Montesquieu’s Selective Religious Intolerance in Of the Spirit of the Laws


Abstract: To what degree does Montesquieu advocate religious toleration in De l’Esprit des Lois? Scholars generally interpret Montesquieu in one of two ways: either as a proponent of religious toleration, or as hostile to revealed religion and seeking, so far as possible, to detach souls from religion. This article offers an alternative perspective. Rather than favoring or opposing religious toleration per se, Montesquieu judges a religion in the context of a particular state. Sometimes he views a given religion (e.g. Christianity) favorably, other times unfavorably. He thinks that there are instances when it is appropriate for a state to find non-violent ways to marginalize, weaken or remove a religion from a society. This makes him a proponent of what is called in this article ‘selective religious intolerance’. Montesquieu bases his judgments about the effects of a religion, and how the state ought to relate to it, on a deep consideration of how a particular religion fits into a society.