Bryan Caplan  

Hard Questions About the Protestant Reformation

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Today is the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther published his 95 Theses precisely half a millennium ago.  It's tempting for libertarians to celebrate this day as a great victory for freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but the Reformation's main fruit was over a century of horrifying warfare.  The Thirty Years' War, with a death toll around eight million, is the best known.  The French Wars of Religion claimed yet another three million lives.  These numbers are even more gruesome when you remember that Europe's population was far lower back then: For 1500 AD, Angus Maddison assigns twelve million to Germany and fifteen million to France. 

For what did these millions die?  The standard story, as far as I can tell, is that the Reformation helped free Christianity from the "corruption" of the Papacy.  Priests stopped scalping tickets to heaven and supporting their mistresses with the proceeds.  Is that supposed to be worth millions of lives?  Even if you think that some specific version of Protestantism is the correct religion, earnest marginal thinking is in order.  How much closer to salvation is mankind thanks to all the extra earthly suffering the Reformation wrought?

Faced with these sanguinary facts, libertarians can obviously point out that if all Christendom believed in freedom of speech and religion, each and every bloodbath would have been averted.  Undeniable, but this dodges the hard question: What should the initially dominant Catholic Church have done differently?  We can easily imagine that if Catholics had been less repressive, the cycle of violence would have been contained.  Yet that's far from clear: If you read Luther or Calvin, they sure sound like unilaterally violent fundamentalists.  And what if the Catholic Church had tried to swiftly and decisively crush the Reformation in the cradle, instead of mixing repression with negotiation and reform?  Even if cradle-crushing had failed, it's hard to believe the ensuing violence have been worse than what happened.

The strongest case for the Reformation is simply that there was no other path to our modern, tolerant world.  European civilization had two choices: Either stay mired in the grip of medieval superstition and tyranny forever; or endure a century-long bloodbath.  But this story is grossly overconfident.  Despite the Protestant challenge, the Catholic Church utterly prevailed in countries like France, Spain, and Italy.  In the 20th-century, though, it was defeated not by rival religions, but by French, Spanish, and Italian apathy.  And you can't help but notice: this defeat by apathy was almost perfectly bloodless.  If you object, "None of that could have happened without the Reformation," I say you underestimate the power of apathy.

HT: My sons Aidan and Tristan for bringing some key historical facts to my attention.


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Steve Bacharach writes:

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Dan H. writes:

" The direct political influence of the Reformation effected less than has been supposed. Most States were strong enough to control it. Some, by intense exertion, shut out the pouring flood. Others, with consummate skill, diverted it to their own uses. The Polish Government alone at that time left it to its course. Scotland was the only kingdom in which the Reformation triumphed over the resistance of the State; and Ireland was the only instance where it failed, in spite of Government support. But in almost every other case, both the princes that spread their canvas to the gale and those that faced it, employed the zeal, the alarm, the passions it aroused as instruments for the increase of power. Nations eagerly invested their rulers with every prerogative needed to preserve their faith, and all the care to keep Church and State asunder, and to prevent the confusion of their powers, which had been the work of ages, was renounced in the intensity of the crisis. Atrocious deeds were done, in which religious passion was often the instrument, but policy was the motive.

Fanaticism displays itself in the masses, but the masses were rarely fanaticised, and the crimes ascribed to it were commonly due to the calculations of dispassionate politicians. When the King of France undertook to kill all the Protestants, he was obliged to do it by his own agents. It was nowhere the spontaneous act of the population, and in many towns and in entire provinces the magistrates refused to obey. The motive of the Court was so far from mere fanaticism that the Queen immediately challenged Elizabeth to do the like to the English Catholics. Francis I. and Henry II. sent nearly a hundred Huguenots to the stake, but they were cordial and assiduous promoters of the Protestant religion in Germany. Sir Nicholas Bacon was one of the ministers who suppressed the mass in England. Yet when the Huguenot refugees came over he liked them so little that he reminded Parliament of the summary way in which Henry V. at Agincourt dealt with the Frenchmen who fell into his hands. John Knox thought that every Catholic in Scotland ought to be put to death, and no man ever had disciples of a sterner or more relentless temper. But his counsel was not followed.

All through the religious conflict policy kept the upper hand. When the last of the Reformers died, religion, instead of emancipating the nations, had become an excuse for the criminal art of despots. Calvin preached and Bellarmine lectured, but Machiavelli reigned."

http://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/acton-the-history-of-freedom-in-christianity

Ghost writes:

A good thought-provoking piece.

One thought it provokes is that the "apathy" that sidelined the Catholic supremacy in Southern Europe in the 20th century was only made possible by the importation of modern notions of liberalism, individualism and economic modernisation from the Protestant North.

