A Philosophical Essay on John Locke’s View of Religious Tolerance – Philosophy Essay

A Philosophical Essay on John Locke’s View of Religious Tolerance – Philosophy Essay
“There is a remark often quoted from the preface of ‘A Letter concerning Toleration’ which, while not by Locke, can be seen as catching something of his view: ‘Absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and important
liberty, is the thing that we stand in need of’ ”

(Yolton 74). In fact, 17th century Europe was in dire need of such liberty, the liberty that allowed people to be different without negative response: toleration. This essay will focus specifically on John Locke’s view of religious tolerance. In relation to this topic, this essay will answer the following question: Did Locke’s view on the issue of religious tolerance imply respect? In response to this question, this essay will demonstrate that although Locke’s policies show that he was a strong advocate of tolerance, this does not necessarily imply that he advocated respect. To do so, this essay will look at the context of the 17th century, focusing specifically on the religious problems of the time. This will be followed by a description of the major elements of Locke’s view of religious tolerance. Three arguments will then be given to demonstrate how Locke’s policies did not necessarily imply respect. An objection will then be offered as well as a reply to it.
Locke’s view of religious tolerance was developed during the 17th century, a time when religious intolerance plagued all European societies in some way. With the coming of the Reformation, not only did the continent become divided into various “competing religious camps”, but it was also the scene of numerous movements of religious persecution (Uzgalis). The Dutch Republic where Locke had resided for some time was considered a secular state, and it allowed for the coexistence of various religious sects within its borders. However, it was one of the few European countries that adopted this position. In France, the problem of religious intolerance was so widespread that it was now considered part of daily life. The only period during which these religious wars seemed to cease temporarily was at the time of the establishment of the Edict of Nantes. However, upon its revocation in October of 1685, persecution resumed once more and this time, it was the Huguenots who were forced to emigrate by the thousands. It is believed that although “Locke had long been concerned with the problem of toleration in the context of English politics”, the revocation of this essential edict may have been what prompted him to take immediate action and write his Letter concerning Toleration (Chappell 16).
Like Locke, people in England were not blind to the events that were slowly tearing apart France. England itself was deeply involved in battling the consequences of its own religious intolerances. For the English, these included not only the English Civil war but also the abolishment of the Anglican Church (Uzgalis). All of these occurrences had not come about by chance but were the result of a slowly changing mentality amongst the people. For centuries now, intellectuals had believed that the texts and scriptures left to them by the various religions of the world “presented, for the most part, a highly articulated, unified, body of wisdom” (Chappell 173). However, by Locke’s time, “this view of the textual tradition had become thoroughly implausible and was generally rejected” (Chappell 173). Most people were highly incredulous towards the concept of peaceful coexistence between peoples of different faiths. As more and more of the world’s religions broke off into various groups and sects, reconcilability became almost inconceivable. Hardly anyone could believe that “what Protestants in the various sects were saying all fitted together into some larger unity, let alone that what Protestants were saying fitted together with what Catholics were saying” (Chappell 173). Similarly, even the view that “the pre-Reformation Christian tradition was a unified body of truth” became an increasingly questioned notion as new interpretations of the scriptures were brought forth (Chappell 173). The resulting Lutheran Church’s attack upon the papacy only served to further shake the Christian faith. Within this context, it is obvious that Locke was not alone in seeing a need for religious tolerance. Along with contemporaries such as Hobbes, Rousseau and Voltaire, some of Locke’s predecessors had a strong influence upon his developing theories. John Owen, who was dean at Westminster during the time when Locke was a scholar there, has been credited with being one of the first to argue for toleration (Burnham). However, Owen’s views were nowhere near the extremist perspective which Milton would take only a decade later in stating that “ ‘It is not lawful for any power on earth to compel in matters of religion’ ” (Burnham). Though not as radical as Milton nor as loose as Owen, Locke’s philosophy would be shaped by both these men, along with numerous other important minds of his time.
