What religious exceptions could atheists possibly claim?

Summary of tolerance

The early modern development of the concept of tolerance

Secured with the Edict of Nantes of 1598 Henry IV the French Protestants - predominantly supporters of the Reformer Jean Calvin, so-called Huguenots - religious freedom and thus drew a line under the decades-long Huguenot Wars. But his grandson Louis XIV From 1660 onwards, under the influence of the clergy, again massively restricted the rights of the Huguenots, banned them from practicing their profession and had their houses of worship torn down. From 1681 soldiers were quartered in the houses of Huguenots in order to force the Huguenots to convert. For fear of the brutal attacks, many of them actually converted to Catholicism, but the majority fled to the Netherlands and Switzerland, England and Prussia. In the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685, the king established Catholicism as the state religion and forbade Protestants to practice their religion. Pastors who refused to convert to Catholicism had to leave the country within two weeks. Those who fled were threatened with expropriation and imprisonment.

In view of the religious disputes caused by the Reformation, humanists like Erasmus from Rotterdam or Thomas More a peaceful coexistence of the different Christian denominations is required. They pointed to the agreement on essential questions of Christianity. At the same time, a process of individualization that emerged with the Renaissance continued, which also affected belief. Many people no longer accepted old traditions and beliefs without question, but tested them against their conscience. After the painful experience of the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, the understanding gradually spread in Europe that religious disputes cannot be resolved by force. Especially in religiously heterogeneous countries such as England and Holland, a number of pleadings for tolerance emerged.

With the spread of rationalism, the idea gradually gained acceptance that all truths and dogmas must first be examined to see whether they corresponded to reason. Rationalist thinkers like Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, Baruch de Spinoza or John Locke were among the most ardent advocates of religious tolerance. Written in his exile in Holland in 1689 Letter about tolerance Locke argued that both reason and the gospel command religious tolerance. Like Bayle, he emphasized that intolerance is much more dangerous for the state and the political order than mutual tolerance, and called for a strict separation of state and church.


After the Sedan Academy - an important training center for Protestant thinkers and pastors where Pierre Bayle taught - was closed in 1681, Bayle fled to Rotterdam, where he taught philosophy and history as a professor. During this time he wrote a number of shorter writings in which he dealt with tolerance, reason and faith. Although the texts appeared anonymously, Bayle was soon identified as the author and prosecuted. As you couldn’t catch him yourself, his brother was locked up Jacob Bayle a, a Protestant pastor who died shortly afterwards in prison.

To tolerance Bayle may have suggested a sermon by the French bishop and confidante of the king Jacques Bénigne Bossuet at. Bossuet's speech, which presumably justified the revocation of the Edict of Nantes on the basis of Bayle's quotation from the Bible, “You need to come in” in 1685, has not survived today. Bayle does not refer to it directly, however. Rather, he admits himself in the preface tolerance as an Englishman who had been asked by a French author (easily identifiable as Bayle himself) to write a commentary on said passage from the Bible. Bayle added a third and fourth part to the two original parts, published in Rotterdam in 1686, in 1687 and 1688, but these did not contain any new arguments.

Impact history

Like all of Pierre Bayle's writings was tolerance a great success even during the author's lifetime. However, theologians - including Calvinists - criticized the author for having vilified the Christian religion and suspected him of atheism. The work was translated into English in 1708 and into German in 1771. After this tolerance was valued by the Enlightenmentists of the 18th century, the script fell into oblivion again in the 20th century. It is only recently that Bayle's radical plea for religious tolerance and freedom of conscience has received renewed attention.