Locke’s arguments for limiting the extension of toleration

John Locke, a prominent and religiously-devout man was a witness to a problematic society full of bloodshed, glory and the attainment or defence, depending upon one’s position within society, of political and religious power. The question at hand, being of Locke’s limitation of toleration is an important one to consider, because it covers a high level of relevance within today’s society, and it could be argued in some ways more relevant than at the time of Locke himself. This is due to the vast variety of religions, races and morals we live among in our times.

When toleration is spoken, we must understand that it is being discussed in the sense of conceptual analysis; that is to say, what does Locke mean when he discusses toleration and to what extent does he consider that toleration to be valid? In order to understand to what extent Locke considered viable toleration within society, it must first be understood his views of what toleration is and whether it was something to be argued for or against within his standing- is it valid to limit toleration? Locke’s foundations for limited criteria of religious toleration will not be argued in favour of, but rather as opposing, adhering to the opinion that Locke’s limit of toleration is a fundamental and wholehearted contradiction.

Locke engaged and developed several thoughts and political beliefs which adhere to arguments and point in reference to the limitation of religious toleration, while simultaneously under the banner of claiming tolerance to ‘all’ on liberal grounds. Locke’s views do not always stand comfortably with mainstream liberal views, yet despite this, there is a lesson to be learnt for all in the twenty-first century, and it is precisely a lesson of ‘relevance’ which incorporates the validity, and thus, many would argue, the legitimacy for Locke’s limit of toleration (Schwartzman, M. 2005).  

One of the bold and notable claims of Locke is concerning the two realms of society and whether one can interfere with the other. Locke argues that religion, Christianity in particular, are ‘voluntary organisations’. This equates to a member of society being free to join the Church and to worship God as they believe to be valid in order to prevent their souls from the believed eternal torment. Furthermore, just as free as they were to join, are just as free to leave. In Locke’s words, “A church then I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls” (Locke, J. 2004, p.220); This is important because Locke’s idea of these voluntary organisations otherwise known as ‘religions’, form a division of categorisation of societal order and can be thought of as two separate spheres, namely, ‘civil/political society’ and ‘religious society’.

This having been said, Locke’s main argument as to why civil and religious society should not interfere with one another, brings us back to the concernment of toleration and its limits. The civil society or in this case, the magistrate cannot interfere with the religious society and dictate to the subjects what faith to adhere to accordingly, because according to Locke, the magistrate concerns outward force only (Locke, J. 2004, p.224-226). That is to say, no matter how much you are beaten, whipped, stretched and physically tortured- this will not change what you believe to be true into false and vice versa. As in the case with oppression and force of the magistrate, it is slavery of another. As Locke defines, “To be enslaved is to be put under the absolute, arbitrary power of another” (Locke, J. Second treatise of civil government).

This then feeds the basis for Locke’s argument for the limit of toleration, because those that impose beliefs on another are outwardly enslaving that soul to something they do not adhere to internally (Broers, 2009). Locke clarifies that inward belief is a result of mind persuasion, and if mind persuasion is the result of belief, the state cannot impose and compel a belief upon its subject- regardless of the taking by force of materialistic possessions. The power of the Church neither cannot extend to that force for the persuasion of the mind, so the limitation of religious affliction is also reduced to intellectual debate by the Church, as Locke has proclaimed, “For churches have neither jurisdiction in worldly matters, nor are fire and sword any proper instruments wherewith to convince men’s minds of error, and inform them of the truth” (Locke, J. 2004,)

The conclusion of this is religious freedom- the freedom of one to think as he desires, rather than enforce that thought. Since Locke separates the church and the state, he is reduced to the idea that no man, (regardless of his status) has superiority over another in terms of deducing the truth and thus cannot impose their deduction upon others (Braman, 1996). This is, however, where objections to Locke’s ideology befall. As Locke claims that Churches must be tolerated, this is a significant blow to those ‘voluntary organisations’ which are not members of a church. This is problematic for a number of reasons, one of them being what of the atheists of today? Are they to be tolerated or cast off in exile from the very midst of society? It is also considered what of those who do not adhere to the denial of God yet adhere to polytheism? As can be seen, Locke’s ideology is upon a basis of schismatic ideology and thus does not justify the inclusive liberal views Locke so claims to promote- even more so today in a liberal society of democracy and the decline of theist beliefs (Schwartzman, M. 2005).  

This ideology may appear rosy to many during Locke’s time, and even some of today, however, according to the ideology of Locke, toleration must be performed by both churches and other ‘voluntary societies’ claiming a religious purpose- despite the theological disagreements or other differences regarding ceremonial habitual practices. As Locke proclaimed, For every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical” (Locke, J. 2004, p.225). According to some academics even idolatrous churches may be tolerated, however there is a theological floor in that, and that can be the subject of another matter on another occasion- but it is something worth considering holistically to the importance of the main argument of opposing Locke’s ideology of toleration. On the opposing side of this view, it is feared, and understood from the context of Locke’s writing, that we must tolerate idolatrous churches because if we do not, then this may permit the state to impose annihilation upon those churches, and if annihilation is imposed on churches, then what might follow? State power might result in the most orthodox churches being annihilated due to the ignorant opinions of the State itself (Eveleth, 2007).

