top of page

Locke on Religious Freedom

In the world view within which Locke composed his doctrine of religious toleration, the primacy of freedom of the individual conscience was due to the importance of genuine belief (that is, freely given consent to divine authority) in attaining salvation, for "Faith only and sincerity, are the things that procure acceptance with God." Although Locke is usually identified with the theory of social contract, his views on human nature, purpose, freedom, and the good were squarely within the covenantal perspective. For Locke the testimony of revelation was, as reason itself must conclude, of an authority necessarily superior to human reason, and as such "carries with it Assurance beyond Doubt, Evidence beyond Exception"; "faith" was the assent of reason to revelation and constituted the supreme degree of assent possible by human reason. The "highest perfection of intellectual nature" lay "in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of our selves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty." That "real happiness" was spiritual, not material. The "great privilege of finite intellectual Beings" did not consist in freedom to do whatever the will chose, but rather "the great inlet, and exercise of all the liberty Men have, are capable of, or can be useful to them, and that whereon depends the turn of their actions...[consisted] in this, that they can suspend their desires, and stop them from determining their wills to any action, till they have duly and fairly examin'd the good and evil of it as far forth as the weight of the thing requires."

Within the covenantal world view, the perfection of human freedom was, in essence, to become determined by the good. Thus, Locke wrote, "If we look upon those superiour Beings above us, who enjoy perfect Happiness, we shall have reason to judge that they are more steadily determined in their choice of Good than we; and yet we have no reason to think they are less happy, or less free, than we are." Rejecting the vulgar notion of liberty as license, he observed: "Is it worth the Name of Freedom to be at liberty to play the Fool, and draw Shame and Misery upon a Man's self? If to break loose from the conduct of Reason, and to want that restraint of Examination and Judgment, which keeps us from chusing or doing the worse, be Liberty, true Liberty, mad Men and Fools are the only Freemen."

Though all men desired happiness, and thus sought the good, it was evident that not everyone thought the same thing good. But the apparent existence of a plurality of goods, he argued, would only be true "were all the Concerns of Man terminated in this Life," that is, if ultimate happiness could really be found in material pursuits and the satisfaction of desire. Were this the case, there could indeed be no way to judge between individuals' conflicting choices, or conceptions of their highest good, such as "why one followed Study and Knowledge, and another Hawking and Hunting; why one chose Luxury and Debauchery, and another Sobriety and Riches." The good would be defined by the object one pursued. Yet Locke dismissed this conflation of desire and human good as a dangerous delusion, remarking: "'twas a right Answer of the Physician to his Patient, that had sore Eyes. If you have more Pleasure in the Taste of Wine, than in the use of your Sight, Wine is good for you; but if the Pleasure of Seeing be greater to you, than that of Drinking, Wine is naught." For Locke, freedom of conscience was the necessary precondition for fulfilling one's duty to God and thus attaining the object of existence (the good), for "the end of all religion is to please him, and that liberty is essentially necessary to that end."

Locke conceptualized the theory set forth in his Letter on Toleration (1689) as an explicitly religious idea, required by the scriptural command of "charity, meekness, and good-will in general towards all mankind, even those that are not Christians." Indeed, he characterized the concept of religious toleration as the hallmark of true religion itself. While the Letter is a foundational document of modern liberalism, it is possible to see in it the extent to which Locke took seriously not only the rights of individuals but their social obligations, as well as the civil rights of communities. In proper perspective, individual rights were located within a context that took account of correlative responsibilities; rightly understood, the individual's freedom of conscience did not conflict with, and thus did not supersede, the right of society to maintain the conditions of order upon which all its individual members depend. This was true with regard to religious, as well as civil, society.

The principle that defined the scope of, and linked together, the domains of freedom and obligation was that the exercise of freedom in the act of recognizing an authority (that is, giving "consent") entailed a strong obligation of obedience. Provided that membership in a religious society was by choice and "absolutely free and spontaneous," Locke argued, "it necessarily follows, that the right of making its laws can belong to none but the society itself, or at least, which is the same thing, to those whom the society by common consent has authorized thereunto." What of those who, having joined, later came to disagree with some part of the doctrine, or who disobeyed the code of conduct required of members? Individual freedom of conscience remained unabridged so long as one was as free to leave as to enter a religion. As for those who disobeyed the laws, Locke recommended that "The arms by which the members of this society are to be kept within their duty, are exhortations, admonitions, and advice. If by these means the offenders will not be reclaimed, and the erroneous convinced, there remains nothing farther to be done, but that such stubborn and obstinate persons, who give no ground to hope for their reformation, should be cast out and separated from the society.... I hold," he wrote, "that no church is bound by the duty of toleration to retain any such person in her bosom, as after admonition continues obstinately to offend against the laws of the society. For these being the condition of communion, and the bond of society, if the breach of them were permitted without any animadversion, the society would immediately be thereby dissolved." Excommunication, he argued, was the just and reasonable way to treat those violations of norms which, as he correctly realized, if permitted unchecked, would dissolve the unity, order, and integrity of the community.

It is important to note that in arguing against the use of coercion in religious matters, Locke was arguing against the sometimes brutal, physical punishments notorious to the era ("galleys, prisons, confiscations, and death") used by the civil authority in matters concerning belief, and especially when imposed on persons of a different religion. The use of force was appropriately exercised by the civil authority in enforcing civil laws, which did not concern belief. But far from considering expulsion to be coercive, he regarded it as a simple matter of holding people accountable to their solemn promises, freely given. Nor did it have anything to do with civil rights: "Excommunication," as such, Locke argued, "neither does nor can deprive the excommunicated person of any of those civil goods that he formerly possessed." For no one had "any civil right" to partake of the privileges that accrued to membership in a voluntary religious association.

Wendy M. Heller explores the religious origins of the organizing principles of civil society, tracks their secularization in the modern era, and examines the prospect of an inclusive global moral order based on the enduring concept of covenant. This article appeared in the 1995-96 edition of The Bahá'í World, pp. 185-222.



Baha'i Holy Places & Pilgrimage
bottom of page