Before examining Locke’s philosophy pertaining to religious tolerance, it is essential to define certain terms as Locke viewed them. In trying to explain the concept of toleration in his Letter concerning Toleration, Locke defines some of the more important concepts that he would be discussing such as true religion and the church. According to Locke, true religion is instituted for the “ ‘regulating of men’s lives according to the rules of virtue and piety’ ” (Yolton 77). Thus, Locke does not believe the church exists in order to gain “ ‘ecclesiastical dominion’ ” nor to exercise “ ‘compulsive force’ ” (Yolton 77). He defines the church itself as a “ ‘voluntary society of men joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshipping of God’ ” (Yolton 77). Thus, Locke did not believe the church needed priests, bishops or any such powers who derived their supposed authority from the apostles themselves. He said that nowhere in the Bible was there support for such needs, and finds support only for the features that he has included in his definition. Thus, according to Locke, membership to a church is completely voluntary and force cannot be used as a means of persuasion for such matters (Yolton 77).
After defining these main terms, Locke’s view of religious tolerance is presented as being the belief that “ ‘different churches stand in the same relation to each other: no one has any jurisdiction over any other, ‘every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous, or heretical’, but each should be tolerant of the other’ ” (Yolton 77). Therefore, Locke is “well aware there are several version of Christianity, each of which claims to be true religion” (John Locke on Faith and Reason). He also realizes this is true for most other religions and agrees that past attempts to solve religious differences with violence have not been successful and that enough blood has been shed. Tolerance is the policy that Locke advocates as a solution to these religious differences.
Within this policy, Locke makes a very specific distinction between the role of the state and the role of the church, which will be discussed in greater detail within the argumentative portion of this essay. Locke states that one’s religious concerns, especially when pertaining to the path to salvation, “ ‘are not within the domain of civil interests, and so lie outside the legitimate concern of the magistrate or the civil government’ ” (Uzgalis). Locke believes that there are two aspects of life in which the magistrate or government should have no say whatsoever: morality and religion (Yolton 75). In clearly dividing the secular and religious powers, Locke holds that force is not an option of the state in persuading people to hold certain religious beliefs.
Another important element of Locke’s philosophy is scepticism, specifically “scepticism about the possibility of religious knowledge” (Uzgalis). Locke believed that true religious knowledge was limited. He logically examined the role which faith plays in the development of our religious beliefs and the reliability of this type of proof. Locke believes that we cannot truly know most religious truths and where reason fails us, we use faith in order to justify our beliefs. However, because faith is not based on right or wrong answers and relies on the perceiver, there is no true test to determine whose faith is most reliable. Thus, Locke holds that “Where reason can supply an answer to a question, there are rational methods to resolve a dispute, thus no need to quarrel. Where faith alone is the way to answer it, no methods of reason can be persuasive. Hence there is no justification for using force” (John Locke on Faith and Reason). This position held by Locke can be seen to strongly reflect the view of fideism. For fideists, fideism represents a “system of philosophy or an attitude of mind, which, denying the power of unaided human reason to reach certitude, affirms that the fundamental act of human knowledge consists in an act of faith, and the supreme criterion of certitude is authority” (Sauvage). Although it is probable that Locke would have disagreed with the last aspect of this view, that of the power of authority, he did advocate many of the fideist principles. He doubted the certainty of human reason and recognized the role of faith in human knowledge. Also, “for some fideists, human reason cannot of itself reach certitude in regard to any truth whatever, for others, it cannot reach certitude in regard to the fundamental truths of metaphysics, morality, and religion” (Sauvage). Locke would have been classified within this second group of fideists and shared in their belief that in terms of religion and morality, no true knowledge can be had. As a result of this belief, Locke held that all of the different faiths should be equally tolerant of each other because they all hold the same type of knowledge, knowledge based on faith and not human knowledge.