Apathy alone had plenty of time to work its magic in Southern Europe after 1517, or 1648 - yet it didn't happen. It happened only when the examples from the North became too salient to be ignored.

So one is forced back to the Max Weber question - was Protestantism central to these developments in Northern Europe?...

Oliver Sherouse writes:

You underestimate the theological importance of the Reformation. For Protestants (I'm a paid-up Lutheran) the difference between pre-reformation official doctrine and Lutheran doctrine isn't between 50% correct and 75% correct, it's the difference between Christian and not-Christian. Specifically, justification by faith is the core doctrine of Christianity, and the Roman church had anathematized it.

So is it worth it? Remembering that we're working on a time scale of eternity, the value of the re-establishment of the Gospel pays infinite returns so, obviously, yes.

Obviously none of that applies if you're not a Protestant, but your (throwaway?) argument that even Protestants shouldn't find the Reformation positive on a CBA analysis doesn't work.

John Moser writes:

But what was it about the modern age that produced apathy towards religion? I'd argue that it was the end result of a process that began with Catholicism losing its monopoly on truth.

John Hall writes:

@John Moser The welfare state is a significant alternative to religious charity.

Daniel Lyons writes:

There's also a realpolitik dimension to the conflict. Cardinal Richelieu did everything he could to keep the Thirty Years War going in order to keep Germany neutralized and reduce the risk to France. Religious strife was largely just the tool he used to do so. Absent the Reformation, he would have found a different tool. Some amount of bloodshed was inevitable.

Sarah Skwire writes:

While I agree with you that the world would be a better and more peaceful place for the application of marginal thinking to issues of religion, that's certainly not the way it worked in the early modern era. To dismiss the whole Reformation project as a lame failure to engage in marginal thinking is a mistake, and one that fails to understand the importance the ideas that were being debated had in their time. The Reformation--for the people living through it and for many believers today--was not a debate between the "slightly more correct" and the "slightly less correct." It wasn't even about scalping tickets to heaven or about licentious priests (though certainly they were frequently mentioned as evidence of the problems with the Church of the time.) The Reformation project was a battle between truth and error that would determine whether you spent eternity in heaven or burning in hell. And given that, at the time, it was unthinkable that the sovereign would not have the power to determine the religious practices (and thus the state of the soul) of his subjects, it was vitally important that one's sovereign choose truth over error.

People didn't die fighting about these matters because they were too stubborn to debate. They died because many of them thought it would be preferable to die fighting for their version of the truth than go to hell for quietly accepting falsehood. You can dislike it, and you can wish they had behaved in a more Enlightenment fashion, but that's not going to get you closer to understanding what was happening.

I also think you underrate the importance for the Reformation push to put Scripture into the language of the people and into the hands of the people. From that push, we rapidly move to great leaps in freedoms of the press and of expression, and to a more democratized education, a more literate populace, and the vibrant exchange of ideas in writing across national boarders.

Mark writes:

Perhaps just to play devil's advocate, I'll question the inevitablility of the Reformation (or the idea that it was 'a long time coming' rather than the result of huge policy failures during the early 16th century).

Pope Leo X, who ironically was likely irreligious, played a big role in causing the Reformation by amping up the sale of indulgences to cover the church's abysmal finances, caused both by his and his predecessors' grotesque financial mismanagement. Additionally, Clement and his cousin (the later Pope Clement VII) refused to address the early Reformation largely for political reasons. For example, Clement refused to annul Henry VIII's marriage not for doctrinal reasons, but because Henry was married to the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, who Clement was afraid to offend.

These two Popes, it is worth noting, were Medici, and used the papacy unabashedly to further Medici interests, and beyond just the same old corruption, actually badly exacerbated corruption in the Church.

It is possible that had the prelates just taken modest efforts to eschew the aspiration for temporal power and better handle their finances (the Church had considerable incomes from many lands across Europe, it had no need for simony whatsoever) to reduce the incentives for corruption, it is possible the revolts of Luther and Calvin wouldn't have been so lasting.

In any case, I'll end by adding that Friedrich Nietzsche thought the principle ideological impact of the Reformation was to demolish the laxity of Renaissance humanism and induce fanaticism on both sides, which was why he thoroughly despised Martin Luther.

There had been many reformations going back centuries and the Catholic Church came out of them much the better. Erasmus ignited the one we celebrate and warned people that an open break with the church would cause massive bloodshed. He encouraged people to practice their faith at home and give lip service to the church. And they did.