As understood from the aforementioned, toleration of voluntary societies is required according to Locke. However, the real crunch of the issue is to what limit that toleration is to be taken or should be taken. Already, the discussion about those within the circle of the protestant church, whether heretic or those upon erroneous beliefs are to be tolerated are taken into thought, but what of those out of the circle of the protestant church? What of those atheists and what of the Catholics? As previously asked. In Locke’s ideology he promotes a simple solution for them. To understand Locke’s solution, and to try to reach a conclusion of relevance, let us understand a number of points. Firstly, Locke does not extend his toleration to Catholics, and the reasoning of this is not due to the mere fact that they are an element of dispute upon doctrinal grounds, but rather a dispute of whom their loyalty shall be in the hands of. In other words, who is their ‘prince’? As John Locke writes, “That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince. For by this means the magistrate would give way to the settling of a foreign jurisdiction in his own country, and suffer his own people to be listed, as it were, for soldiers against his own government” (Locke, J. 2004, p.245). After all, whom do Catholics hold as their prince? It is none other than the Pope, and it is commonly known that during the time of Locke’s writing that the Pope was in actual reality considered a ‘prince’ with an actual army and defined territory- something of a real threat during war-engulfed Europe. The obvious point I would make here is that in our times it is absolutely ludicrous to suggest relevance of that position within today’s society of diversity and non-discriminatory footing, especially due to the fact that many Catholics hold legislative loyalty to the state of the United Kingdom for example, while simultaneously holding spiritual loyalty to the Pope. This being said, one must take into account the Pope is no longer considered a ‘prince’ of an army and defined territory.

To go one step further in balance of the argument, you can comprehend Locke’s forward-thinking mentality and the dangers of tolerating those who hold allegiance to a ‘foreign prince’ by the observation of global terrorism. Consider subjects of the United Kingdom holding allegiance to so-called Islamic State in the Levantine region. If we opposed Locke’s view, we may be surrounded by murderous fanatics on the streets today, under the banner of ‘toleration’. However, Locke’s methodology of not tolerating those who pledge allegiance to foreign princes has kept us safe from such potential horrors. Having said this, I would propose the counter-argument- the danger of confusion and delusion between religion and politics. The difference is debateable- however up until now many Catholics still pledge allegiance to the Pope, who undoubtable is still ‘foreign’ and many Muslims still pledge allegiance to many other ‘foreign’ political and/or leaders. This can become problematic for societal values of today because it equates to not tolerating Catholics nor Muslims which results in total contradictory ideological approach to a liberal society, which so many, including Locke strive for (Armstrong, K. 2014).

There is an explanation given by Locke for his anti-toleration stance, and it is critical to understand the reasoning in order to give the correct opposing argument. Locke has said, “Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all” (Locke, J. 2004, p.246). This is a valid point to make in context of Locke’s time of writing- those who did deny the existent of God were marginalised to the crooks of society. It was only until atheism became more ‘fashionable’ on a notable scale and secular ideas became more widespread that the toleration for atheists was on the increase (Al Andalusi, A. 2013). Although, once again it only gives more weight to my position that it was a wholehearted contradiction and only with potential relevance at Locke’s time with particular conditions met including certain religious, political and geographical elements.

The view could then be taken, all this talk of toleration, regardless if orthodox or heretic, Protestant or Catholic, Muslim or Atheist is all ineptias in other words, nonsense. The very fact that Locke calls in his Letter Concerning Toleration for people, in particular Christians to tolerate others even if they are heretics and then reports that there is no justification (whether intellectual or religious) for the toleration to extend to Muslims, Catholics and Atheists (Al Andalusi, A. 2013), provides the obvious summary of a contradictory academic liberal theory and the hypocrisy of that being put into practice. Furthermore, in concluding thought of the aforementioned, when one takes a holistic look at Locke’s generalised view of toleration, in particular religious, and the role of the state and it’s favouring of one religious society over another, we can safely say that the ideology of ‘being free to leave, just as free to enter’ is without a shadow of a doubt an obvious inclination towards to modern society and the liberal views which are inflicted and propagated throughout modern life. On the other hand, it is made apparent that Locke’s ideology put into practice is one of contradictory terms and of a biased nature. This biased nature descended from his searching of excuse after excuse to exile Catholics and atheists from society to benefit the political agenda of the Protestant community, who ironically Locke himself was a member of (Quiggin, 2015).

One comment

  1. Dear Christopher John-George,

    I am very impressed by your detailed and reasoned exploration of the contradictions in, and thus the validity and reliability of, John Locke’s arguments for limiting the extension of toleration. As much as some of his thoughts are and were admired, he could not have envisaged the complexity of human affairs far into the future. Indeed, even Charles Darwin was also very much a product of his time. Gender issues aside, and as brilliant as he had been, Charles Darwin could only achieve that much (compared to modern academics nowadays) because he lived in the age of the “gentleman scholar” and enjoyed substantial financial inheritance and professional freedom to pursue wide-ranging interests from biology to geology, not to mention that he had a housewife and many servants to relieve him of any house chores, as far as I can ascertain.

    By the way, I would like to congratulate you belatedly on being awarded by Dr Sheik the prize for Social Engagement at the Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Leeds.

    Keep up the good work, Christopher. Happy December to you!

    Yours sincerely,

    Liked by 1 person

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