Locke and Hobbes: Cause of Religious Toleration

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 17 November 2016

Locke and Hobbes: Cause of Religious Toleration

Historically, Locke’s treatment of toleration was one riddled with religious change, religious turmoil, and political changes that were shaped largely by religious tensions. This was a time when religion, specifically the Christian Church, became fractioned and led to widespread war and death in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Locke’s Letter on Toleration promoted separation of church and state, arguing that each institution has legitimacy and power in certain areas. The state exists to protect people’s interests, and can use force to protect these interests.

However, the state will not be able to coerce its people to believe in a certain religion. In Leviathan, Hobbes provides ideas that support Locke’s toleration of religion. Hobbes belief in the state of nature, state of war, and covenants helps to paint a clearer picture of a world without religious intoleration. Locke’s plea for tolerations is one of religious toleration in general but more specifically toleration among Christians. Locke speaks out against Christians whom “deprive (men) of their estates, maim them with corporal punishments, starve and torment them in noisome prisons, and in the end even take away their lives…”(Letter p.24).

This type of intolerance is itself intolerable because it violates many mandates that should characterize a true Christian. The mandates of charity and meekness are violated, and those who have committed these aggressive and violent actions against others are in themselves hypocritical. These people are usually careless about their own virtues, imposing on others something they don’t practice. According to Locke, instead of looking into others moral salvation, they should practice looking into their own moral salvations as well as the salvations of family and friends.

These same people are spending time and effort on trivial things like doctrinal matters and ceremonial preferences. Locke urges that one should not worry so much about matters that, on the surface are nice and intricate, but “exceed(s) the capacity of ordinary understandings…”(Letter p. 24). Instead of wasting time on these futile activities, one should actively try to better oneself. Separation of church and state is an important premise that buttresses his argument throughout the letter. It is a separation of civil versus religious authority and who has power of what domain.

Locke argues that civil government has certain responsibilities for its citizens, which include preserving and advancing the civil interests, well-being and life of its citizens. Locke defines the one who wields civil authority as a magistrate and it is the magistrate who is enjoined to tolerate any religious doctrine, provided that these doctrines do not violate rights or disrupt the peace. Locke is intolerable of violations of rights of citizens and crime, or anything that disrupts the peace. Individuals do not have the power and position to respond and punish the criminals.

That task is left to the magistrate. The magistrate has the ability to enforce laws through force but his coercive power must be kept out of religious matters, in so long as the religious matters do not hinder citizens’ rights and their peace. Locke believes that in religious matters, true belief in a religion requires more then the coercive power to make one believe. He argues if people are forced to believe in a religion against their will, it will not be as strong and effective unless the person consciously makes his own effort to believe.

The ability for the magistrate to impose its power on its people is something Hobbes believes is a requirement and duty of a civil government. Men have an inclination towards peace, which is why men build commonwealths. Men want to get out of this state of war in favor of peace. Therefore, men come together in a commonwealth to make a covenant with every other man to establish peace and order. This sovereign now has the authority to enforce civil laws. This is a necessity because men by themselves cannot externally judge conflicts and will be naturally inclined to certain biases.

By agreeing to this covenant, the people bestow upon a man or group of men power over sovereign. This covenant also holds responsibility for the people because they are the ones who gave power to the magistrate. To actually ensure peace, Hobbes says that a sovereign of this power is necessary. The question of the individual’s coercive power is another argument in favor of religious toleration. “No private Person has any Right, in any manner, to prejudice another Person in his Civil Enjoyments, because he is of another Church or Religion” (Letter p. 31). Tolerance brings about respect for the autonomy of the other.

Since religious beliefs are freely chosen, there is no room for coercion to be a useful end because coercion and freedom cannot coexist in religious matters. Skepticism is another way religious believers can tolerate others holding different religions. Every religious person must tolerate one another because it would be foolish to believe that one person can have all the truths to the world. Similarly, Hobbes supports this argument through the state of nature. Having the freedom to choose ones religion is from the fact that individually, we are all equal.

Hobbes believes that people are equal in strength of body and manifest of mind. There are differences, obviously, but Hobbes argues that these differences do not amount to much. We are fundamentally equal because we all have the ability to kill one another, whether it is through force or deceit. This constant threat of war between man and man is an important reason why men try to constantly seek peace. This state of nature provides us the liberty to our own self-governing because in the state of nature, there is no authority over man.

