Documentary Analysis On John Locke's Letters Concerning Toleration Newcastle University Documentary Analysis

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Documentary commentary on John Locke’s ‘letters concerning toleration’:
John Locke was an 17th Century English enlightenment thinker. His ‘Letters of toleration’ were published in England after the ‘Glorious revolution’ (1689) during a time of great ‘hope and anticipation’.[footnoteRef:1] His overarching argument was to ‘distinguish exactly the business of civil government and that of religion’.[footnoteRef:2] In other words, that countries should exist with religion and civil society being totally independent from each other. Locke goes further in his letters and argues that the only role for the state should be to protect and preserve the commonwealth (common good). The commonwealth being man’s civil interests which he names as ‘life, liberty, health, and indolency of body’ and ‘the possession of outward things’.[footnoteRef:3] Ultimately, Locke’s main ambition was the ‘separation of church and state’.[footnoteRef:4] [1: Garrett Ward Sheldon, Encyclopaedia of Political Thought, (Infobase Publishing, 2001), p34.] [2: Bette Novit Evans, Interpreting the Free Exercise of Religion: The Constitution and American Pluralism, (Uni of North Carolina Press, 1997), p33.] [3: John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration: Latin and English Texts Revised and Edited with Variants and an Introduction, (Springer Science & Business Media, 6th Dec 2012), p15.] [4: Darian Auburn McWhirter, The Separation of Church and State, (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994), p4.]
Although Locke strongly advocated religious toleration in his Letters. Atheism was his ‘one notable exception’.[footnoteRef:5] This is based on the belief that since Atheist’s do not believe in the afterlife they do not fear the consequences of their actions from God. Thus, they will have no incentive to uphold rules and therefore this would undermine the integrity of the magistrate. However, in his letters Locke highlights any church or religion such as Judaism or a ‘heathen’ may be permitted within in society.[footnoteRef:6] Regardless of whether their ‘opinions are false and absurd.’ So long as they are not detrimental to the commonwealth.[footnoteRef:7] As it was Locke’s opinion they at least had a moral obligation to abide by state laws for fear of their god. During the 17th century period this view would have been shared by ‘by almost all his contemporaries’.[footnoteRef:8] The French philosopher Pierre Bayle on the other hand was ‘much more radical’ than Locke.[footnoteRef:9] Although he agreed with Locke that the church and state should be separate. He argued for ‘toleration to the max’, including atheists.[footnoteRef:10] Bayle’s view was that the behaviour of human beings is not a result of religious beliefs or convictions but by ‘passions, impulses, and temperament'.[footnoteRef:11] Therefore, unlike Locke, Bayle believed ‘atheists could be as moral as Christians’.[footnoteRef:12] In other words, our conscience is not driven by a divine power but is a natural phenomenon. In summary...

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