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Reflections on John Locke’s Letter concerning toleration

Reflections on John Locke’s Letter concerning toleration is proving analysis of religion and politics of classical liberalism.

First, we need to be aware of differences between the 17th century when the book was written and our times of late 20th and now early 21st century. So toleration meant something different then it means for today. Second, we need to know that tolerance (if it existed) didn’t mean the same as equality. Therefore, a particular group was tolerated, but it wasn’t equal with others who were privileged. Of course, it was much better for someone at least to be tolerated then to be persecuted or killed because of being different in religious beliefs or confession.

Religious tolerance has been one of fundamental values and principles of the 17th century (classical) liberalism. It derives from the „harm principle“. John Locke was one of the main thinkers who promoted that idea. As a Calvinist Christian devoted to the Gospel and a liberal in his mind, Locke was aware that it is only God that can judge consciousness and faith. No person could do it instead of God, neither civil magistrate. In other words, what someone believes is a personal inward thing, and not a subject to outward judging.

Locke considered toleration as the main characteristic of the true Church. He sees in the Gospel of Jesus Christ that toleration of others is acceptable. „The care, therefore, of every man’s soul belongs unto himself and is to be left unto himself“, Locke said. He clearly points that „the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate“. Tue religion consists of inward dimension which cannot be dictated by others. Locke is clear that the government cannot make any intervention in human consciousness. On the other side, power of the civil magistrate consists of the outward force (to preserve law and order).

How does Locke see Roman Catholics? „If a Roman Catholic believes that to be really the body of Christ which another man calls bread, he does no injury thereby to his neighbour“. But „that Church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate who 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 ruler. 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“. These two statements clearly show how Protestants saw the Roman Catholics. Catholic beliefs were tolerated as a matter of private consciousness, but not the practices of Rome. On the other side, we all know that the Roman Church didn’t tolerate any confession of faith in Christ which was contrary to the papacy. Moreover, its inquisition persecuted and killed many Protestants across Europe or converted them back to Catholicism. This is the main reason why Protestants but also thinkers of liberalism didn’t want to tolerate the Roman Church. Not because Catholics had different inward consciousness, but because the Roman Church was using force of persecution and even genocide against those who didn’t recognize the authority of papacy. It believed that it has a power of judgment to manipulate with the mercy of God.

On the other side, Protestants believed, according to the Scripture, that the mercy needed for salvation is a matter of God’s will alone, without any mediation or forceful intervention of any human being, including the Church. This belief represents the fundamental aspect of understanding the Reformed Christian heritage and Calvinism itself, which opened the doors of religious toleration. For those times it represented a change in attitudes towards individual freedoms. There is no doubt that toleration was much higher in those parts who were under the influence of Reformation and Enlightenment, then those territories which were dominated by the monopoly of Rome.

Of course, in the meantime, the Roman Church has changed, especially after the Second Vatican Council. So it can be tolerated today because it tolerates others. But another important aspect which Locke mentioned is that the Roman Church cannot be tolerated because its power has a foreign origin, opposed to the national government. Besides the fact that its power was a mixture of religion and political violence against individual liberty, the Vatican didn’t recognize authorities which weren’t submitted to the papacy. In other words, those who were submitted to the papal authority were considered as against their own government.

It was easy for Protestants to be tolerated because their confessional churches were organized according to national divisions, or even established by the monarchs as their heads (like in Scandinavia, Scotland and England), opposite from Catholics which Church was governed by a foreign ruler opposed to national rulers.

Where we can disagree with Locke is his relation to atheists who deny the being of God. Locke thinks that they are not at all to be tolerated. I have no doubt that it is not us to judge someone, whether a person believes in God or not. Everyone should be left to its own consciousness. Of course, any kind of atheist or religious indoctrination cannot be tolerated. It is clear that if we want to promote religious tolerance, it also needs to mean tolerance of those who are not religiously affiliated, contrary to Locke, who thought that atheists shouldn’t be tolerated.

In other words, religious toleration of a particular group needs to be dependable on its will to tolerate and accept others. This means we should not tolerate religious fundamentalists of any kind, or those non-believers who wouldn’t tolerate others. Religion cannot be a subject or an object of any force, but a matter of individual freedom. We can learn from our European history that religion was often a matter of division, even among Christians. But Christians have learned the lessons of their past experiences and conflicts between their confessions. Of course, tolerance means much broader perspective and includes all religions and those without religious affiliation. But it’s not enough just to tolerate. All civilized societies need to build relations based on dialogue, understanding and mutual respect.