Liberalism: A response to Extremism


I recently commented about the recent uncomfortable rise of violence inspired by religious fervor. This is not a new phenomenon. Our history is soaked in the blood.

The people of Europe have paid a hefty price in lives for disputes over religion. It is estimated that 1 million were killed in the Arian schism, another 1 million  during the Carthaginian struggle, 7 million during the Saracen slaughters in Spain, 5 million during the Crusades, 2 million Saxons and Scandinavians were killed resisting conversion to Christianity, and yet another 1 million  killed in Holy Wars against the Dutch, Albigenses, Waldenses, and Huguenots.  The cost of religion is high.

Of course in the Americas estimated again vary but some have suggested that 30 million indigenous people were slaughtered resisting the benefits of Christianity and perhaps 9 million burned as witches. Of cou8rse religion was usually not the sole cause for slaughter, but often it helped.

Much of Europe was devastated by the Religious wars of the 17thcentury. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648. These were often religious wars at least nominally, but not entirely of religion. Of course we have to remember that these wars were fought by Christian countries and Christian princes. They were not wars against he infidels.  After the Reformation the various Protestant   Christian sects and the former universal Church—i.e. the Roman Catholic Church—were all eager for a fight. These were wars of Christians against Christians.

By the time the major wars of the 17thcentury were over, Germany which was the scene of much of the fighting, was ravaged and one-third of its people were killed. In some areas more than half the population were killed. For example the Swedish army alone destroyed 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns during its 17 years in Germany. For decades mercenary armies and armed bandits roamed Germany like a packs of vicious wolves slaughtering people like sheep.

Most of Europe participated in the wars. It began as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, but ended as a political fight over who would control Europe. Huge swaths of Europe had been scavenged bare and much of Europe by foraging armies. Massive damage was inflicted on churches, monasteries and other religious institutions. By the time the war was ending Catholic France joined the Protestant side because it feared the rise of Catholic Hapsburg power. Many of the European powers involved were bankrupted and famine and disease were rampant.

Although calculations vary, some counted the dead this way:  France and Austria lost 80,000 each, Spain 300,000, Sweden and Finland 110,000, German principalities 400,000. Other countries lost lesser people.

When the wars were over, or at least had subsided, most of Europe was understandably sick of religious wars. Nearly everyone agreed a better way was needed. After that with only minor exceptions, Christianity ceased to be an important motivator for mass scale murder. Someone should be thanked for that, but I am not sure it is God.

I would suggest that as a response to all of this slaughter an important philosophy arose: Liberalism. It is not supported enthusiastically in many places these days. That is a pity, because it is the anti-dote to extremism of all stripes.  And by liberalism I do not mean its bastard offspring such as the Liberal Party or even worse, neoliberalism.  But liberalism was a better way. British philosopher John Locke is often considered the father of Liberalism. He advocated for tolerance, which really means respect for others even if you disagree with them. The world at the end of the 17thcentury and then again at the end of the 20thcentury was in short supply of tolerance. It still is.

The Reformation and the problem of religious minorities were central to Locke’s political philosophy because those were the burning issues (literally burning issues) of his times. Until then this was not an issue at all because values were shared. Everyone in Europe was a Roman Catholic. Until then the issue of minority rights did not arise for there were no minorities.

But after the Reformation and the bloody wars that followed in its wake political theorists had to figure out how can we live together in a society when we don’t all share the same values? That is a problem that continues to haunt us today, as can be seen by the recent spate of religiously inspired murders in the last year.

According to University of Manitoba Professor, Steve Lecce, the key question of modern and contemporary political theory is “How should we live together in society when we don’t all share the same values?[1]Where values diverge, as they now inevitably do in any post Reformation society, and in particular in modern societies that include immigrants from around the world, how can we live together in peace and harmony without resorting to might is right or without resorting to the ability of the majority to crush the minority? Liberals say that there are some things the majority or the powerful should notbe able to do. First we need a method of settling disputes fairly. Fair tribunals such as courts of law. The state has to be like a referee or umpire.

This was very important in the Reformation when religious freedom was the critical issue of the time. It is still important. Until the Reformation a common religion bound us all so that this was not an important issue. Religion until then was the social glue that kept us together. After the Reformation, religion became an explosive issue that could blast society apart. And it often did and continues to do. Before the Reformation religion was the basis of societal trust.  After the Reformation religion became an instrument of distrust. We still live in this post-Reformation world.

There were 2 possible solutions to this problem of religion after the Reformation:


  • A religion can be imposed by force to achieve religious unity. This was tried with great vigor in the religious wars of the 17th The result was great misery and abject failure.
  • The second possible solution is the radical idea proposed by Liberals like John Locke–toleration. That had never been tried before. It was truly deeply revolutionary. It is important to remember this when modern liberals are often seen as dull and boring theoreticians. They are considered bloodless. Now we should realize that is a good thing. In the 18thcentury this idea was profoundly revolutionary. Many hated the idea of tolerance because they saw it as capitulation to evil.  Liberals said we had to accept differences.


