The Roots of Progress

Religious freedom and the Enlightenment

April 1, 2017

Another theme from A Culture of Growth is the role of relgious freedom in creating the Englightenment:

Between 1500 and 1700, many of the heterodox scientists and innovators were threatened by some authority that sensed a challenge. Religion had not yet divorced itself from physics, astronomy, and even medicine and chemistry, and it represented powerful forces that supported the status quo.

Fortunately, tolerance won out:

In the market for ideas, one of the most successful ones that won out in the seventeenth century in much of Western Europe was the idea of tolerance. Religious bigotry did not die easily, as the follies of the aging Louis XIV attest, but in its most extreme and virulent forms, it was doomed. What was needed was not just a set of incentives and motives for those who did science, but also an ideology that protected them from those whose entrenched monopoly on explaining the world was being threatened by science and its insistence on evidence and logic.

Mokyr describes religious tolerance among the intellectuals of the time:

… it is striking how blithely intellectuals bridged or ignored altogether the chasms between different religions. The Republic of Letters on the whole seems to have paid fairly little heed to the religious beliefs of its citizens. Grafton (2009a, p. 12) explains that it was regarded morally wrong to break off scholarly communication with people of different religious convictions, because such “restrictions could only hamper the flow of information and ideas.” Moreover, citizens of the Republic of Letters argued against religious persecution, a voice that became louder as wars of religion increasingly showed themselves to be destructive and pointless after 1562. Prominent citizens of the Republic of Letters, from Sebastian Castellio (1515– 1563) to Spinoza to Voltaire, argued for religious tolerance and against the persecution of apostates (Zagorin, 2003). 20 Even scholars of fundamentalist religious beliefs, such as the great Swiss Huguenot polymath Louis Bourguet (1678– 1742), were able to develop what Barnett (2015, p. 149) has felicitously called a “strategy of toleration” in which deeply felt religious differences were papered over in scientific exchanges and a scholarly civility was maintained despite private outrage at the heretical opinions of “unbelievers.” The Republic of Letters is an illustration of Cipolla’s (1972, p. 52) remark that the same qualities that make people tolerant also make them receptive to new ideas.

He chalks some of this up to political fragmentation:

The dark forces of reaction in the sixteenth century were no less benighted than those of the fourteenth, but it became increasingly difficult for those forces to work together, in part because some defenders of the conventional wisdom were Protestant and others Catholic. The forces of the Catholic reaction were fragmented among themselves. Authorities could not agree on who were heretics and what to do about them, and the heretics took full advantage of this. The unique situation in Europe, then, was that intolerance and the suppression of cultural heterodoxy, long before they fell out of fashion, could not be properly coordinated.

I said in the beginning that I am interested in progress of all kinds: moral and political as well as technological and scientific. One thing I’m already starting to see is how those stories are intertwined. Progress in science, technology and economics depends on progress in politics and perhaps vice versa. The story of human progress is a single, integrated story.

Relevant books

A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy