Research Impact


Practising religious toleration

10 December 2014


Professor Benjamin Kaplan's research on religious toleration, through his book Divided by Faith, is of great significance to understanding the possibilities for peaceful coexistence between people of different faiths in the post-9/11 world. It has been discussed by journalists and human rights organisations in North America, Britain and The Netherlands.

Research by Professor Kaplan (UCL History), based on his groundbreaking study of toleration in early modern Europe has challenged conventional beliefs amongst many political and social commentators by demonstrating that peaceful coexistence is possible in societies which do not embrace western notions of human rights, and where religion powerfully shapes the identities of individuals and communities.

In his book Divided by Faith, Professor Kaplan shows that religious toleration can take a variety of forms that are qualitatively different from one another, and may be quite unlike the forms prevailing in western countries today. He draws on his study to challenge the self-congratulatory narrative which many people in western countries - scholars and the general public alike - commonly tell themselves about a gradual, evolutionary 'rise of toleration' taking place over centuries, uniquely in their lands.

Divided by Faith has had a major impact on the vigorous and vital current debate in public discourse and in academic education about the possibilities for toleration in the contemporary world, including in highly religious societies across the globe. Since its publication in 2007, it has sold thousands of copies. Professor Kaplan's arguments have been further extended through extensive media coverage, with a feature article in the New York Times, and newspaper reviews in the Economist and the Dutch national daily NRC Handelsblad. He was invited to discuss his findings on a 2009 Channel 4 documentary series Christianity: A History, and has since lectured widely to public audiences.

Divided by Faith has had particular impact on the 'new atheism' debate on whether religious people can be truly tolerant. It formed the basis of an extended discussion in the pages of the Nation, for example, and a review in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant provoked dozens of reader comments on toleration today. The book has also been widely cited in sources ranging from Wikipedia to works by public intellectuals such as Ian Buruma.

At this moment, there may be no more important story than the one Europeans and Americans proudly tell themselves about the rise of religious toleration. So please take note of Benjamin J. Kaplan's argument that the story may be dangerously flawed. - Peter Steinfels, writing in the New York Times

The ideas and evidence presented in Divided by Faith have been used by human rights organisations to enhance their own understanding of religious toleration and to formulate a discourse designed to combat intolerance. Humanity in Action, an international human rights organisation, adopted it as required reading for its fellowship programmes, and it has been cited by Tolerance International.

The significance of the impact lies in the success of Professor Kaplan making people aware of clear historical evidence that pragmatic religious toleration is entirely possible even in a world that seems doomed to be torn apart by violently opposed religious fundamentalists. The research has also demonstrated by historical examples that toleration can take forms other than the ones dominant in contemporary western countries. The obvious implications for current political debates on religion, atheism and multiculturalism were recognised by the nomination of Divided by Faith for the Louisville Grawemeyer Award (2008), established to highlight ideas and works that "make the world a better place".

Funders included the Leverhulme Trust and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.