Finally, the summa of all of Locke’s theories pertaining to religious tolerance was written by Locke in 1685 and entitled Epistola de Tolerentia or, after being translated from Latin to English: A Letter Concerning Toleration. Within this letter, Locke tries to identify areas of civil interest as being “ ‘life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, land, houses, furniture, and the like’ ” (Yolton 75). Therefore, the point of his letter was to limit the power of the state to these aspects only. Locke’s goal was to remove the state from matters relevant to morality, religion, and the salvation of the human soul. He believed no state official could have better knowledge about the true way to heaven than any other individual. And because of this, he writes within his Letter Concerning Toleration that “ ‘Nobody therefore, neither single persons, nor churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other, upon pretence of religion’ ” (Yolton 77).
The first argument that supports the claim that Locke’s policies were lacking in advocating the value of respect is found within Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. As Locke discusses the role of the church and the role of the state, rather than guarantee moral freedoms for the individual, all that Locke does is take power previously given to the state and grant it to the church. Locke defines our civil interest as being: life, liberty, health and property. It is only within these constraints that the state should hold an active role (Uzgalis). Unfortunately, for most people of Locke’s time, this division was not always clear in its “demarcation line” (Yolton 75). There was often confusion as to whether the state had any jurisdiction over “ such ‘indifferent things’ as the time and place of worship, public prayers, acts of thanksgiving, the appearance, posture, and dress in religious services” (Yolton 75). Because these disagreements existed, the church was often given the authority to determine which of these “indifferent things” fell under it’s jurisdiction and thus simply took the place of the state in overruling the general population.
In Locke’s Letter concerning Toleration, Locke still insists that “ ‘the magistrate has no power to enforce by law, either in his own church, or much less in another, the use of any rites or ceremonies whatsoever in the worship of God’ ” (Yolton 76). Yet, although his restrictions upon the magistrate are apparent, Locke makes no such apparent restrictions upon the church’s rights. The only restriction he does apply to the church is in its right to use force. Inconsistently however, Locke grants the church the power of expulsion. His letter reads, “ ‘the church does not need to keep a member who offends against the laws of the society’ ” (Yolton 77). This statement alone contradicts all that Locke’s philosophy stands for because in giving the church power of expulsion, Locke is not preaching tolerance but rather allowing intolerance to continue so long as violence is not involved. Locke also states “no civil injury or sanctions should be levied against a person who has been excommunicated by a church” (Yolton 77). However, whereas society should not sanction a person who had broken moral laws, Locke believes the church should have the power to sanction someone who has broken a law of society. Even if these beliefs were logical, they are in conflict with Locke’s call for tolerance.
Finally, Locke takes time in his letter to warn society that in the past, it has occurred that ecclesiastical authority had adapted itself to the “ ‘different whims or fancies of monarchs, changing their decrees, their form of worship, even their articles of faith to fit the current vogue’ ” (Yolton 77). However, even in admitting that church authority is not necessarily perfect and can commit acts that Locke condemns the state of being guilty of, he still believes that the church rather than the state should be given free range control of our moral and religious lives. This imposition upon society not only restricts our freedom and liberty but demonstrates that Locke believed the church and it’s authorities to be above private man and thus to deserve private man’s submission.
The second argument which supports the notion that in advocating tolerance, Locke did not necessarily demand respect, is that Locke’s definition of tolerance and society’s definition of respect in no way prove to be identical. “The English words ‘tolerate’, ‘toleration’, and ‘tolerance’ are derived from the Latin terms ‘tolerare’ and ‘tolerentia’ which imply enduring, suffering, bearing, and forbearance” (Fiala). One cannot ignore the fact that even in the language he used, Locke implied that there were some religions so inferior that they had to be “endured” or “suffered” with. One also cannot disregard the fact that “toleration is directed by an agent toward something perceived as negative” (Fiala). In asking for tolerance, Locke is in reality addressing mostly Christians and some Protestants and asking that they “put up with” these other religions that they viewed as inferior, a view that Locke did not dispute in the terminology that he used.
