John Locke and the new intolerance

The discovery of a new Locke manuscript reminds us why tolerance must be defended.

Frank Furedi


The 17th-century philosopher, John Locke, is often described as the father of modern liberalism. Now a recently discovered manuscript titled ‘Reasons for tolerateing Papists equally with others’ (1667-8) suggests that he was actually more liberal and tolerant than generally believed.

The text had long lied unnoticed in archives until it was uncovered by Locke scholar JC Walmsley. Contrary to the previously held consensus — that Locke never countenanced tolerating Catholics — this hitherto unknown document indicated that he was actually open to the idea, and explored the arguments for it.

In the contemporary era, it is difficult to grasp the full significance of advocating the toleration of people holding different religious beliefs. Today, religious freedom and tolerance of competing beliefs are seen as foundational values of Western societies. However, in historical terms, tolerance is a very recent cultural and moral ideal. Until the 17th century, the toleration of different religions, opinions and beliefs was even interpreted as a form of moral cowardice, if not a symptom of heresy. As late as 1691, the French theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet insisted that Catholicism was the least tolerant of all religions. He declared that: ‘I have the right to persecute you because I am right and you are wrong.’

It was in the 17th century that attitudes towards tolerating competing ideas and religions began to change. This was an era in which Europe was overwhelmed by bitter religious conflicts, which frequently resulted in bloody civil wars. In such circumstances, calls for tolerance were influenced by the pragmatic calculation that without a measure of religious toleration, endemic violence and bloodshed could not be avoided. This was the moment when a significant minority of Europeans recognised that tolerance was a prerequisite for their society’s survival.

Pragmatic moves towards toleration coexisted with the growing influence of secularism and rationality. These sentiments fostered a scepticism towards religious dogmatism and intolerance. It was in this historical moment that liberalism began to emerge as a credible intellectual force. Philosophers such Pierre Bayle and Baruch Spinoza personified this new tolerant trend. John Locke went a step further, and advanced a coherent philosophical argument for adopting tolerance as a guide to public life. His A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) can be interpreted as one of the founding documents of what would become modern liberalism.

The principle aim of Locke was to protect religious belief from state coercion. His advocacy of toleration was a call for restraining political authorities from interfering with the workings of individual conscience and lifestyles. Locke claimed that religious beliefs, which are held in people’s heads or hearts, are not appropriate objects of state control. He took the view that the coercive indoctrination of belief by the state does not lead to genuine conviction, and that the very pursuit of such a policy calls into question the rationality of political authority. His call for the toleration of a diversity of religious views was also influenced by a belief that truth cannot be imposed from without, that it requires an internal quest for answers.

Though Locke took an important step towards advocating the tolerance of different religious beliefs, he was reluctant to extend this principle to Catholics. In the context of bitter religious rivalry in Protestant England, Catholics were often portrayed as agents of a rival foreign power. But Locke’s non-toleration of Catholics was justified on the grounds of political expediency rather than as a matter of religious necessity. Catholics were not to be discriminated against on religious grounds, but on political grounds. Locke regarded them as a threat to government: Catholics could not be protected because they allegedly owed allegiance to a foreign power.

Now, with the discovery of ‘Reasons for tolerateing Papists equally with others’, we know that even amid the religious conflict of the 17th century, Locke actually considered extending toleration to Catholics. It seems that Locke was even more ahead of his time than is generally supposed.

It is thanks to a relatively small number of open-minded and genuinely liberal thinkers like Locke that the values of tolerance and freedom of expression have gained influence over the human imagination. Over the centuries, religious tolerance has expanded to allow the free expression of opinions, beliefs and behaviour associated with the exercise of individual conscience. Indeed, tolerance is intimately connected to the freedom of belief and conscience. The ideal of tolerance demands that we accept the right of people to live according to their beliefs and opinions, even when they are antithetical to our own.

The discovery of ‘Reasons for tolerateing Papists equally with others’ should inspire us to take tolerance seriously. Tolerance faces constant challenge in Western societies today. Speech codes and linguistic policing by governmental and non-governmental institutions threaten freedom of speech. Even freedom of belief and freedom of conscience are contested by attempts to pathologise, if not criminalise, people’s inner thoughts. In universities in the United States, newly arrived undergraduates are sent to workshops that instruct them to be ‘aware’ of various issues, which is a roundabout way of lecturing them about what to think.

Tolerance is far too precious an ideal to abandon in the face of those who want to dictate what we can say and how we should think. We are in danger of forgetting what tolerance, an intimate companion of liberty and freedom, actually means. Without tolerance, we cannot be free; we cannot live with one another in relative peace; we cannot follow and act on our conscience; we cannot exercise our moral autonomy, nor pursue our own road towards seeking the truth. That is why we must uphold the spirit of toleration, pioneered by the liberal thinkers of the 17th century.

