Notes and Comments: Religious Neutrality

The Review of Religions (English), February 1908 Issue (Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 93–94)

Reverend E. W. Thompson contributes an able article to the Harvest Field on the “Policy of Religious Neutrality in India.” It cannot be gainsaid that the policy of religious neutrality followed by the British Government is unprecedented in the previous history of the different Indian Governments, but Mr. Thompson is himself guilty of the bigotry which he condemns in others when he says that the Muhammadan ruler in India

“broke in pieces the idols with his mace, and burned the temples with fire, while he offered the idolater the alternative of death or the honour of Islam.”

It is strange that men living in India should be so ignorant of its history. There are still thousands of Hindu temples, hundreds of thousands of idols, and millions of Hindus belying the sweeping statement made by Mr. Thompson. A conqueror may have in the heat of the struggle or at the triumphant hour of conquest ordered the destruction of a temple or broken an idol, but that such measures were generally resorted to under established Muslim Government is more than history warrants. We do not even deny that there may have been spasmodic outbreaks of fanaticism, but to make it the rule and toleration the exception is decidedly the most absurd position which any sensible man can take.

The writer, however, candidly admits that Christianity was itself intolerant at the time. He writes:

“Christianity makes little better show in the beginning. Those Portuguese and the Spaniards who led the way to the East and were the first to set up a European imperium in India were hardly less cruel and unscrupulous in their methods than the Muhammadans [Muslims]. King Emanuel of Portugal gave instructions to his commanders that they were first to give opportunity to the priests to use the sword of the spirit on unbelievers, ‘and should they be so contumacious as not to accept this law of faith … in that case they should put them to fire and sword and carry on fierce war against them.’ And under Philip of Spain, the Inquisition, of infamous memory — an embodiment in religious propaganda of the principle of terrorism — was established at Goa. The Dutch made attendance at church compulsory in some of their settlements.

“It was an age of intolerance, and whether our countrymen would have escaped from the reproach of being bloody persecutors and oppressors in the cause of religion we cannot say.”

The proclamation of Her late Majesty [Queen Victoria] is given at the end as the charter of all Indian liberties. It runs as follows:

“Firmly relying ourselves on the truth of Christianity and acknowledging with gratitude the solace of religion, we disclaim alike the right and the desire to impose our convictions on any of our subjects. We declare it to be our royal will and pleasure that none be in any wise favoured, none molested or disquieted, by reason of their religious faith or observances; but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law; and we do strictly charge and enjoin all those who may be in authority under us that they abstain from all interference with the religious belief or worship of any of our subjects on pain of our highest displeasure.”