. 7
( 9)


than the transfer of powers from individuals, cannot acquire arbitrary
authority on any consensual basis. This is absolutely fundamental to
Locke™s political argument, and it represents a decisive siding of Locke
against those who, like Luis de Molina and Francisco Suarez, associated
a radical theory of rights with the possibility of contractarian defenses of
slavery and absolutism, in what Richard Tuck has shown was one of the
great controversies of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century rights-theory.
(Notice also that it makes nonsense of the idea that Locke thought of all
rights on the model of property.µ Property can be alienated by gift or
sale in the marketplace, but many of our most important rights are, in
the strictest sense, inalienable on Locke™s account.)
In general opposition to slavery is the leitmotiv of Locke™s Two Treatises.
The First Treatise opens the batting against Filmer with an announcement
which reads rather like a chorus from “Rule, Britannia!”: “Slavery is so
vile and miserable an Estate of Man, and so directly opposite to the
generous Temper and Courage of our Nation; that ™tis hardly to be
conceived, that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for™t”
(±st T: ±). Still, showing that Britons cannot be slaves, and also that slavery
cannot be based on consent, is not enough to complete a comprehensive
case against this peculiar institution. For there are other possibilities: one
is that slavery might be appropriate for human beings of certain natures “
Aristotle™s “natural slaves”· “ and the other is that slavery might be
based on some legitimate form of captivity. What has Locke to say about
these possibilities?
So far as natural slavery is concerned, Locke™s egalitarianism will not
permit it, and he dismisses it out of hand. (Incidentally, Sir Robert Filmer
also dismisses this possibility in Patriarcha.) Nature, Locke says, “has
made no such distinction between one Man and another” (nd T: ±·).
Ian Harris points rather ingenuously to a passage in the Second Treatise
which he thinks shows that Locke did accept the possibility of natural
slaves. Locke writes of latter-day Filmerians:
 µ Macpherson, Democratic Theory, p. µ.
See Tuck, Natural Rights Theories, pp. “µ·.
 I owe this characterization to Farr, “So Vile and Miserable An Estate.”
· Aristotle, The Politics, Bk. I, Chs. “, pp. µ“.
 Filmer, Patriarcha, p. ±µ. (See Chapter ±, p. ±· above, for the full text of Filmer™s rejection of
Aristotle™s doctrine of natural slavery.)
 Harris, Mind of John Locke, p. ±·.
°° God, Locke, and Equality
their Civil Policy is so new, so dangerous, and so destructive to both Rulers and
People, that as former ages never could bear the broaching of it; so it may be
hoped, those to come, redeem™d from the Impositions of these Egyptian Under-
Task-masters, will abhor the Memory of such servile Flatterers, who whilst it
seem™d to serve their turn, resolv™d all government into absolute Tyranny, and
would have all Men born to, what their [own] mean Souls ¬tted them for,
Slavery. (nd T: )

But I think it is pretty clear Locke means this as simple vituperation, and
not at all as a serious philosophical claim that some men (e.g. Filmerians)
are slavish by soul or by nature.
That leaves slavery by captivity, and here there is no doubt: Locke is
prepared to say that humans who are conquered as unjust aggressors by
those who are defending themselves or their property in a just war may
be enslaved. The argument is that since they may legitimately be put to
death, they may therefore legitimately be subjected by their conquerors
to any indignity short of death, including forced labor. “[H]aving by
his fault forfeited his own Life, by some Act that deserves Death; he, to
whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his Power) delay to
take it, and make use of him to his own Service, and he does him no
injury by it” (nd T: ). This is the only form of legitimate slavery that
Locke is prepared to acknowledge. But it is an extraordinarily limited
For one thing, Locke insists that this is not a relationship in which the
slave has any obligation: it is a pure case of legitimate power “ one of
those interesting cases where legitimacy and obligation come apart.°
No doubt the legitimate slave had a duty not to engage in aggression
in the ¬rst place. But he has violated that, and he now deserves death;
and that is all there is to say on his side of the equation. He can choose
at any time whether to obey the master or risk the death he deserves;
and if he has an obligation to obey I suspect it is nothing more than an
artifact of his general duty to God to remain alive (even when he deserves
death), and not risk the indirect suicide of resistance, a prospect about
which Locke is somewhat equivocal in the chapter on slavery.± It is not
a matter of his conqueror having offered him a bargain and his being
bound by a contract. Locke is emphatic about that: a bargain based on

