John Locke (1632-1704): “A Letter Concerning Toleration” 1686

Drake 258

"Toleration" defined: prohibiting legal discrimination against those of another (usually minority and religious) belief.  Requiring equal treatment (usually of religious dissenters) under the law. Prohibiting the use of force against religious dissenters to either curtail their civil liberties or to change their beliefs.

It’s important to keep in mind that during the Enlightenment, the term is limited to this legal, civil realm.

Locke’s Highly Influential “Letter” Is Written As A Response To:

1) The bloody religious wars fought principally (but not always) between Catholics and Protestants (and Protestants vs. Protestants), sweeping Europe and Britain following the Reformation.  

            -- These are broadly referred to as the Wars Of Religion

            -- They include The Thirty Years War(1618–1648) which, until the WWI, was the bloodiest European war ever fought

            -- Most specifically, Locke addresses the English Civil War

2) Government (Parliamentary) imposition Anglican Uniformity (1558) in Restoration England:

            -- Church attendance is compulsory

            -- Baptists, Independents and Quakers were forced by the monarchy (state) to worship the Trinity

            -- These "dissenters" are in turn denied full civic rights and legal protection etc.

            -- Their property confiscated, jailed, beaten etc.

3) Larger, long running religious/Civic Persecution and The Inquisition throughout Europe

4) To a lesser extant, pogroms and persecution of Jews

           -- Recall that Jews were evicted from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492

           -- Following the crusades, throughout Europe Jews were often killed by the hundreds and even thousands in pogroms

           -- Even Martin Luther called for the burning of their synagogues and homes, the confiscation of their property, and rabbis to be put to death for leading worship
Über die Juden und Ihre Lügen

5) First hand experience: Locke writes as a political exile living in Amsterdam.

Toleration: Locke’s Premises:

1) When combined, religion and politics are essentially a means of waging “war”: a battle for domination/control/power thru ideology; also, religious leaders often use belief to ferment war.

2)  The priesthood had perverted Christianity with two false beliefs:

            1) Variation of worship is a sin

            2) Christians have a duty to correct deviation and impose uniformity through force.

Locke believed true Christians should “suffer one another to go to heaven everyone in his own way”. Christians could only use love and persuasion to change another’s beliefs.  This was a very radical idea in its time.

3)  Force cannot induce religious change; it simply cannot be accomplished because belief is, by nature, individual and subjective in nature:

-- Martyrs everywhere and for all time would die before changing their beliefs

-- Attempts at forced change only creates hypocrites or violence (which are essentially sinful)

-- Spiritual epistemology cannot be empirically proven; there is no objective criteria for determining which set of beliefs is “better” or more valid

            (NOTE: Relationship to tabula rasa “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”)

-- A National Church of any creed is the worst form of these truths; it creates the most violence, social discord and hypocrisy.

In Response, Locke Argued:

1)  Toleration: 
            -- Removes the cause of hostility: it is one thing to argue about belief, but actual hostility occurs when one group forces another group to abide by its religious beliefs.

            -- Breeds trust among dissenting believers: America is living proof of this.

           -- Causes religious proliferation (many churches rather than one) which decentralizes power and makes it impossible for a single religious to control the state

2) Codified separation of and state and church powers:

            -- The state’s responsibility is entirely and only secular: to protect the public good (peace and security)

“the Magistrate has no Power to impose by his Laws, the use of any Rites and Ceremonies in any Church, so neither he has any Power to forbid the use of such Rites....” (41)

            -- The church’s responsibility is entirely and only spiritual: to protect its members’ salvation

            -- Thus, the state can only involve itself in those religious matters threatening the public good.


Notably, despite Locke's then (and even now) radical defense of toleration, he excludes both atheists and Catholics, even though he explicitly protects Pagans, Muslims and Jews.  Why?

a) he believes that atheists are incapable of morality or, specifically, swearing oaths (such as swearing in, on a Bible, to a court case).   Without a belief in an afterlife, he argues, one cannot fear the ultimate consequence of immoral actions.  This is a question we'll return to later in the semester.

b) Catholics are excluded because Rome was then as much a political body (a state) as a religious institution:  the Pope was legally an emperor and Rome had a standing army, which then waged actual war against other states and so on; thus, Locke concludes, a person could not hold allegiance to two separate states.

Implications Locke Addresses Beyond Religion:

Here's what we're really interested in: how Locke sparks a new way of thinking about how we govern ourselves:

Locke's conclusions and solutions become the basic building blocks of the American Revolution, outlined in the Declaration of Independence, and in turn central to all secular democracies:

-- Man’s religious experience is individual and beyond the realm of state control (this was in direct contrast to all European nations); this implies the sovereign individual has certain abilities, rights and liberties previously only held by the state: individual liberty trumps state control (in many ways, but not completely).

-- Recent History showed that dissenters would violently resist through force of arms laws which conflict with their deepest beliefs, and they would do so “justly and rightly”. Subjects only attack governments when those governments fail to protect the public good.

-- Thus, the threat of civil war acts to keep governments in check. Governments should fear the will of the people, rather than vice versa, a radical idea in its time.

-- Thus, individuals can and should actively voice their criticism of the state.

-- Much of the above also implies that sovereign individuals are equal; one may not impose his or her beliefs upon another through force. Note how this again returns to the tabula rasa theory of knowledge in conjunction with Protestantism (vs. a traditional view of true knowledge being the domain of an elect, authoritarian few).

Influence on Voltaire:

Voltaire lives in England 1726-1729 as political exile; quickly learns to read, write, speak English.

Taken in by the British Empirical Philosophy of Locke, Hume and Newton, which he couples to French Analytical-Rationalist Philosophy of Descartes.

Witnesses the relatively peaceful coexistence of diverse religions under a secular, democratic (Parliamentary) state: the legacy of Locke-an Toleration.

Returns to France/Europe: essentially translates this confluence of influences into the common European Enlightenment thinking: man is free to choose his own personal destiny; only secular governments can guarantee this right.  This is the argument we find in Candide.