Why did John Locke believe it was irrational to attempt to force someone to become a Christian against their will?

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Why did John Locke believe it was irrational to attempt to force someone to become a Christian against their will?

17th century philosopher John Locke wrote ‘A Letter Concerning Toleration’ (Locke 1685) IN A TIME WHEN RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE AMONG DIFFERENT CHRISTIAN FAITHS WAS ENDEMIC THROUGHOUT EUROPE. WE WILL BE EXAMINING AND OUTLINING EXTRACTS FROM THIS LETTER TO ASCERTAIN WHY ATTEMPTING TO USE FORCE ON SOMEONE TO BECOME A CHRISTIAN AGAINST THEIR WILL, IS IRRATIONAL:- ‘The care of each man’s soul and of the things of heaven … is left entirely too every man’s self’ (ibid. p. 44). Locke wrote.

By this he means that each man is responsible for their own salvation, and no other person is or could be saviour of another mans soul in an absolute sense, and that it is a matter of individual conscience not what they or others will. Warburton states this is an unquestioned assumption by Locke “as this it is not a view that he argues for, but rather it is something that Locke takes for granted” (Warburton, Arguments for Freedom. p39,p2). Locke also argues for preserving individual freedom of religious belief in the face of possible oppression by the state “The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate” (ibid.p18) .

Here Locke suggests by this, that Law enforcement is out side the remit for soul salvation, therefore governments cannot enforce or legislate for there populations beliefs, as they can only use external force which he believes is inappropriate as they can never bring about the requisite change in religious belief of people: and that “only inner persuasion of mind is acceptable to God” (ibid. p18). Philosophy and the human situation. Submitting a person to torture (prevalent in 17th century religious persecutions) is of no value to their oppressors Locke declares.

And that any verbal utterances or signed agreements extracted under duress could not bring about a real change of belief, as he claims that only “light and evidence” can make this possible. Torture can make you dearly want to believe something; but it can’t actually make you believe it (Warburton, Arguments for Freedom. p41, p3). Locke also believed physical coercion could not be a tool for changing people’s beliefs, as these aspects of self do not come under the capacity of will ‘To believe this or that to be true is not within the scope of the will’ (ibid. p. 41).

Another method employed by oppressors that aim to change people’s religious beliefs and is considered to be of no inherent value by Locke and therefore irrational, is that of compelling people to be religious observant. By this he means going through the outward motions in compliance to the ruler’s laws in Locke’s example is that of being compelled to attend church “In vain, therefore, do princes compel their subjects to come into their church communion, as he believes this will not save their soul as,’ only faith and inward sincerity can procure acceptance by God’ (ibid*).

Ultimately John Locke considered any use of force/compulsion to attempt to change people into becoming a Christian against their will a red herring, an impossible feat and a waste of time by rulers, ergo irrational. And further more that religious belief has nothing to do with will and is a matter of conscience. Therefore we can see that by deducing from the above reasons and his extracts, he advocates the view that religious toleration is the only rational way when dealing with peoples beliefs.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 17 November 2016

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