Persecution and Toleration, Mercatus Center, April 2019.
Conversations with Tyler, January 2019
Ideas were not enough, Aeon, August 2017.
Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood.
How Did the West Get Religious Freedom, Hoover Defining Ideas, June 2018.
In the late fourth century, the Roman senator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, a pagan, issued a plea for religious pluralism: “We gaze up at the same stars; the sky covers us all; the same universe encompasses us. Does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for the Truth? The heart of so great a mystery cannot be reached by following one road only.”
Today Symmachus’s words resonate. They appeal to our society’s fundamental liberal values. They are a statement of religious freedom. But these words failed to persuade Symmachus’s contemporaries. In Symmachus’s last years, the Roman state made paganism illegal. Not until the Reformation would anyone again put forward as eloquent a case for religious pluralism in Europe.
Why did the case for religious liberalism fall on deaf ears? Why was religious compulsion so prevalent until modern times? Why did religious liberty eventually emerge in the West after around 1700? And what factors were responsible?