But when Luther made his stand the church had gained too much political power and refused to reform as it had in the past. Very sad. The Inquisition and the religious wars were the church trying to murder all Protestants through the power of the state. But that was also a period of divine right of kings where every monarch took offense at the slightest disagreement and felt the right to kill anyone they didn't like. In the Netherlands the King of Spain said he would rather rule over trees and rocks than have one Protestant in his kingdom and he almost succeeded.

The real lesson of the Reformation is the danger of a Church/State alliance. The Reformation was good for the Catholic church because it got rid of a lot of false teaching and corruption.

The principles of capitalism came from Catholic theologians at the University of Salamanca, Spain at the same time as the Reformation. They were probably influenced by the freedom of thought of the Reformers. But only Protestant nations embraced those principles, the Dutch Republic first and then England. The Dutch caused the inflection in the hockey stick of per capita GDP growth. Spain never followed and France followed only in the 19th century.

The Catholic Church rejected the free market wisdom of its greatest scholars at Salamanca and helped keep most of Europe in poverty for centuries. Without the Reformation it's likely that those principles would have died in Salamanca and we would still be living in 16th century poverty and starvation.

Is that supposed to be worth millions of lives?

What you're asking is how much is freedom worth?

Nathan Smith writes:

I'm not sure you can blame the Thirty Years War and the Wars of Religion on the Protestant Reformation in particular, or religious fanaticism in general. Dynastic rivalries were as important as religion in these wars; note, for example, that in the Thirty Years War, Catholic France was pretty consistently allied to the German Protestants because they wanted to curtail Hapsburg power. There were dynastic wars throughout the late Middle Ages and long after it, ending only when dynasties ceased to matter after World War I. Maybe the Protestant Reformation made them a bit nastier, but certainly it's not fair to attribute the whole death toll to Protestantism.

Pajser writes:

The question is asked from point of view of atheist, for whom it is not important which religion is dominant, but freedom of speech is somehow important, however, it is questionable whether it is more important than 8 millions lives. But from that point of view, religion wouldn't exist and there would be no war.

Convinced Catholics and Protestants fought for more important thing: for church of God and against Satanic lie. And from their point of view, if they are consistent, 8 millions, or even billions of deaths should be less important than eternal salvation of single soul due to their ability to live in right religion.

Casey Bowman writes:

It is neither the Magisterial Reformation nor the Counter-Reformation which deserves the most appreciation and remembrance for the advancement of freedom. It is rather the Radical Reformation, to use George Hunston William's terms, which moved Europe forward most. I see great parallels in the Anabaptist movement from which we can learn lessons today. If nothing else, I suspect their strong influence upon the Levellers, but there is a lot else. We owe them a lot, particularly the more peaceful, rational, and civil elements, such as the Adamites and the Socinians.

Akhenaten reduced the parasitic (State-subsidized) priestly class with monotheism. Josiah reduced the parasitic (State-subsidized) priestly class with monotheism (Chronicles 34): "14 When they were bringing out the money which had been brought into the house of the LORD, Hilkiah the priest found the book of the law of the LORD given by Moses. 15Hilkiah responded and said to Shaphan the scribe, 'I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD'."
Pretty convenient discovery, no?
Luther kept the revenues to the salvation industry in Germany.

Juan Manuel Pérez Porrúa writes:

Also consider that at this time monarchs all over Europe were consolidating their power and taking it away from local and corporate authories inherited from the middle ages, establishing more absolute monarchies, It was not all about the Reformation.

Jason Brennan writes:

So far, most of the objections to Caplan's thesis take the form of "Given that the people believed [evil stuff] and given that [evil behaviors were common back then], of course they're going to [do more evil stuff]."

Suddenly everyone's a moral relativist.

1dullgeek writes:

Jason,

Does giving the explanation of *why* people did those things mean that they believe in relative morals?

I might think X is always wrong. But I also recognize that others disagree and may see times when X is fine. Does my acknowledging that they disagree with me make me a moral relativist?

If so, that's confusing because there seems to be a difference between believing that something is an objective truth and understanding that others disagree.

Or am I completely missing the joke?

Adam writes:

Religion the cause of division? Division and war are a human tribalist trait. Anthropologists and historians have no problem finding war and division wherever they turn their serious attention. Europe had constant wars before and after the reformation.

Consider European history back to the conquests and fall of the Roman Empire. There were huge Europeans migrations and tribals wars during the first millennium. Just a small example--the Celts get mashed, bashed and pushed from their origins in the Alps to Ireland. Violence and war push global trade off the Silk Road to sea routes around Africa and to the new world.

