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Mendelssohn, Kant, and Religious Pluralism

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Two foremost spokesmen for the German Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant, continued the defence of the separation of church and state that was at the heart of the Enlightenment in general and advocated by such great predecessors as Roger Williams and John Locke and contemporaries such as James Madison. The difference between Mendelssohn and Kant on which I focus here is that while Mendelssohn argues against his critics that Judaism is the appropriate religion for a specific people without being appropriate for all, thus implying more generally that different religions are appropriate for groups with different histories, Kant argues first that Judaism is not a genuine religion at all, second that Christianity provides the most suitable symbols or aesthetic representations of the core truths of the religion of reason, and finally that in any case all historical religion will ultimately fade away in favour of the pure religion of reason. Kant’s assumptions are tendentious and his conclusion implausible; Mendelssohn’s view that religion and differences of religion are here to stay provides a far stronger basis for genuine toleration and a strict separation of church and state.


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Published Online: 2020-11-14
Published in Print: 2020-11-03

© 2020 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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