° See Waldron, “Theoretical Foundations of Liberalism,” pp. “µ°. See also Dworkin, Law™s
Empire, p. ±±.
± See nd T: : “whenever he ¬nds the hardship of his Slavery outweigh the value of his Life, ™tis
in his Power, by resisting the Will of his Master, to draw on himself the Death he desires.”
“By Our Saviour™s Interpretation”
force has no validity, nor does a bargain to dispose of one™s freedom
(nd T: ±).
Also the conditions are themselves very restrictive. We are talking only
about the enslavement of captives taken in a just war, and only captives
who were actual participants in the aggression that made the just war neces-
sary. Locke insists that this applies only to those who actually participated
in the unjust aggression “ not their wives, not their children, not their
fellow-countrymen. And he is emphatic also that only actual deliberate
participation counts; tacit or presumed consent to an involvement in the
aggressive enterprise is not enough. All this is explicit and insistent in the
chapter on conquest.µ If someone is attacked unjustly by a king and his
army, then he “ the person who is attacked “ may enslave the king and
the soldiers “who have actually assisted, concurrd, or consented to that
unjust force” (nd T: ±·). But he is not entitled to enslave a whole people
simply because they were subjects of an unjust aggressor. The ordinary
subjects of an aggressor cannot be assumed to have given their consent
to the aggression. On the contrary, the hypothesis goes the other way:
this is not the sort of thing for which consent can ordinarily be assumed
(nd T: ±·).
Seymour Drescher has suggested that beyond natural slavery (which
Locke rejects) and slavery by just captivity (which he acknowledges, but
only on the most severely restricted basis), there might also be a third
category: slavery by purchase. He observes that Locke seems to ac-
knowledge this in a passage towards the end of the First Treatise, where he
speaks of a “Planter in the West Indies” having “Power in his Family over
Servants born in his House, and bought with his Money” (±st T: ±°).
And he compares this with the practice in ancient Israel: “Those who
were rich in the Patriarchs days, as in the West Indies now, bought Men
and Maid Servants, and by their increase, as well as purchasing of new,
came to have large and numerous Families” (±st T: ±°). The passage
is certainly a challenging one. James Farr believes that Locke is sim-
ply noticing the existence of a common practice and that this does not
amount to an endorsement of slavery-by-purchase: “His recognition of
it is on a par with his recognition of, say, suicide or absolute monarchy

 Compare the First Treatise passage on coercive agreements (±st T: ) which we discussed in
Chapter µ above, pp. ±·“.
  See nd T: ±·, ±, and ±.
See also the discussion at the end of Chapter µ above.
µ Locke, Second Treatise, Chapter ±.
 Drescher, “On James Farr™s ˜So Vile and Miserable an Estate.™”
° God, Locke, and Equality
or the ravages of lions and tigers.”· But this won™t quite do, since Locke
is explicitly talking about entitlement here: the context is an argument
that not all power descends by inheritance from Adam, since some is
acquired through purchase.
A Mans Riding, in an expedition against an Enemy, his Horse bought in a
Fair, would be as good a Proof that the owner enjoyed the Lordship which
Adam by command had over the whole World, by Right descending to him, as
Abraham™s leading out the Servants of his Family is, that the Patriarchs enjoyed
this Lordship by descent from Adam: since the Title to the Power the Master
had in both Cases, whether over Slaves or Horses, was only from his purchase;
and the getting a Dominion over any thing by Bargain and Money, is a new way
[i.e., a preposterous way] of proving one had it by Descent and Inheritance.
(±st T: ±°)
Farr, I think, takes the wrong tack. We need not read an egalitarian
Locke as utterly rejecting the possibility that Drescher notices. It is just
conceivable that a slave may legitimately be sold on Locke™s account. But
that can happen only if the slave in question was justly captured in a
just war (and, as we have seen, Locke regards this as a severely limited
though not necessarily empty category) and only if there is also some
way of getting round the point we noticed at the end of Chapter µ, that
certain ways of regularizing the relation between master and servant
are inconsistent with the basis of slavery (nd T: ±·). On the other
hand, Farr is right to emphasize that the legitimacy of the enslavement of
someone not justly captured in a just war can never be established by the
mere fact of purchase. The logic of this aspect of a master™s entitlement
is simply Nozickian, on Locke™s account. Defects in the application of
the principle of justice-in-acquisition cannot be cured by any subsequent
applications of the principle of justice-in-transfer.
And, of course, Farr is also right to emphasize in a general way the
difference in Locke™s work between noticing the existence of some prac-
tice and according it legitimacy. Many people may act as though their
power over slaves is justi¬ed purely by purchase without regard to the
justice of the initial enslavement of the individuals in question; but the
noticeable prevalence of that wouldn™t make it right. Locke did not, as
Jacqueline Stevens alleges, “believe that the existence of a practice vali-
dates it.”° His books are replete with reports of existent practices that
he condemns. I can™t resist citing what I think is the clearest example of

