Surprised by the Intolerant Locke

Reading Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration has been an interesting experience. At times I find myself agreeing with him, though probably because his thinking was so influential upon Jefferson, et al. and has been embedded into my thinking since I was a child that I find it to be common sense. At other times, I find him extremely frustrating, especially when he confines religion only to the “inward” person. Yet, Locke has surprised me. Not in what he says, but in how his thinking explains the American experience; my own experience.

Some may wonder why America has always struggled with Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Atheists. Indeed, growing up, it seemed nonsense that the Puritans and Pilgrims would travel to American to escape religious persecution, and yet in turn offer no religious liberty to anyone else. This was mostly resolved by the time of the Constitution amongst various Protestant denominations. However, with the emigration of Irish Catholics, there was a severe reaction to all things Catholicism (note: PBS recently did a series called God in America which deals with this and other questions about the American religious experience and is worth checking out). Well, reading Locke has answered this (i.e., Catholicism) and other questions (i.e., Muslims and Atheists).

The reason why Locke offers no toleration for Catholics and Muslims is conflict of interest. They (according to Locke) have allegiances elsewhere that threaten the public good (note: keep in mind Locke’s Social Contract view of government). The reason why he doesn’t tolerate Atheists is not as clear to me. It would be reasonable, then, to quote him:

Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises, Covenants, and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist. The taking away of God, tho but even in thought, dissolves all. Besides also, those that by their Atheism undermine and destroy all Religion, can have no pretence of Religion whereupon to challenge the Privilege of a Toleration. As for other Practical Opinions, tho not absolutely free from all Error, if they do not tend to establish Domination over others, or Civil Impunity to the Church in which they are taught, there can be no Reason why they should not be tolerated.

-John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1983), 51.

It seems that he is afraid that 1) there is no divine threat by which they (i.e., Atheists) can be persuaded to follow through on their oaths and 2) because it is not a religion per se, it does not fall under the jurisdiction of those things which ought to be tolerated. This second point is still unclear to me (and I feel my explanation is lacking), so any thoughts are welcomed.

Nonetheless, the point is this: seeing as it is generally agreed that Locke had a formative influence upon American ideology, then might not his (political) intolerance of Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Atheists explain why those three groups have struggled in their birthing experiences into the American political scene? Granted, this is all rather speculative, but it seems to tentatively explain the evidence.


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