By Alex Manzoor
On Monday 27th of February the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Professor John Milbank, who is the Director of the Centre for Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, to discuss the crisis of religious freedom. He began by arguing that since 1979 and the Iranian Revolution, religious freedom has been in danger throughout the world and that there are two blocs of religious intolerance. These blocs are: intolerance within religions to other religions and secular intolerance which opposes religious symbols and public expressions of religion. This has developed from the breakdown of the post-Christian consensus where the Christian moral but not religious legacy was accepted and human rights were enshrined in secular terms.
The basic question is: how to produce a more tolerant world? To answer this question, Milbank stated that there are two different approaches to religious liberty: religious rights and religious toleration. People generally think that the approach of religious rights is the optimal solution but in fact it leads to a hopeless situation, this is because this approach requires content neutrality and no stance to be taken about the virtues of religion. Tolerance, on the other hand, means putting up with something and is a more realistic approach that is more likely to succeed.
The toleration approach is superior because it does not rely on a prevailing but false historical narrative which states that irrational religious beliefs spark conflict which then leads to secular ideas emerging that result in toleration. Conversely, many religious societies have historically practiced toleration. Christianity in particular practiced toleration in the past often because of theological reasons, for instance toleration aligns with a Christian principle of non-coerced faith and idea of living in a fallen world where everyone is wrong in a way and so greater latitude needs to be given. Although this broke down as Christianity established greater control over Europe, there were reactions against the move away from toleration.
In the Early modern period, despite the breakdown of Christendom due to the reformation, people looked for more inclusive and pragmatic strategies and there were local attempts to accommodate beliefs. The Toleration Act of 1689, as Locke himself notes, was more of a pragmatic attempt to bring Presbyterianism into Anglicanism then based on liberal beliefs. Religious conflict, however, didn’t disappear with the Wars of Religion and there were strong anti-Catholic tendencies in both the French and American Revolutions. The idea that there was religious neutrality in nineteenth century America is false and until 1907 Churches were part and parcel of French society. The notion that religious tolerance comes from religion and pragmatism rather than neutral rights concerns will help us explain tolerance to other societies, for instance Islamic societies.
The real problem with the rights based approach is that it emphasises individual as oppose to group rights and therefore does not recognise religion as it is. If Islam is treated with an individual rights approach then it is likely to backfire and increase the Islamisation of Muslims in countries like France. However it should not be seen as strange and more serious engagement with Islam is needed. A toleration approach is more likely to get us somewhere because the rights approach almost ignores the corporate nature of religion to reduce it to beliefs and practices and so in practice leads to extreme intolerance and no room for pluralism.
He concluded by stating that toleration comes from a certain understanding of Christianity and that an approach of tolerance in terms of Western religious legacy is the right approach for tackling religious intolerance.