Also, Locke’s lack of emphasis upon respect can be seen in examining a broader definition of toleration. When one tolerates something “ (1) It holds a negative judgment about this thing; (2) Has the power to negate this thing; and (3) Deliberately refrains from negation” (Fiala). This type of “negation” can mean many things, including “expressions of condemnation, acts of avoidance, or violent attacks” (Fiala). Unfortunately, in Locke’s case, his main goal was to end the “violent attacks” and persecution of his time. Whether or not his pleas addressed ceasing acts of condemnation or acts of avoidance is doubtful. However, even if Locke had chosen to demand for those who were deemed “intolerable” to be shown the respect that they deserved, most of society would not have conformed. Within his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke points out that neither persuasion nor force can make someone adopt a moral value which they do not agree with. In this sense, Locke would not have asked society to show respect towards those individuals that they were willing to tolerate. Attempting to persuade people or using force to do so would have gone against one of his most fundamental beliefs. However, in ignoring the importance of the value of respect, Locke did nothing but end the persecution. The lives of the persecuted were made no better in that now they were simply shunned secretly rather than persecuted publicly.
The third argument that demonstrates that Locke’s philosophy was lacking in its emphasis on respect is that Locke made certain exemptions in his general call for tolerance. He has often been criticized for these exemptions because they contradict all that his doctrine represents. Tolerance is hypothetically supposed to be a principal that all of society adopts in order to reap its benefits. However, in Locke’s case, he believed that Jews, Papists and Atheists were not deserving of such tolerance. In making public these views, Locke seemed to be telling his society that tolerance is necessary, except when intolerance can be justified. With this example to guide them, what was stopping those living in Europe during the 17th century from simply justifying their intolerance in order to allow for its continuance? Within his Letter Concerning Toleration and during his public discussions concerning his views, Locke attempts to justify the reasoning behind his highly criticized exemptions. He makes it very clear that he “made the exception not for religious reasons but on grounds of state policy” (Burnham). However, in following with this logic, Locke is again inconsistent. He preached that the state should not have religious control over the people, especially in such matters as religious intolerance and persecution. However, he is now using the state to justify his own intolerant policies.
Locke continues to “give his general defence of religious toleration while continuing the anti-papist rhetoric of the country party which sought to exclude James II from the throne” (Uzgalis). Consequently, Locke explains that he must deny tolerance to the Papists or Roman Catholics because they “professed allegiance to a foreign prince” (Burnham). Thus, in such matters where Locke says the state should have no say, he himself uses the state as justification. In his philosophy he makes it clear that when the state makes laws contradicting moral code, a citizen should not be expected to abide by these laws. However, in pledging allegiance to a foreign prince, Papists are not breaking any moral codes but only state laws. Nonetheless, they are being religiously persecuted for their actions. Thus, the inconsistency in Locke’s beliefs and practices are made even more evident by this situation.
In terms of his intolerance towards Atheists, Locke believes that “ ‘the existence of the state depends upon a contract, and the obligation of the contract, as of all moral law, depends upon the divine will’ ” (Burnham). Therefore, because Atheists do not believe in a God, Locke assumes that they will be unable to abide by state laws seeing as how they have no moral laws guiding them. His basis for this justification is his own personal belief that Atheists hold no moral values and cannot be supported by any other concrete evidence. Thus, Locke reproaches the state for believing that any man except God and the church can lead us in our spiritual journey yet he takes it upon himself to deem which men God has awarded a moral conscience and which of those he has not.
Finally, Locke’s prejudice against Jews also reflects other philosophers of his time. During the 17th century, “Jews remained the despised religious minority of Europe” (Spielvogel 486). And while many intellectuals and philosophers publicly denounced persecution of these peoples, they “made no attempts to hide their hostility and ridiculed Jewish customs” (Spielvogel 486). This attitude towards Jews captures in essence Locke’s policy of tolerance. Though persecution was brought to an end, the hostility of people and their ridicule of other religions did not alter nor did Locke plead with his society to change this mentality. His exemption of certain religions show that although he believed all people deserved toleration, he still believed certain religions deserved tolerance more than others, thus defying his entire philosophy and its desire for equality and acceptance of all religious backgrounds.