Nowadays toleration, a value that was revolutionary in its day, and I would submit, is revolutionary today, can seem like very thin gruel compared to the spicy virtues reflected by much more aggressive and powerful groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, the alt-right, Antifa, Donald Trump, and their ilk. It can seem wishy-washy just like–well—liberals. It can seem humble. I think that is a good thing. The classic liberals like John Locke stand for permitting others to have their say. This is much less sexy than threatening to ban them, or build a wall to keep them out, or kill them. However, in a world charged with the most vicious of religious hatreds like that of Europe in the 17thcentury or our current world in the 21stcentury, tolerance is not wishy-washy at all. After all the 17thand 20thcenturies were the two most violent centuries in the past 500 years according to Steven Pinker. [2]Tolerance is the most vital of all the virtues! Liberals have to step to the plate with vigor and confidence. I would suggest that liberals actually represent our only chance for civilization to endure.  At least so liberals believe. And I tend to agree (in a wishy-washy way of course).

In the 17thcentury there were those who feared the worst from this revolutionary new idea of tolerance.  Would this not lead to the destruction of public morality?  Personal morality should never be permitted to undermine public morality, it was widely believed. This in fact is the essence of Conservatism! It is stillthe essence of Conservatism.

Liberals challenge this view. Liberals hold that we can each freely have our own personal opinions and morality without challenging the social order or value of society. Let people disagree. We can all get along provided each of us accepts limits. This will not destroy society. In fact modern liberals believe that the diversity of modern society will strengthen not weaken society. That means that we must put reasonable limits on our religious values too. We can hold them personally as much as we want, as vigorously as we want, but we cannot imposethose values on others. Even the majority should not do that. Real democracy is not rule by the majority. It is the rule of the majority within limits. That’s what liberal democracy is all about. The goal of imposing religious values was rightly discredited after the religious wars of the 17thcentury. We don’t want to go back there.

[1]Steven Lecce, “Right Wing, Left Wing, and In between,” April 14, 2016 at University of Manitoba

[2]Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, (2012) Penguin Books, p. 51

3 thoughts on “Liberalism: A response to Extremism

  1. Hans! I want to quote three sharp idea-men whose wisdom I’m pretty sure you studied in yer YOUF and that you damn-sure have exercised throughout your well-lived life.

    1—”…praise does not make anything better or worse” is from that old cut-up, Marcus Aurelius. What you have written here is beautiful but I still want to praise it, and you. Danke seea.

    2—Next dood: Seneca; a thinker so profound he just needs one name and who has lakes and cities and PCHs named after him. He wrote that “We are more often frightened than hurt;” That direction goes out to wall-happy nay-sayers who might get all gimcracked up about Sharia-law-says-this and that-one-half-verse-in-the-bible-says-that and a bunch of other rolled-round from too much road hockey frozen horse turds.

    3—Last on my famous guy quote list is… but wait. I’m sorry they are all fellas—you and I both know, from decades of direct experience and pointed scolding that our gender is limited, as in, “don’t you have any G-D common sense?” is the way it is sometimes put to me. Anyway, in the three-hole is good ol’ Faulkner, who nagged at his fellow citizens of the world to “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed…”

    Keep squawking you Socratic Schanzenfelder, and I’ll lob in the odd one-hopper from deep in fiction’s left field, where ideas go to get all diewelled-up.

  2. barrister newfield

    just a couple of things…….

    one, i think your estimate on 1st nation genocide in the new world is pretty limited. then you add the slavery thing. we are talking more in the neighborhood of 100 million lost souls. 90% of so-called hispaniola was dead within 10 years of the arrival of the white boys in what they thought was india, looking as they were for gold, tea and spices. look what god hath rot in 500 plus years.

    two, the present crisis in neo/liberal civilization exists precisely because the lockean doctrine did not survive the onslaught of capital and technology. locke is cooked. his doctrinal efforts are therefore unlikely to be of much use.

    three, values, as important as they might be, are probably something of an epiphenomenon. the material realities of capital and information/technology run amuck are likely much more central. it is possible that we are already so embedded in the “machine” that free will is as much a fiction in that regard as it was regarding the “choice” of a religion or pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. as regards religion itself, there are serious questions about values going forward, given that god died, and that the values were always tied to religion. from where do they come now?

    the doodoo is deep; the species is in question. the continued and exponential increase in the disappearance of flora and fauna is exemplary.

    “gird the loins. pray without ceasing.”

  3. The numbers about those who died vary greatly. But most of the people by far that died did so as a result of disease brought by the ‘Europeans for which the people in the “New World”had no immunities. I do not deny genocidal impulses of the Europeans however. I do not accept all the Lockean doctrines either. But I think his point and that of other classical liberals about religious tolerance was an extremely good and important one. After nearly a century of brutal killing in the name of religion it was a welcome relief and a powerful idea that continues to be important in this current “Dogma eat dogma world” to quote Tom Robbins. I am not as convinced as you that ideas are not important. I recognize the importance of material and social conditions but do not acknowledge their absolute priority over ideas. Where do values come from now? A good question. I think they come from ourselves. We don’t need anyone to give them to us. And to a remarkable extent, as I have tried to argue in this blog, those values are shared and agreed upon. But I acknowledge that the dodoo is deep. I just don’t think we are doomed quite yet.

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