Can, anyone, please, give an overview of how the humanism came about in Europe, precisely, the main prerequisites and reasons for its origin.

Given the ambiguity of the very term "humanism", I will define here what I exactly mean by this word: I explicitly mean the tolerance toward others' religious views, the refusal from the practice of ending other human's life just because he either has or has chosen to turn to another faith, which is not your faith.

  • What do you mean by prerequisites? Sep 18 '12 at 11:43
  • I dunno. By USA standards, most European countries with state religons still aren't there. Then again, a lot of Christians in the USA probably sound pretty dang intolerant to your typical European. Perhaps we all have a lot more work to do?
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 18 '12 at 13:40
  • @Luke - Perhaps, it's a poor choice of words (I am not a native English speaker). By prerequisites I meant some obvious reasons that gave rise to humanism in Europe.
    – brilliant
    Sep 18 '12 at 13:53
  • @T.E.D.- Yes, but still there was a time when you would be burned at the stake for not adhering to a certain system of beliefs, and now that is already in the past - I mean, nobody will be killing you now - at least by the law - for say not being a Catholic or a Lutheran or something else.
    – brilliant
    Sep 18 '12 at 13:57
  • 2
    What you mean is not humanism at any rate. One can call it tolerance or pluralism.
    – Anixx
    Sep 18 '12 at 14:40

Europe gained limited religious tolerance by fire blood murder starvation war and rape.

The guarantee of religious tolerance is cuius regio eius religio: that the nature of the person of the sovereign dictates the religion of the sovereign's realm. Between princes, religious toleration was obligatory due to violence.

Firstly in the Peace of Augsburg (1555), then in the Peace of Westphalia (1648) which guaranteed this principle.

The violence of princes to one another, and the recognition amongst the ruling classes of Europe that continued contestation only opened the way for radical peasants movements and anabaptism, ensured at the end that the religion of princes would be subject to toleration.

Generalised toleration amongst the population came far later, in capitalism, but the link between humanism which brought forth the issue of religious toleration between princes due to the choice of some princes to contest the power of the Church of Rome outside of that Church and find their own salvation, is the link between humanism and toleration. A link forged in the large scale depopulation by violence of many areas of Europe.

(sources: Wikipedia articles on the principle nouns, Blisset's Q, Engels' GPW)


I'm not even attempting to answer the whole question, just want to give example of a country which managed to avoid the bloody religious wars of Germany or France ( other answer implies that it was the only way to reach religious tolerance ). That country was Polish - Lithuanian Commonwealth, which spanned a large chunk of Europe, and was mostly Catholic, with its kings being exclusively Catholic.

The first codified example of tolerance in the kingdom of Poland was the Statue of Kalisz, announced in 1264. It not only guaranteed Jews the freedom to practice their religion, it actually went much further – one sample paragraph:

Should a Jew be taken to court, not only a Christian must testify against him, but also a Jew, in order for the case to be considered valid.

The statue was later confirmed by kings of Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth.

In the next century, tolerance guarantees were given to Orthodox Christians, Armenians, and Muslim Tatars.

In 1525 Polish king agreed to a plan of establishing formerly Catholic Duchy of Prussia as his Lutheran fief.

In the XVI century protestant ideas gained supporters in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth proper. As a result in 1573 Polish parliament passed Warsaw Confederation act, which gave the protestant denominations the same rights as Catholics. From now on, every newly elected Polish king had to accept those provisions.

So, Poland avoided religious wars of Germany. Another result was that Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth became attractive destination for “heretics” from other countries, primarily from Germany. It also harbored the biggest Jewish population in the world, and the most orthodox versions of Judaism developed there.

I don't find any particular reason for the direction that Poland (it's kings, gentry and clergy) went regarding religious tolerance, except from pure pragmatism.

But it's just an example country, perhaps someone with more knowledge will comment on the situation in Ottoman Empire and other European states.


Wikipedia has an excellent overview of the history of religious tolerance from antiquity to the modern day. (Unfortunately, it seems to have been ham-handedly shoe-horned into the entry for Tolerance, which is a political science thing unto itself. Gotta love the never-ending Wiki edit wars...)

Here is another, under the heading of "Christian Debate on Persecution and Toleration." It's got a lot of other links on persecution and tolerance with regards to European history.

  • Thanks for these links, and thank you also for your comments on Aixx's answer. You seem to know a lot of what I don't know regarding this topic. I haven't read those links yet. So, if they are not mentioned in there, can you then, please, tell who are those 3 persons that you mentioned in this sentence: "... note that it was an Anglican theologian and a Baptist minister and a Catholic monarch who were the first to codify complete freedom of religion into law"?
    – brilliant
    Sep 20 '12 at 6:49
  • Roger Williams, who was an Anglican theologian who believed in the separation of Church and State, John Clarke, a Baptist minister from a time when Baptists were persecuted, who sought freedom to worship as he chose, and Charles II, the Catholic King of England who was in a very precarious position after the Restoration, outnumbered by the Anglicans and outgunned by the Dissenters, neither of whom liked Catholics. An experiment in complete freedom of religion - The Rhode Island Charter - appealed to all three men. Sep 21 '12 at 12:20

What you mean is not humanism by any definition. One can call it tolerance or pluralism.

In ancient, polytheistic world it was quite common: people tended to believe that all deities worshiped by other peoples also existed. They were seen either as local deities or just other names for the already known deities.

It was the spread of Abrahamic religions that required the people to struggle for the glory of a single god and to punish those who diverged from that line.

So as far as influence of Christianity reduced, the tolerance returned back, naturally.

  • 1
    +1. There are even hints of this in the early books of the Bible itself. Other gods are mentioned, and rather than claiming the other gods don't exist, the Hebrew Bible mostly just claims theirs is jealous and doesn't like them (Jews) patronizing the other ones.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 18 '12 at 15:55
  • 1
    Can you, please, elaborate on the very last sentence in your answer: ("So as far as influence of Christianity reduced, the tolerance returned back"), because, since my question is about Europe, it's seems that the very answer to my question starts from that sentence. And thanks for pointing out to the wrong choice of words in the title - I will change "humanism" to "tolerance"
    – brilliant
    Sep 18 '12 at 23:15
  • 1
    -1 - Wars of religion and codified religious intolerance certainly were not the exclusive domain of the Abrahamic religions - Everyone from Sargon to Akhenaten to Nero played that game. Also, note that it was an Anglican theologian and a Baptist minister and a Catholic monarch who were the first to codify complete freedom of religion into law, abnegating your last sentence. Sep 19 '12 at 20:36
  • 1
    @RI Swamp Yankee, Roman Empire prosecuted Christians exactly for that reason that the Christians were intolerant to other religions. Still by Edict of Toleration of 311 fordham.edu/halsall/source/edict-milan.asp they were allowed to practice their religion as well. So your assumption that the first law for religious tolerance was by some Christians is completely wrong.
    – Anixx
    Sep 19 '12 at 21:17
  • 1
    @Anixx - That merely legalized Christianity, and even then, heretics were largely fair game. The Rhode Island charter guaranteed toleration for all faiths, including atheism. (Try being an Atheist in ancient Rome and keep clear of the crucifix or the colliseum... ) Sep 20 '12 at 3:24

Not sure about reference, but I have read that Frederick II of Prussia was one of the first rulers who believed in religious tolerance.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.