Since man has no authority over him in the state of nature, naturally it would mean that man has no authority over another man. However, Hobbes continues that this natural condition of mankind is decidedly undesirable and should be avoided. From the natural state of man the desire for a stable government arises. Men are naturally equal but Hobbes believes self-preservation can only be had by constantly trying to acquire new property, or power. Power is the man’s means to some future good and the acquisition of more power is a constant cycle.

Concerning the question of religious power, religious authorities also do not have the power for any coercive actions. Since religious authorities do not have the power to change someone who is not willing, they must respect and tolerate other religious churches or societies, even if there is disagreement with certain doctrines. Locke’s reasoning for the toleration of other churches stems from the belief of orthodoxy of the church. Every church believes that it is the Orthodox Church but Locke argues that people can never know which is the true Orthodox Church.

However, he goes on to say that the true Church is the one that practices the idea of toleration. Despite Locke’s adamant stance on toleration, Locke does discuss certain beliefs that should not be tolerated. Locke specifically targets atheism because he believes that men should enter into some religious society because God should be publically worshipped. To Locke, atheists are the weak bones to a society because covenants and promises have no power over atheists. This causes problems within society because covenants and promises are the bonds of human society.

Similarly, Locke also considers Catholics intolerable because of the political threat they represent. Catholic’s pledge allegiance to a foreign king. Locke views this as a problem because it brings into question who the Catholic pledges his loyalty to, the foreign king or his homeland king. Locke says that a person should be under the rightful king and not a foreign king. This means that any foreign jurisdiction in one’s country and any influence from the Vatican State is not acceptable. Locke also mentions odd religious practices, such as human sacrifice, as intolerable.

The magistrate should make a conscious effort to not tolerate such practices because it could hurt society as a whole. Just because something is a religious matter should not dictate the legality of the practice. Hobbes would probably agree that atheists would not be tolerable under the condition that covenants and promises are not kept because they hold no power over atheists. Hobbes First Law of Nature is that human beings always seek a state of peace because it is the most advantageous to their survival. The Second Law of Nature is the creation of covenants.

In Hobbes’s mind, the ideal covenant would be a leviathan government that would make and regulate laws very effectively. The Third Law of Nature is derived from the second, which states that it is necessary for men to perform their covenants. From these three laws, as stated earlier, men create a commonwealth to ensure peace. If covenants hold no power over atheists, the commonwealth and essentially peace is destroyed. Hobbes is adamant that to fortify this social contract, the members of the contract need steps to prevent others from breaching it.

The Third Law of Nature creates a society where peace is established, but if a citizen is not held under contract, the political disruptions are more likely to occur. Locke’s primary rationale for toleration in the individual is the self-governing of the other. In Christina writing, loving ones neighbors is a key element in a Christian’s salvation. Locke emphasizes that one should only care for one’s own salvation rather than worrying about his neighbors or others religious teachings.

By practicing toleration, one must ignore the content and be satisfied with the fact that the other has reached his conclusion autonomously. Before worrying about someone else, Locke urges that one must focus on ones own salvation because there are many instances where hypocrisy can rise by imposing ones beliefs. However, there are instances where non-intervention can be unjust because some matters are so offensive, it would be unjust to let it slide. Matters where injury or death can occur are justifiable for others to intervene.

Even though this Lockean autonomy works most of the time, there are times where it would not. Locke’s reasoning for writing this letter, on the surface, seems to be from a religious perspective. However, a careful reading of the letter suggests that Locke is not interested in religious doctrines or practices. Locke finds that the religious differences are too insignificant for discussion. Although it is a letter concerning toleration of religion, this toleration is meant to benefit from a political standpoint. Reading the document with this point of view shows that Locke was writing it exclusively political in nature.

Even though there was widespread religious violence and opposing opinions during the time Locke wrote the letter, it was a way for Locke to talk about the politics of society. This document was on religious toleration only because Locke viewed religion as having potential for civil disruption. This letter is a way for Locke to say what he believed was the means for maintaining peace and stability. To maintain peace and stability in a society requires sovereignty. The sovereign has the power and authority to govern its principality.

Because it has the power to govern, it also gives the sovereign the right to use coercion. This does not give the right to religious institutions to use coercion because it has historically not worked in favor of the religion. The separation of church and state is therefore a way that Locke foresees peace in sovereign. Peace in sovereign is an important aspect to Hobbes’s Leviathan perspective because he views peace as the main reason we create societies. Religious toleration is therefore a tool that both Locke and Hobbes would advocate because it creates peace and unity in a sovereign.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 17 November 2016

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