Frank Furedi’s How Fear Works: the Culture of Fear in the 21st Century is published by Bloomsbury Press.

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Winston Stanley

7th September 2019 at 5:25 pm

Britain is increasingly irreligious. Over half of all adults and 75% of the under 25s profess no religion. Only 1% of under 25s identify as Anglican. Tolerance is increasing as ppl become more staunchly irreligious.

The best thing that we could do to promote tolerance is to disestablish the State Religion, Anglicanism, and to get the state schools off the churches. The establishment of Anglicanism is historically associated with religious intolerance, as are church dominated schools. Secularism makes for tolerance and our society should reflect that in its institutions and schools.

> UK secularism on rise as more than half say they have no religion

The growth of secularism in the UK is unabated with fresh data showing stark generational differences and a new confidence among the non-religious to declare themselves atheist.

Only 1% of people aged 18-24 identify as Church of England, according to the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey for 2018. Even among over-75s, the most religious age group, only one in three people describe themselves as C of E.

Across all age groups, the younger people are the less likely they are to call themselves Anglican.
The steady decline in religious belief among the British public is “one of the most important trends in postwar history”, says the BSA report.

Fifty-two percent of the public say they do not belong to any religion, compared with 31% in 1983 when the BSA survey began tracking religious belief. The number of people identifying as Christian has fallen from 66% to 38% over the same period.

“Britain is becoming more secular not because adults are losing their religion but because older people with an attachment to the C of E and other Christian denominations are gradually being replaced in the population by younger unaffiliated people,” says the report…

The proportion of people who say they are “very or extremely non-religious” has more than doubled, from 14% to 33% in the past two decades.

Nevertheless, most people are tolerant of others’ religious beliefs. A large majority of both non-believers and people of faith have positive or neutral views of individuals who belong to a religion.

Only 3% of people say they would definitely not accept a mixed-faith marriage within their family, with 82% saying they would definitely or probably accept someone from a different religion marrying a relative.

michael mccarthy

8th September 2019 at 11:06 am

“Tolerance is increasing as ppl become more staunchly irreligious”.
I can’t agree with that. Tolerance is not increasing. With the increasing intrusion of political correctness and identity politics, people have to be more and more careful about what they say and profess for risk of losing their jobs or not even getting a job. This trend is on the increase and it is not due to Christian religious belief.
When I was in the 6th form of an RC school (back in the days of yore) we had public speaking during a Friday afternoon period. Each week a motion was chosen by the headmaster (who conducted the class) to be debated the following week. One boy was chosen arbitrarily to defend the motion and one boy to oppose it. e.g. typical question ‘Should the Americans withdraw from Vietnam?’
The way you could be trying to win the debate by arguing for something that you might be personally opposed to was very useful in encouraging tolerance. This type of dialectical exercise encouraged the use of lateral thinking and seeing the other’s point of view.
We also had one class each week (for one term) of Logic and, pre-O level, we studied Latin, both of which are believed to benefit analytical thinking and the retention of facts rather than sound bites.
Part of the reason why tolerance was encouraged was I believe because our teachers and parents were closer to, and in many cases had direct experience of, the horrors (WWII) that intolerance of opposing ideas can bring down on societies.
Finally, becoming staunchly irreligious is a waste of time if the new orthodoxy persecutes people as well. As we know from recent history, irreligion is not the answer. All the great ideologies of the 20th century were atheistic, but intolerance and murder reached unprecedented levels.
So please give the poor Christians a break and start seriously trying to find where intolerance is coming from.

Winston Stanley

8th September 2019 at 4:53 pm

No doubt there is some truth to that but I was talking religious intolerance, which is decreasing. And I was talking about Britain and present trends a la religious tolerance. True, there is intolerance of the non-PC but there was intolerance before, often in the other direction. Britain under the influence of Christianity was massively intolerant.

Take gay rights, now ppl do not feel tolerated to mouth off in society against gays but on the other hand, homosexuality was a death sentence in Britain from the 16th to the 18th century, and it remained illegal until the late 1960s. It was illegal to “promote” it in schools or colleges into the 1990s.

Before Vatican II, RC and Protestants would not even talk to each other in some English towns, let alone pray together. Canon law proscribed intermarriage.

“Blasphemy” was illegal until 2008.

Only Anglicans were allowed to hold local or national office or even attend universities from the 17th to the 19th century. The list goes on.

Religious “prerogatives” did massive damage to Britain over many centuries. It is to be welcomed that that is decreasing as religious belief declines. We are a less divided and a freer society for it.

Sure there is PC today but let us be glad at least for the decline of religious intolerance that has accompanied the decline in religious adherence.