The Reconquest of Spain was filled with terrible political violence, often on the pretext of religion. It's not the religious divisions that endure. It's the political divisions-- Catalonia's split to independence is all about its pre-Roman language and tribal roots. Catalonia and Basque country are hardly alone with their deep tribal split--look at the history of the English isles, Gaul, the Italian peninsula and the German heartland--filled with war and division, particularly in the 15th century.

The point? Tribal leaders love division and warfare. It's a rare and not a secular voice that cries, "love thy neighbor as thyself."

Adam writes:

Religion the cause of division? Division and war are a human, tribal trait. Anthropologists and historians have no problem finding war and division wherever they turn their serious attention.

Europe had constant wars and political division before and after the Reformation. Religion played a role. But tribalism runs deeper and is more enduring.

Consider European history back to the conquests and fall of the Roman Empire. There were huge Europeans migrations and tribals wars during the first millennium. Just a small example--the Celts get mashed, bashed and pushed from their origins in the Alps to Ireland. Violence and war push global trade off the Silk Road to sea routes around Africa and to the new world.

The Reconquest of Spain was filled with terrible political violence, often on the pretext of religion. It's not the religious divisions that endure. It's the political divisions-- Catalonia's split to independence is all about its pre-Roman language and tribal roots. Catalonia and Basque country are hardly alone with their deep tribal split--look at the history of the English isles, Gaul, the Italian peninsula and the German heartland--filled with war and division, particularly in the 15th century.

The point? Tribal leaders love division and warfare. It's a rare and not a secular voice that cries, "love thy neighbor as thyself."

Mercury writes:

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Robert J. Peterson writes:

The Reformation did more than just rearrange religion and national boundaries. It led to the creation of the global financial system.

Luther's Reformation led to John Calvin. Prior to Calvin, under Canonical law, Christians were forbidden from charging interest on a loan. Of course, this was a prohibition honored more in the breach than in the observation (i.e., the Lombards, the Medici), but the social and legal stigma still existed -- particularly after Jewish financiers (which were excluded from the Canonical prohibitions, since they weren't Christians) were expelled from various places (England in 1290, Spain in 1492, Portugal in 1496). Calvin reinterpreted the Biblical injunction against "usury" to be a prohibition on charging excess interest on loans to the poor. Since this gave religious support to what everyone already wanted to do, it was widely accepted and legal protections for money lending arose in Switzerland.

And Zurich is still a global financial center 450 years later.

Also, the Reformation led to the Counter-Reformation. Protestant and Jewish financiers in Belgium, Portugal, France, etc. were driven out of these countries by Spanish invaders. Many fled to Protestant London and Amsterdam. They made this move at a critical point in history, when both the Dutch and the English decided to engage in the colonization game, but didn't want to spend royal funds in doing so. This led to the Dutch East Indies Company and the English East Indies Company -- two of the first "joint-stock" companies where capital, profits and risk were shared among shareholders. Pulling these enterprises off required the financing infrastructure that these refugee Jewish and Protestant financiers were able to bring to the table.

And London and Amsterdam both remain financial centers today, more than 400 years later. (Along with Hong Kong, which was ported over by the British.)

So, yeah. Without the Reformation, the wars wouldn't have been so nasty. But also no modern corporations, no modern finance, possibly no Industrial Revolution and no modern capitalism.

A Country Farmer writes:

Apathy and increasing average wealth: also the least violent path to voluntaryism.

Steve F writes:

Death tolls are almost certainly significantly inflated (but your point stands regardless).

American Protestantism was a big, big deal regarding reforming Christianity and adopting Enlightenment thought.

It may or may not be relevant that libertarianism isn't non-violent; it is instead non-initiation-of-violence.

Thomas Sewell writes:

So let's recast this using the obvious modern parallel:

Radical (not all, just the part which wants to take over the rest of us) Islam vs. the rest of us.

Sure, they're harsh and by comparison to most western countries not very liberal in the classical freedom-loving/civil-rights granting sense, but is imposition of extreme Islamic beliefs and Sharia law so bad that we're willing to continue a war across much of the world in order to fight against it?

How many are willing to advocate for not fighting them and just accepting putting women's rights back a little bit and so on, i.e. just allowing them to win out right away and save us all the future bloodshed, war and terrorism?

Eventually, everyone's religious descendants may succumb to apathy, after all.

I'm not willing to just turn the world over to them just because they're willing to use violence to attempt to convert people's and nations, but it's a serious question for those who think the Protestants should've just dropped their principles and waited for Catholic apathy.

Personally, some ideals are worth fighting for and giving some people what they want instead of fighting them is more likely to result in them (and others) wanting you to give them more, rather than them going away satisfied forever. When you pay the Danegeld, it may be better in the short run, but you rarely get rid of the Dane that way.

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