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Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae

versión On-line ISSN 2412-4265
versión impresa ISSN 1017-0499

Studia Hist. Ecc. vol.34 no.1 Pretoria  2008


Religious freedom and the Age of Enlightenment: The case of the French Revolution



Robert Matikiti

Department of Political Theology, University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe




This article explores whether the Age of Enlightenment, in general, and the French Revolution of 1789, in particular, promoted or restricted religious freedom. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 defines religious freedom as the "inalienable right of individuals and groups to choose or change beliefs as their consciences dictate and be free from intimidation, restrictions and biases based on those beliefs". In other words, people must have an opportunity to exercise their religious beliefs in an atmosphere that is free of intimidation and interference. During eighteenth century, the Age of the Enlightenment ushered in a profound scientific and cultural transformation. This transformation altered the conditions under which religion was practised. In theology, pietism served to promote new scientific discoveries and theories. In addition, a secular culture developed; nothing was regarded as sacrosanct and secularists sought to prevent believers from worshipping God according to the dictates of their own consciences. A consequence of the French Revolution was that some of the spirit of the Enlightenment became reality-interference in religious affairs. This article will argue that by joining the Third Estate to form the National Constituent Assembly, the clergy negated one of the fundamental pillars of religious freedom: the separation of church and state. The Constituent Assembly forbade the taking of religious vows, regular religious life was restricted to houses, the state was involved to interfere with the selection of priests, and believers were harassed and imprisoned. In the words of Comby (1989:111), the French Revolution signified a "war with Christianity". In 1791, Pope Pius VI condemned the principles of the French Revolution and interference in ecclesiastical affairs by the state. It should be noted that the key role of the state is to respect and protect religious choice, not to mandate religious conformity.



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1 Research Associate, Research Institute for Theology and Religion, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa.

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