How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West Summary

Perez Zagorin

How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West

In the well-researched How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Perez Zagorin examines how and why Europeans and Americans rejected the practice of religious intolerance and came to appreciate the value of religious tolerance. Despite its very general title, this book deals almost exclusively with attitudes toward religious tolerance and intolerance among Christians and does not examine anti-Semitism or Western prejudice against Muslims. In his opening chapter, Zagorin argues persuasively that an analysis of Western attitudes toward Jews and Muslims would have made this book extremely long and he decided to limit his discussion to tolerance and intolerance among Christians.

Zagorin explains quite well that religious reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther, who insisted on religious freedoms for themselves, saw no conflict in denying religious freedom and even the right to live to those who disagreed with them. Zagorin indicates that most Catholic and Protestant leaders during the sixteenth century were so convinced that they alone possessed complete truth that they saw no reason to show the slightest respect for other Christian faiths. There were, however, exceptions such as the Catholic Erasmus and the Protestant Sebastian Castellio who argued in the sixteenth century that Christians should fully respect the beliefs of other Christians. The author also shows that others, such as the Protestant writers John Locke and John Milton, were selective in their attitudes toward tolerance. They tolerated Protestants, who were not Anglican, but they both argued that the persecution of Catholics was perfectly acceptable.

This is an excellent contribution to the history of religious freedom in Western thought.