Dialogue and Universalism

Volume 31, Issue 2, 2021

Do We Need a New Enlightenment for the Twenty-First Century?

Gerhardt Stenger
Pages 145-161

From Toleration to Laïcité
Bayle, Voltaire and the Declaration of the Rights of Man

This paper traces the history of the philosophical and political justification of religious tolerance from the late 17th century to modern times. In the Anglo-Saxon world, John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) gave birth to the doctrine of the separation of Church and State and to what is now called secularization. In France, Pierre Bayle refuted, in his Philosophical Commentary (1685), the justification of intolerance taken from Saint Augustine. Following him, Voltaire campaigned for tolerance following the Calas affair (1763), and the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) imposed religious freedom which, a century later, resulted in the uniquely French notion of laïcité, which denies religion any supremacy, and any right to organize life in its name. Equality before the law takes precedence over freedom: the fact of being a believer does not give rise to the right to special statutes or to exceptions to the law.