Locke: A Letter Concerning Toleration

March 22, 2018

A Letter Concerning Toleration
John Locke
[1689]

In this influential essay Locke sets forth a vision of the relationship between civil and religious authorities. Its basic argument is that the two spheres are “absolutely separate and distinct”, or, in another place, “perfectly distinct and infinitely different”, and that in consequence it is a blunder to mix them. Churchmen ought to have no influence over civil affairs, and civil magistrates, likewise, no influence over religious affairs.

This sounds unremarkable to us because our society has been built along the lines proposed by Locke. This vision of his is our vision too, in practice, and usually in theory also. It is interesting, though, to look at the arguments Locke gives for his position.

Religion, he argues, benefits from separation from civil authority principally because civil magistrates have no special competence in religious matters. Care of souls has not been entrusted to them by God. “Neither the right nor the art of ruling does necessarily carry along with it the certain knowledge of other things, and least of all of true religion.”

The power wielded by civil authority is that of force, but the use of force in religion is absurd, for “God Himself will not save men against their wills”. Instead, religion should be the realm of argument and persuasion, for “the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself.” Indeed, he goes on to argue that it is actually not possible to believe something simply because of an obligation to do so; rather, one must be convinced in order to truly believe. To impose a religion, therefore, simply results in men lying: “A sweet religion, indeed, that obliges men to dissemble and tell lies, both to God and man, for the salvation of their souls!” We see the sense in this view, of course, though perhaps we also feel a tension with our knowledge that the sanction of civil authority for a particular view is itself, for many people, persuasive.

Instead of meddling in religion, civil authorities should tend to their principal duties, which for Locke are the provision of security of each man’s private possessions, preserving the peace, riches, and public commodities of the whole people, and providing defence against foreign invasion. Since the state does not care for the health or the material well-being of its citizens, if the citizens themselves do not care for them, it should likewise not concern itself with their souls. This is an argument that will be more persuasive to conservatives than to liberals, the latter being less likely to grant the premise of the analogy.

The complementary principle to the ousting of civil authority from religious affairs is the ousting of religious authorities from civil affairs. After all, the two realms are “infinitely different”. Religious authorities should therefore concern themselves with religious matters. And who are religious authorities? Locke’s answer is “churches”. And what is a church? Locke’s answer is as follows:

“A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshiping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of souls.”

This answer poses certain difficulties. How is it that these voluntary societies of men who have joined themselves together of their own accord have also had religious authority conferred upon them? Is it simply because they claimed such authority for themselves? If so, what prevents the civil authority from likewise claiming such authority for itself? A competent religious authority is presumably one who teaches truths about religion and religious practices, but it is hard to see how these voluntary societies, simply as such, become competent to know such truths. And, as it turns out, Locke is aware of this problem and has an answer: no church really knows truths about religion. “Every church is orthodox to itself” is all that can be said. This is a fatal admission for Locke, since it collapses the all-important distinction he wants to maintain between religious and civil authorities.

Even if genuine religious authority existed, however, the neat separation he would like to make between civil and religious affairs is complicated by the fact that they are not actually separable, and this is perhaps clearest in the realm of morality, which bears both on acts (having, in his scheme, civil consequences) and conscience (having, in his scheme, religious import). He does grapple with this problem. His leading principle is a sound one: “Obedience is due, in the first place, to God and, afterwards, to the laws.” (Indeed, this, and not the relativity of religious truth, is the proper rationale for religious toleration.) If, therefore, a civil law imposes upon the conscience of a citizen, he should not obey the law, but he should also accept the punishment prescribed by law. If, however, the law in question pertains to matters that do not properly lie within the sphere of competence of the civil authority, then the citizen ought to protest against the law and refuse to submit. In cases of irresolvable conflict, God alone can judge between the magistrate and the subject. But we must ask: if conscience resides in the realm of religious authority, what are these putative civil laws which impose upon the conscience without thereby also straying outside their sphere of civil competence?

A peculiarity of his system is that, for him, religion is individualistic and purely voluntary. One inherits nothing from others and belongs to no community that precedes one’s voluntary association with it:

“Nobody is born a member of any church… [otherwise] everyone would hold his faith by the same tenure he does his lands, than which nothing can be imagined more absurd.”

(But is it not also absurd to inherit lands?)

The motive underlying the scheme Locke outlines in his essay is the promotion of religious toleration. There is an important sense in which we owe a debt to Locke for making these arguments. After religiously-implicated wars had racked European societies it was important to Locke to lower the stakes of civil government, and removing religion from its sphere of influence was an effective strategy from which, in real and tangible ways, we have benefited. This needn’t prevent our noting the weaknesses in his arguments, nor stop us from thinking about what we have lost as the price of what we have gained, but most of us, most of the time, are probably glad to live in a society where religious toleration is valued. It is perhaps especially true as governments have become more self-consciously secular that the state’s commitment, at least theoretically, to religious toleration has been, so to speak, a saving grace for religious citizens.

The confidence we can have in this at-least-theoretical commitment to religious tolerance is not, however, unbounded, and this is illustrated already by Locke, who concludes his robust defence of religious tolerance by naming a few religious groups that ought not to be tolerated — namely, Catholics and atheists, the former because they “deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince” (that is, the Pope) and the latter because the denial of God’s existence “dissolves all”.

**

As I said at the top, Locke’s scheme for how politics and religion ought to relate is familiar to us because it is the blueprint for our own society’s approach to such matters. I can appreciate his motives, though it is evident that his system tries to make neat something that is in fact messy. His conception of what kind of thing a religion is, akin to a gentleman’s dinner club, is especially weak and certainly at odds with the self-understanding of most religions. Indeed, insofar as his proposal relies on the premise that there is no such thing as a genuine religious authority it could never be acceptable to a Catholic, nor to many other religious groups either, even if we are, for the sake of social harmony, willing to play along for now. Heaven, we are confident, will not be governed along Lockean lines.

4 Responses to “Locke: A Letter Concerning Toleration”

  1. dksgf Says:

    “civil authorities should tend to their principal duties, which for Locke are the provision of security of each man’s private possessions, preserving the peace, riches, and public commodities of the whole people, and providing defence against foreign invasion.”

    #MAGA


  2. […] A recent balanced and thoughtful review of Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration” reminded me why I find Locke’s […]

  3. dksgf Says:

    The comment to end all comments?

  4. cburrell Says:

    I had to look up the meaning of MAGA.


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