Religious Tolerance Is Nothing New in Britain

The Birmingham Post (England), February 8, 2006 | Go to article overview

Religious Tolerance Is Nothing New in Britain


Byline: CHRIS UPTON

Religious tolerance (or intolerance) is one of the burning issues of the day, and it hasn't really disappeared from the news since the Victorians fought tooth and nail over which version of Christianity should be taught in schools.

The other day I was watching a programme about the ruins of Phylae in the Lower Nile, the last bastion of the Egyptian gods in the 4th Century AD. The defaced images of Isis and Osiris, torn out by the all-conquering Christians, reminded me of the ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan that were blown up much more recently by the Taliban. Art and antiquity carry very little weight in situations like this.

But it has not always been thus. It always comes as a surprise to students to learn how tolerant the Romans were of native religion when they invaded Britain in AD 43. The Emperor Claudius and his successors were perfectly happy to stamp on political and economic independence, but on matters of religion they were pragmatic and permissive.

To our shores the Romans transported their own official gods, including the cult of the emperor himself, newly recognised as both divine and human. And the soldiers themselves - drawn from all corners of the Empire - brought their own deities as well. Exotic eastern cults like those of Isis and Mithras, whose symbolism was highly influential upon the way Christianity developed, easily took root in the cold British soil. But that did not mean that the Celtic gods packed their bags: they all coexisted.

The most celebrated example of that flexibility is to be seen in the city of Bath. To the Celts the miraculous appearance of hot springs from the ground gave the place an aura of sanctity, and they dedicated the waters to the goddess Sulis. …

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