This framework reached the shores of North America most famously in Thomas Jefferson’s 1786 act establishing religious freedom in Virginia.
There Jefferson wrote, “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” This statement would have been literally nonsensical in the sixteenth century—religion was not considered the stuff of opinion at all (neither, for that matter, was science, but that is a different story).
To understand the difference between believing and not believing, you have to consider how Christians talked about unbelief five centuries ago, when Taylor says it was virtually impossible.
When you do this, you discover that atheism is nothing new, but its meaning has changed.
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal, an adherent of the Catholic subgroup known as Jansenists, found himself in the uncomfortable position of trying to remain a Catholic while opposing the pope.
When the Jansenists were required by Rome to repudiate the writings of their founder, Pascal’s response (published posthumously in 1670, eight years after his premature death) was to reframe belief itself as independent of authority: “So far from making it a rule to believe a thing because you have heard it, you ought to believe nothing without putting yourself into the position as if you had never heard it.
It is your own assent to yourself, and the constant voice of your own reason and not of others, that should make you believe.” From a very different perspective, the English empiricist philosopher John Locke completely rejected the notion that “opinion” and “belief” were two different things.
After first defining “probability” as likeliness to be true based upon arguments or proofs, Locke wrote in 1689, “The entertainment the mind gives this sort of propositions is called belief, assent, or opinion.” In this novel framework, “belief” is made accessible to all—it is made free—because belief is merely human judgment, without pretension to absolute or indubitable truth.
Aquinas, for instance, wrote that anyone who does not “believe in a God as we understand it in relation to the act of faith”—like Muslims and Jews—does not believe that God exists at all.
This strict framework, widely available in the philosophical and theological writings of the Middle Ages, was weaponized by the Protestant Reformation.