The issue discussed in this paper is as topical today as it was in the early modern period. The Reformation presented with heightened urgency the question of how to relate the system of beliefs and values regarded as fundamental by an established political community to alternative beliefs and values introduced by new groups and individuals. Through a discussion of the views on toleration advanced by some key early modern thinkers, this paper will revisit different ways of addressing this problem, focusing on the relationship between truth and toleration. The comparison between different proposals in their historical and political contexts, will reveal a variety of understandings of toleration and of models for its promotion. These understandings will be shown to be grounded in different conceptions of religious belief, of its relation to truth, and of human reason’s ability to reach it. They will provide a map of possible models for addressing conflict in a pluralist world from which lessons of enduring relevance can be learnt.
The upshot of the paper is that, from a theoretical point of view, the culprit in intolerance is not in itself belief in some objective truth. Some of the common assumptions about the denial of religious truth or the reduction of religious truth to a minimal creed as the best paths to universal toleration will be challenged. Likewise, the narrative centred on England and France which has led to the celebration of the heroes of a supposedly ‘universal’ toleration that still manages to exclude millions of people will be shown to be in need of significant revision. After discussing approaches based on the rights of the individual conscience and on the unknowability of religious truths above human reason, the paper will finally investigate whether grounds for a general and principled theory of toleration can be found in religious truth itself and, following the tradition of natural law, in some universal truth discoverable by natural reason.