of Dawkins, Toynbee and Parris, and many secular people are convinced that the very idea of tolerance is a product of Enlightenment rationalism. During the Salman Rushdie controversy, the former Labour party leader, Michael Foot, put it this way: How the world in general, and Western Europe in particular, escaped from this predicament, this seemingly endless confrontation [between religions], is one of the real miracles of western civilisation, and it was certainly not the work of the fundamentalists on either side.

It is certainly true that in medieval and early modern Europe, devout Christians — like Thomas More and John Calvin — often supported policies of persecution. In reality, the early advocates of religious toleration in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe were devout Christians, and their case against persecution was fundamentally theological.

The Gospel, they argued, reveals that we are all recipients of divine tolerance. Instead of treating us as our sins deserve, he endures our hostility and offers us forgiveness. Like the Father of the Prodigal, he longs for the day when we will return to his embrace. Christ comes to inaugurate a new kind of kingdom, one not characterised by domineering rule or violence. Selling a home is a huge decision. People may take lots of time to think about how best to sell their homes.

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