A look at the history of religious tolerance in both the East and West. Also a look at the famous people who have promoted greater tolerance and acceptance of different philosophies and religious traditions.
C 4000 BC. Vedas and Upanishads give one of the earliest philosophies of ‘unity in diversity.’
Truth is one. Sages call it by different names. — Rig Veda.
Swami Vivekananda said of Hinduism. “we believe not only in universal tolerance, but we accept all religions as true.”
356 –323 BC – Alexander the Great conquers areas in the Middle East and Asia. However, he assimilates the cultures he conquers, showing religious tolerance. After conquering Babylon, he allows the ancient temple to be rebuilt and shows respect for the religion.
260 BCE – After the conquest of Kalinga, Ashoka the Emperor of India, converted to Buddhism and began to rule on the principles of non-violence and tolerance. He encourages dialogue between Buddhist and non-Buddhist theologians displaying even-handedness in his rule over his kingdom.
311 AD – Roman Emperor Galerius issued a general edict of toleration of Christianity. Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD cemented the acceptance of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
1264 – The Statute of Kalisz was issued in Poland, guaranteeing freedom of religion for the Jewish people.
1273. – Rumi’s funeral attracts followers from all the main religions. Rumi was a noted Sufi poet who preached universal tolerance and advocated the universality of religion.
“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged”
1348 – Pope Clement VI issued a papal bull pleading with Catholics not to murder Jews, for whom they blamed the black death on. Pope Clement VI personally sheltered persecuted Jews in Avignon.
1414 – At the Council of Constance, Pawel Wlodkowic representing Poland, wrote an influential tact Tractatus de potestate papae et imperatoris respectu infidelium – arguing that Christian and Pagan nations should co-exist peacefully and he criticised the Teutonic, Christian wars of conquest. Wlodkowic was an early supporter of conciliarism.
1492 – Bayezid II, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, invites Jews expelled from Spain to seek refuge in the Ottoman Empire.
1500-1539 – Guru Nanak preaches religious tolerance in India, encouraging Hindus to be better Hindus and Muslims better Muslims. “There is no Hindu, no Mussalman—all are human beings.” – Guru Nanak.
1513 – Johann Reuchlin, a German humanist, defends the right of Jews to keep their religious books. In defiance of theologians and University Professors, he wrote Defensio contra Calumniatores (1513) arguing Religious texts should not be destroyed.
1516 – The work Utopia by Thomas More described a world with complete religious tolerance. He wrote that in Utopia people “can hold various religious beliefs without persecution from the authorities.”
1524 – In De libero arbitrio, Desiderius Erasmus sought to defuse the great tensions around religious debates writing that theologians should avoid excess and be more temperate in their language. Erasmus was critical of the Roman Catholic Church but remained in its fold. He laid down some foundations for religious tolerance.
1542 –1605 – Akbar the Great went to great lengths to promote religious tolerance in his Kingdom. He ended taxation on Hindu pilgrims and fostered dialogue amongst different religions, including Jains, Christians, Muslims, Sufis and followers of Guru Nanak.
1553 27 October – The execution of Spanish theologian Michael Servetus caused significant unease across Europe. The reaction to his burning at stake caused many to question whether ‘heretics’ should be killed.
1554 – Sebastian Castellio a French Protestant theologian wrote a book – Whether heretics should be persecuted (De haereticis, an sint persequendi) He argued that heresy should be met with reason and argument, but killing a man for his beliefs was wrong. Castellio wrote:
“To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man.”
1568 – King John II Sigismund of Hungary, issued the Edict of Torda decreeing religious toleration.
1598 – April 13 – The Edict of Nantes was issued by Henry IV of France, granting civil freedoms to different Christian sects. The law separated civil law from religious rights.
1644 – Against a backdrop of the English civil war and religious intolerance, John Milton published Areopagitica; an influential speech arguing for the right to freedom of speech and religious views.
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.
1649 – Maryland passed the Maryland Toleration Act, also known as the Act Concerning Religion, a law mandating religious tolerance for Trinitarian Christians but excluding Nontrinitarian faiths.
1701 Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges (28 October 1701) Guaranteed freedom of worship to those who profess belief in God. Written by William Penn, a Quaker.
1763. Voltaire publishes “Treatise on Toleration” Despite attacking religious views, he also makes a case for toleration.
I say that we should regard all men as our brothers. What? The Turk my brother? The Chinaman my brother? The Jew? The Siam? Yes, without doubt; are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same God?”
1786 – The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom written by Thomas Jefferson was passed by the Virginia State Assembly after being proposed in 1777. This was considered the forerunner of the First Amendment to US constitution.
1789 – Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen adopted by French assembly during the French revolution affirms religious tolerance.
“No-one shall be interfered with for his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their practice doesn’t disturb public order as established by the law.”
1791 – The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, stated:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,‘ this separated church and state in the United States.
1859 – J.S. Mill makes a classic defence of liberty in “On Liberty” which included freedom of religious conscience.
1893 – At the inaugural World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Swami Vivekananda makes a strong case for religious tolerance and the underlying unity of different religions. This Parliament is often considered the beginning of the global interfaith community.
1948 – The United Nations General Assembly adopted Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
1965 – The Roman Catholic Church Vatican II Council issued the decree Dignitatis Humanae (Religious Freedom) that states that all people must have the right to religious freedom.
1986 – The first World Day of Prayer for Peace was held in Assisi, with representatives from 120 religions coming together to pray.
1988 – Mikhail Gorbachev promises increased religious toleration within the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the millennial of Russian Christianization in 1988, and appoints a new Patriarch without political supervision.
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- Article on religious tolerance