The notion that Locke’s view of religious tolerance was flawed because it did not necessarily emphasize respect could be objected by the fact that it served to shape the future not only of Europe but also of the entire modern world. Although Locke’s ideas did not necessarily alter the lives of those within his society in the ways which he had hoped, Locke’s philosophy played a much more important role. Locke’s philosophy planted the first seeds of the dream for religious tolerance. His ideas “profoundly influenced the course of modern history, not only in the West, but, more recently, throughout the world” (Fiero 95). Although his philosophy was limited to certain religious groups and perhaps lacking in certain areas, it would help set the stage for a broader strategy of pluralism. His philosophy would come to shape many of the great minds that followed him. Americans especially would adapt Locke’s philosophy and apply it to the numerous intolerance problems that plagued their society. In fact, Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration would not only inspire intellectuals throughout the world but would be the model for both the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Locke would also profoundly influence the American Declaration of Independence, whose “principal author was Thomas Jefferson, who basically restated John Locke’s theory of revolution” (Spielvogel, 524). More specifically, many of the rights guaranteed within the Declaration of Independence were derived from “the natural rights philosophy of the eighteenth-century philosophes, which was popular among the American colonists” (Spielvogel 524). In this sense, Jefferson and other contributors to the declaration were strongly influenced by Locke’s view on the issue of religious tolerance and his emphasis on the separation of state and religion, which became an important section in this declaration. Therefore, whether or not the scope of Locke’s philosophy encompassed respect seems irrelevant when one considers the large impact Locke’s philosophy had on the world regardless of this.
In response to this objection, one cannot ignore the fact that although Locke’s followers benefited greatly from many aspects of his philosophy, they were also fated to repeat some of his same mistakes. In this case, the mistakes referred to are the allowance of exemptions to the general call for equality and justice by these philosophers. As shown in the third argument of this essay, Locke did not believe that everyone deserved tolerance and made certain exclusions to his policy. In the same manner, Thomas Jefferson did not believe that the rights he said were owed to the American people applied to Africans. As the leading Enlightenment thinker in America, “Thomas Jefferson believed Africans to be intellectually inferior, and he defended the institution of slavery as a ‘necessary evil’ ” (Fiero 118). Unfortunately, Jefferson was also not alone in his manner of thinking and his opinion was shared by most of his fellow philosophes. Just as Locke had previously done, “Jefferson provided an implicit rational for enslaving African people” (Fiero 118). Although his actions went against all that his policies advocated, Jefferson still believed he was justified in such actions and none of his fellow philosophes contradicted him. It became clear that “such thinkers were all too capable of finding rationalizations for policies in which political or social advantage for the privileged few overrode the abstract ideals of liberty and equality” (Fiero 118). Therefore, just as in Locke’s time, although certain positive changes resulted from the philosophies of Thomas Jefferson and his peers, “slavery persisted in the Western hemisphere (and elsewhere) for nearly a century beyond the Age of Enlightenment” (Fiero 118).
In conclusion, this essay has discussed the context of Locke’s philosophy by examining the religious intolerance present in his time. It has described and explained Locke’s view of religious tolerance in much greater depth. Three arguments were then provided and an objection was offered as well as a reply to it. Therefore, it has been shown that although Locke strongly emphasizes the need for tolerance within his philosophy, this philosophy does not necessarily encompass respect. Due to length and time restrictions of the essay, one aspect that was not covered was that other possible views pertaining to religious tolerance did exist during Locke’s time and may have been more diligent in advocating respect within European societies of the 17th century. An example of such a philosophy would be Rousseau’s view of religious tolerance. An issue that could relate to Locke’s concern with religious tolerance would be the more modern movement for equal rights for women. Both these groups ask of society to put aside past prejudices and be tolerant of something that it had previously considered intolerable. In both cases, this appeal for tolerance will benefit humanity not only in the present day but also for centuries to come.


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