Pierre Bayle and Freedom of Religion

By Andrew Beyea

The Protestant reformation was one of the major social and political ruptures in European History. The publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 precipitated a rash of religious conflict that would dominate the following 250 years. Luther’s theology differed radically from the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Perhaps most famous is his opposition to the sale of indulgences, but without doubt the greatest contribution to European culture made by the spread of Protestantism is its assertion that all men should be able to read the Bible in the vernacular. By bringing the basis of the church down from its Latin remoteness to accessible languages, Luther opened the doors for its critique. Prior to its translation, the ability to read the Bible was limited to those with ecclesiastical training and a learned section of the nobility. As Luther’s ideas spread, so did the act of translating the Bible, with the result that those who were exposed to the heterodox ideas of the Protestant churches also gained the means of further critiquing Catholic doctrine.

The wars of religion that resulted from the spread of Luther’s — and later, John Calvin’s — ideas resulted in a stalemate between reformed and Catholic forces, and the parties involved eventually turned for hope of resolution to the less bloody, but no less heated realm of learned debate. The spread of religious heterodoxy thus directly contributed to the rise of experience and scientific inquiry as the basis of knowledge, as it became clear that differences in opinion could not be settled by reference to an ancient text or by force of arms.

One of the most prominent religious philosophers of this period was Pierre Bayle. Born in the mountains of Southeast France to the family of a Huguenot minister, Bayle was part of a religious minority that comprised no more than ten percent of the local population. Mostly concerned with the epistemology of religion and questions of the relationship between religion, morality, and the state, Bayle’s writings offer a defense of religion based on the individual conscience that influenced the framers of the United States Constitution. Voltaire called Bayle “the greatest dialectician who ever lived” in the preface to his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster”; a copy of Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary was among the first 100 texts of the Library of Congress and was in the hands of Thomas Jefferson while the Constitution was drafted; the same copy was in James Madison’s study when he wrote his contributions to The Federalist Papers.

Bayle’s argument for freedom of religion relies on the right to private judgment and a vicious critique of human nature. Unlike Voltaire, whose writings half a century later would portray society as the corruption of the “noble savage,” Bayle argued that mankind is naturally ignoble:

Man is not set on a certain action rather than another on account of the general knowledge he has of what he should do but rather on account of the particular judgment he brings to bear on each thing when he is on the point of acting… [His judgment] almost always accommodates itself to the dominant passion of the heart, to the inclination of the temperament, to the force of adopted habits, and to the taste or sensitivity to certain objects.1

Because of the tendency of man to please himself regardless of his religion’s tenets, Bayle argues that the particular religion a man upholds is less important than the actions he carries out. In fact, he maintains, what restrains men from carrying out the worst actions they can imagine is not religion, but the twin temporal authorities of civil and ecclesiastic law. His arguments in Various Thoughts on the Comet extend so far as to posit that because “human justice constitutes the virtue of the majority of the world,” even a society composed of atheists would necessarily create a viable legal system based on the natural state of men, bound as it must be to write laws in order to control the most destructive urges of its subjects.2 According to Bayle, human laws must be derived from human behavior, not from ideals laid out in an ancient text.

This assertion is important because it takes into account the premise that all men are convinced that their religion is the only true religion. Certainly because he identified with a persecuted minority, and perhaps because he was an extremist even within that group, Bayle was wanted in France on account of his religious writings, while his younger brother was imprisoned for them by French authorities in Pierre’s absence and soon died. Bayle was likewise unable to teach in Calvinist schools in the Dutch Republic after the Walloon Consistory of Rotterdam3 determined his opinions likely to spread atheism because he believed that the conscience must be permitted to hold any religious belief, even in error. As a fideist, he wrote that faith and philosophy (in his day, the term philosophy was applied to all sciences) are necessarily irreconcilable, thus no external reason can be applied to the faith of an individual; faith is purely a matter of the individual conscience and divine revelation. Because, as Bayle argues, there can be no earthly proof of the truth of any religion, it should not fall under the jurisdiction of earthly authorities

Faith then, for Bayle, was something that can only be altered by the individual’s relationship with the divinity, an idea that was intentionally and directly opposed to the program employed by the Catholic Monarchy of France. In the years leading up to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the limited toleration the document guaranteed in perpetuity only existed on paper, as the state offered financial rewards to Huguenots who would convert to Catholicism, banned their worship from public and private spaces, and closed their universities. This contributed, as Bayle pointed out, not only to the coercion of the conscience of tens of thousands of French Huguenots who stayed, but also certainly to the production of a similar number of “bad Catholics”, who would continue to practice their previous religion in private and to seek the overthrow of the regime that placed them in this impious state.4

One can see in the concerns and arguments of Pierre Bayle the basis for the protection of freedom of religion. If faith and reason are irreconcilable, it makes sense to separate the authority of the state, which should ideally limit its control to what men do, from the authority of the church, which is primarily interested in controlling what men think. For Bayle, because the faithful of all religions believe they are correct, an evangelist state will always find itself in some form of conflict with religious groups whose unrepentant consciences will choose any means to defend what they believe God wills.

11 Pierre Bayle, Various Thoughts on the Occasion of A Comet, trans., Robert C. Bartlett (Albanym NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 167-8.

2 Ibid., 200.

33 Consistories, which existed across Europe at this time, maintained religious orthodoxy and guarded against philosophies that were deemed dangerous by ecclesiastic and state authorities. The Walloon (French-speaking residents of the Low Countries) Consistory of Rotterdam upheld orthodox Calvinist doctrine.

4 Ibid., 110.


Pierre Bayle, Wikimedia.