Claire D

9th September 2019 at 12:00 am

I agree with you Michael.
Winston, you say ” we are less divided and a freer society “, sorry but that is laughable under the present circumstances. Never mind the debacle that is Brexit, inequality is getting worse and worse. There’s not much likelihood of a working class white boy getting into university today to study a serious, worthwhile subject, which was not the case in the second half of the 20th century. Women and men dare not voice their concerns about men calling themselves ‘ women ‘ in case they lose their job or careers. Go and visit Merthyr Tydfil and tell the people there how much more free they are today than 50 years ago, or our choked prisons and young offender institutions many of which are badly run, riddled with drugs, violence and despair.
Modern 21st century opinions applied to the past are not appropriate. To look back at history and pat ourselves on the back for being so much better than they were is a mistake, to put it mildly. ‘ We stand on the shoulders of giants ‘, if it was’nt for all our ancestors, good and bad, we would not have the sophisticated society we have today. Homosexuals maybe feeling happier and safer today, and I’m pleased that they are, but our Jewish community is not, neither are our children.
The battle to make things better and fairer at the same time as preventing mistakes has gone on throughout history, with a lot of help from Christianity in fact. We are no better essentially than our ancestors, there are just different problems now.

Claire D

9th September 2019 at 10:32 am

I have a comment languishing in moderation at the moment, if or when it is put up it may sound fiercer than it was meant to be, late night etc.

Claire D

9th September 2019 at 4:50 pm

Just a few examples :
Alfred the Great, dedicated Christian, built the first schools, established the first stable system of laws in England based on the 10 Commandments and other biblical treatises.
William Wilberforce, Evangelical and leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade.
Elizabeth Fry, Christian philanthropist, prison and social reformer.
Florence Nightingale.
J.R.R Tolkien.

Winston Stanley

9th September 2019 at 11:12 pm

English law is based on the complex and well developed Roman law inherited from pagan times. The Bible and 10 commandments have got absolutely nothing to do with it, apart from the temporary interpolation of some ludicrously intolerant Christian stuff which we have largely removed over the last couple of centuries.

Claire D

10th September 2019 at 8:16 am

that is incorrect. English Common Law is based fundamentally on what is ‘ customary ‘ ie, that which has been tested in court and proved time and time again. Alfred the Great wrote the first common law book in the early part of the 9th century, these laws were used, developed and expanded from then on. After the Norman Conquest in 1066 William the Conquerer imposed Canon Law (Roman Law) officially and this was used by the Church alongside what had become common law which continued to develop as I have described over the centuries. Post-Modernist versions of History are not to be trusted, Post-Modernists would like to airbrush Christianity from history but as they cannot the next best thing is to mock, deride and reduce it to a transitory bad influence, this will not hold water when faced with the facts.
The evidence shows that our laws developed over the centuries out of the ecclesiastical (Church) courts, the Royal courts and local courts, ie the influence of Classical Humanism and Christianity were equally important.

Claire D

10th September 2019 at 11:47 am

Apologies, the ” (Roman Law) ” after Canon Law in my summary above should not be there. Roman Law only began to make a significant contribution to English Law from the late Middle Ages onwards.
Edit and delete options on comments would be useful.

Winston Stanley

10th September 2019 at 4:46 pm

Common law is a Roman concept introduced by the Normans. The fundamental doctrines of common law are based on Roman principles. (Canon law is ecclesiastical, not civic law.)

> English law is the original Common Law. It was born of Roman law. The date of birth was 14 October 1066, the day of the Norman conquest of England by William I (the Conqueror). The Normans in Normandy before the conquest operated on their local version (code, not common law) of Roman law and decided to reconfigure that for ruling England.

The Normans increased the weight of using precedents (something that already existed in Roman law) to handle exceptional situations not adequately covered by statutory (written) law. The Normans decided that codification of laws would have brought more problems than solutions in the long run. They also decided to alter the legal nomenclature in Roman jurisprudence to avoid confusion.

Most of the significant fundamental doctrines of Common Law were developed between 1066 and the reign of Richard I (1198–99) — and all those doctrines were based to a greater or lesser extent on Roman legal principles.

The only way to study English law

Before the 1840s, English law (i.e. Common Law) wasn’t even taught in England. It was only ‘practised.’ The English lawyers learnt the ropes during their apprenticeships.

For 650–700 years, all English universities taught only Roman law despite the country operating in Common Law. That gave rise to the split legal profession of solicitors (non-trial lawyers) and barristers (trial advocates). That was also the basis for the English practice of law apprenticeships — “Articles” for solicitors and “pupillage” for barristers during which the apprentice learnt how to do Common Law… (Quora)

Winston Stanley

10th September 2019 at 5:06 pm

English law before the Normans was based on North Sea pagan Germanic law inherited from the Anglo-Saxon ancestors who crossed the waters between the 5th and 7th centuries. Obviously pre-AS British law was thoroughly pagan too. AS law got Roman pagan influences through the Church.

