When we look at geo-political and social conflicts across the world today we can see how religion is a factor in most of the conflicts. In this backdrop, it is fair to claim that the world would be a more peaceful place to inhabit if more people practice religious toleration. What is true today has been a fact for centuries past. A cursory look at world history shows how religious intolerance has played a major role in several calamitous military conflicts of the past. Just as there are these negative examples, there were also leaders who took a contrarian and compassionate position of practicing religious tolerance. The late medieval and early modern period, spanning from the beginning of the 15th century to the middle of 18th century was an era that is witness to both the tendencies. This essay will showcase how religious tolerance was the dominant stance in this bygone era, where leaders in the fields of philosophy, politics, science and religion have all espoused the path of moderation and tolerance.
Jonathan Spence’ presentation of Emperor Kangxi’s views on religion articulates in English the thought processes and rationale given by Kangxi to justify his policies. Emperor Kangxi is one of the great kings of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty that ruled China for several centuries. Under Emperor Kangxi’s rule, the kingdom reached unprecedented expansion of territory and power. It is assumed that the audience for this retrospective lecture is all the subjects of his empire as well as foreign diplomats, merchants and missionaries. Defined narrowly, Emperor Kangxi’s policies toward Western religious missionaries are generally intolerant. But his rationale for taking certain decisions in this regard are well thought out and well expressed. One of the worries expressed by the Emperor is how foreigners, especially from the West, who visit China for temporary reasons – either commercial or cultural or religious – are a drain on the spirit of authentic Chinese traditions. He feels that such visitors leave China exploited of wealth and culture. As he reasons it out to the Christian Missionary Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon:
“Hereafter we will permit residence in China to all those who come from the West and will not return there. Residence permission will not be granted to those who come one year expecting to go home the next – because such people are like those who stand outside the main gate and discuss what people are doing inside the house. Besides these meddlers there are also those out for profit, greedy traders, who should not be allowed to live here” (Kangxi 639).
The emperor’s strict stance toward de Tournon and his ilk is quite legitimate when one considers the fact that the latter actually tried to prohibit converted Chinese Christians from practicing local Chinese customs or assimilate Chinese language phrases in Biblical renditions. Seen in this context, Emperor Kangxi’s stance is a protest against religious intolerance that his people have suffered under the decrees of the papacy. So, while outwardly stringent and intolerant, Emperor Kangxi’s position is actually fair and balanced.
Galileo Galilei’s makes an impassioned defence of scientific advancement in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany. Written in 1615, this letter captures the essence of the perennial battle between religious fundamentalism and scientific discovery upsetting the dogma. It is important to remember that Galileo was a religious man. He never saw his controversial scientific discoveries as subverting or disproving the Christian faith. Instead, he saw as part of the conscientious Christian mission to promote scientific enquiry alongside following the Christian doctrine. He quotes the words of St. Augustine’s views on truth and epistemology to back up his own position. Moreover, Galileo correctly identifies that most of the attacks directed against him were personal and ad hominem and were not directed toward his science, which only goes to strengthen his claims. As he poignantly notes,
“They [his detractors] seemed to forget that the increase of known truths stimulates the investigation, establishment, and growth of the arts; not their diminution or destruction. Showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth they sought to deny and disprove new things which, if they had cared to look for themselves, their own senses would have demonstrated to them…and they made the grave mistake of sprinkling these with passages taken from places in the Bible which they had failed to understand properly.” (Galileo 1)
Master Wang Yang-Ming is a key commentator on the works of Confucius. His writings under the title ‘Inquiry on the Great Learning’ reveal a level of abstraction and sophistication that is timeless. China has for long boasted of its secular credentials, with more emphasis given to practical civil administration and pragmatic philosophical doctrines. Confucianism and Buddhism are major examples of these two undercurrents in Chinese history. One see the cross adaptation of Buddhist philosophical principles into what is Master Wang’s analyses of civil administrative problems. Yet this synthesis comes off smoothly and without contradictions. The explanation of the scope and applicability of the concept of ‘jen’ stands in strong support of religious tolerance. After all, ‘jen’ stands for the immutable unity of Heaven and Earth and all things inhabiting them, including humans. When there is such unity on the cosmic scale, what real distinction could possibly exist between one religion and another? Master Wang thus asks.
“The great man regards Heaven and earth and the myriad things as one body. He regards the whole world as one family and the country as one person. As to those who make a cleavage between objects and distinguish between the self and others, they are small men”. (Wang 118)
And finally, Father Cajetan Cattaneo’s mid-eighteenth century voyages to the Southern American continent is not overtly focussed on religious issues. Rather, it is a travelogue recounting important cultural exchanges. But there is an implicit message for greater mutual respect and understanding among religions, as the example of the indigenous people prove. Native Americans, who had never had a sophisticated culture and civilization, were ready and capable of embracing Christian theology. The three letters of Father Cattaneo bear out this fact in elegant prosaic detail. While Father Cattaneo is associated with the Jesuit mission, he or his colleague never adopted violent means to achieve their ends. This conduct projects Christian missionaries as genuine envoys of the divine message rather than religious zealots hell-bent on imposing their world view on others.
Hence, in conclusion, it is quite clear that tolerance was a principle universally accepted across cultures and geographies between 1405 and 1750. Authors from different domains and geographies have implicitly agreed to this moderation in socio-cultural exchanges. By remembering and practicing these sagely pieces of knowledge, contemporary world would become a much peaceful place to live.
Lodovico Antonio Muratori, Three letters of Father Cajetan Cattaneo, A Relation of the Missions of Paraguay, 1730.
Jonathan D. Spence, Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of Kang-Hsi (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 80-85.
Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615, Modern History Sourcebook, retrieved from
Wang Yang-ming, ‘Inquiry on The Great Learning”, In Sources of Chinese Tradition, ed. William de Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 571-81.