Locke and Hobbes: Cause of Religious Toleration

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Locke and Hobbes Cause of Religious Toleration
Kevin Kang
Professor Bartlett
Section Leader: Alexander Duff

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...
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