What is the need for religious tolerance

Summary of About tolerance

The power of reason

The European Enlightenment was an era in which old certainties were destroyed. Through the triumphant advance of the natural sciences, especially with the discoveries Isaac Newtons was connected, the previously Christian worldview of Europe lost ground. Its foundations had already begun to erode in the currents of humanism and the Renaissance. The mysticism of the Middle Ages and its superstitious excesses gradually gave way to a rational approach to religion from the middle of the 17th century. A new, rational concept of God took shape: deism. Scientific knowledge is also increasingly replacing the old dogmas. Through the Copernican view of the world, the divine uniqueness of man was called into question. The empiricism, represented among other things by John Locke or David Hume, made sensual experience and technical measurement the central criteria for knowledge and thus finally broke with the truth claims of biblical revelation. At the same time, rationalism, like him, demanded Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz or René Descartes represented that man should come to knowledge with the help of pure thinking, i.e. by applying intellectual laws and without looking at individual cases. Both currents finally gave the church's claim to power, which had already wavered considerably 200 years after the Reformation, the fatal blow.

Another reason for the change of perspective in Christian Europe was the increasing exploration of the world - among others by missionaries such as the Jesuits. Although primarily interested in the conversion of pagan peoples, the Jesuits spread beliefs, rites, and images of God and the world from all over the world. Their reports increased knowledge about alternative religious models and forced the Christian West to relativize their own claims to truth.


As Voltaire the treatise About tolerance wrote, he was 68 and already a legend as a poet, philosopher and historian. He lived in his retirement home in Ferney near Geneva. He had learned of the legal scandal involving the Calas family a year earlier through reports from travelers. Voltaire then invited the youngest son of the executed man, who had converted to Catholicism, to have the details described to him. The obvious misjudgment so enraged Voltaire that he put all other activities on hold and devoted himself to the rehabilitation of the Calas family with all his might. He gained access to the case files. He wrote to the king, minister and lawyer. He wrote pamphlets and had extensive correspondence with friends and acquaintances. He supported the Calas family, completely impoverished by the process, financially and threw his entire popularity on the scales. From the Calas case, which he described as a judicial murder, Voltaire developed the idea of ​​a general treatise on the central theme of this scandal: injustice from the spirit of intolerance. For the historical background of this treatise - especially the Huguenot Wars - Voltaire was able to rely on extensive studies of his own, such as his treatise About the death of Henry IV from 1745. The literary role models include John Lockes Letter about tolerance from 1689 and Pierre BaylesPhilosophical Commentary on the Words of Christ, Make Them Come In ‘ by 1686.

Impact history

The immediate effect of the initially anonymously published treatise About tolerance was immense. Together with the numerous accompanying letters that Voltaire wrote, the script quickly became known throughout Europe and became a milestone in moral philosophy and political ethics. In the matter - the legal process of the Calas family - it led to a solid success insofar as it contributed massively to the rehabilitation of the family and to publicly branding the legal scandal as such. Voltaire himself experienced an enormous increase in his popularity through his commitment to the Calas family. Until then, he was considered a valued poet, philosopher, and conversation partner and letter partner of the crowned heads of Europe, especially in noble circles, but now he was also celebrated as a bestselling author. And the fame of the writing continued: The first German mass newspaper, The gazebo, paid tribute to the "immortal manifesto against the curse of intolerance" in 1878. Voltaire's work on tolerance after the Islamist attack on the Parisian editors of the satirical newspaper received new attention Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. As a result, About tolerance again a bestseller. Voltaire's writings on tolerance, especially his treatise of 1763, can be viewed as one of several sources of modern French laicism, i.e. the strict separation of state and religion.