> The oldest Anglo-Saxon law codes, especially from Kent and Wessex, reveal a close affinity to the laws of the North Sea peoples—those of the Saxons, Frisians, and Scandinavians. For example, one finds a division of social ranks reminiscent of the threefold gradation of nearby peoples (cf. OE eorl “nobleman”, ċeorl “freeman”, þēow “bondman”, Norse jarl, karl, þræll, Frisian etheling, friling, lēt), and not of the twofold Frankish one (baro “freeman”, lætus “bondman”), nor of the slight differentiation of the Upper Germans and Lombards. In subsequent history there is a good deal of resemblance between the capitularies’ legislation of Charlemagne and his successors on one hand, the acts of Alfred, Edward the Elder, Æthelstan and Edgar on the other, a resemblance called forth less by direct borrowing of Frankish institutions than by the similarity of political problems and condition. Frankish law becomes a powerful modifying element in English legal history after the Conquest, when it was introduced wholesale in royal and in feudal courts…

The direct influence of Roman law was not great during the Saxon period: there is neither the transmission of important legal doctrines, chiefly through the medium of Visigothic codes, nor the continuous stream of Roman tradition in local usage. But indirectly Roman law did exert a by no means insignificant influence through the medium of the Church, which, for all its apparent insular character, was still permeated with Roman ideas and forms of culture. The Old English “books” are derived in a roundabout way from Roman models, and the tribal law of real property was deeply modified by the introduction of individualistic notions as to ownership, donations, wills, rights of women, etc. Yet in this respect also the Norman Conquest increased the store of Roman conceptions by breaking the national isolation of the English Church and opening the way for closer intercourse with France and Italy. (Wiki)

Winston Stanley

10th September 2019 at 5:13 pm

Claire, the NT is not a legal document and it is devoid of legal principles. The closest is the exhortation to kill gays (Romans 1). The OT contains an ancient tribal religious law that is defunct in NT, it was anyway concerned with eccentricities like the eating of shell fish and pork, designed to distinguish Je ws from others and completely useless out of a Bronze Age Middle Eastern context. The idea that English/ Norman law is based on the 10 commandments is pretty nursery stuff up there with Noah’s Ark. Not trying to be rude but that about sums it up.

Claire D

11th September 2019 at 9:28 am

Winston, (I’m smiling), you bombard with information and knowledge. I think you might admit that Alfred the G’s law book, ‘The Domboc ‘ c.880 AD, based on the Bible and the 10 commandments was an important step forward in legal history. It influenced legal practice first in Wessex and then gradually across England until William the C imposed Canon law in 1070-1076. The very fact that Canon Law was under the jurisdiction of the Church is influence. I concede, your knowledge about Roman Law is greater than mine but it does not alter the fact of the influence of Christianity on our legal system which continued more or less up until the present day. I recommend Great Christian Jurists in English History, (Cambridge University Press).

A particularly interesting and apposite example, Sir John Fortescue (c.1347-1476), Chief Justice under Henry VI, wrote a treatise, ‘ Monarchia ‘ on whether the king should rule by his own laws or with the assent of the people ie, Dominum Regale v’s Dominum Politicum et Regale. This was based on St. Thomas Aquinas’ examination of the 7th chapter of the Book of Kings in The Bible.
Needless to say Dominum Politicum et Regale won the day ie, that the king should only rule with the assent of the people.

Gerard Barry

8th September 2019 at 12:51 pm

You really don’t like religion – or at least Christianity – do you? You constantly cite these statistics about British irreligiosity as if they are something positive. You and many others may view them as such but, personally, I see it as a sign of decadence in society when people turn their back on a religion that has been around for 2,000 years. It’s indicative of a certain arrogance among people nowadays. It’s as if to say: “My religious parents and grandparents were uneducated simpletons but I know better because I’m enlightened and modern.” Then there’s the big pink elephant by the name of Islam in the room. While native Europeans may be becoming less religious, the number of Muslims keeps increasing across Western Europe. This would be okay were it not for the fact that many of the Muslim newcomers are extremely devout, following the “rules” of their faith to the letter. I’m not sure I want to live in a Europe where Islam is the biggest religion. Do you?

Winston Stanley

9th September 2019 at 3:45 pm

People can have whatever religion they want or none. I do not favour Christianity over Islam. If ppl in Britain choose not to be Christian then that is up to them. Only 1/3 here identify as Christian now, far fewer among the younger generations. Ever fewer do. You may need to get over that. And pls do not try to stir up anti-Muslim feeling in some lame attempt to revive your own religion.

Jack Enright

7th September 2019 at 12:13 am

Jessica Christon (quoting Karl Popper): ” . . . if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
Exactly! It’s bewildering how many of those DEMANDING tolerance for themselves and their way of life, whilst displaying blatant contempt and hatred to anyone who disagrees with them, cannot see that self-evident truth.
Amelia Cantor being a classic example!

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