·  See above, p. ±.
Farr, “Slaves Bought with Money,” p. ·.
 ° Stevens, Reproducing the State, p. ±°°n.
See Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, pp. ±µ°“.
“By Our Saviour™s Interpretation”
Locke™s insistence on the distinction between fact and right, which is in
a passage from the Letter on Toleration. It has nothing to do with slavery,
but it goes as follows:
There are two sorts of Contests amongst men, the one managed by Law, the
other by Force; and these are of that nature that where the one ends, the other
always begins. But it is not my business to inquire into the Power of the Magistrate
in the different Constitutions of Nations. I only know what usually happens
where Controversies arise without a judge to determine them. You will say then
the Magistrate being the stronger will have his Will and carry his point. Without
doubt; but the Question is not here concerning the doubtfulness of the Event,
but the Rule of Right. (LCT: )
That™s the spirit in which Locke writes almost all of his political philoso-
phy. It™s the spirit in which he comments on the prospects for resistance
to tyranny by an isolated individual at the end of the Second Treatise (nd
T: °).± And it™s also the spirit in which he ends his discussion of slavery
in the Second Treatise. Locke acknowledges that men generally ignore the
natural law principles he has set out: “Conquerours, ™tis true, seldom
trouble themselves to make the distinction, but they willingly permit the
confusion of War to sweep altogether” (nd T: ±·). But, he goes on,
this alters not the Right: for the Conquerours Power over the Lives of the
Conquered, being only because they have used force to do, or maintain an
Injustice, he can have that power only over those, who have concurred in that
force, all the rest are innocent; and he has no more Title over the People of that
Country, who have done him no Injury, and so have made no forfeiture of their
Lives, than he has over any other, who, without any injuries or provocations,
have lived upon fair terms with him. (nd T: ±·)
We have then a severely limited case for slavery, together with a quite
rigorist attitude to the conditions that must be met before enslavement
can possibly be legitimate.
Now I want to venture a risky hypothesis. Nobody who thought this
carefully about the relation between practice and justi¬cation and also
about the one limited case in which slavery might be justi¬ed “ nobody
who announced the restrictions on the legitimacy of slavery that Locke
announced and made them bear so much weight in his theory of politics “
could possibly have believed in the moral legitimacy of African slavery
as an institution in the English colonies in America.
± Thus I disagree with Stevens, “The Reasonableness of John Locke™s Majority,” pp. “·.
 Locke, as James Farr has noted in “So Vile and Miserable an Estate,” was unwilling to provide
any actual historical examples of justi¬ed slavery.
° God, Locke, and Equality
Historically, the hypothesis is risky because of what we know of John
Locke™s own involvement with American slavery. Locke invested money
personally both in plantation enterprises and in an enterprise (The
Royal African Company) that had a monopoly in the slave trade. In
the late ±°s and the ±·°s Locke worked as a secretary to the Lords
Proprietors of Carolina, and in that capacity “ due partly to his associa-
tion with Shaftesbury, chief among the Lords Proprietors “ he certainly
transcribed, and perhaps played a large part in drafting, what came
to be known as The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. (Scholarly opin-
ions differ about the exact extent of his involvement.) The Fundamental
Constitutions of Carolina clearly assume slavery as an institution and they
say things like “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and
authority over his negro slaves,” though they also insist that “[s]ince
charity obliges us to wish well to the souls of all men, . . . it shall be lawful
for slaves, as all others, to enter . . . and be of what church any of them
shall think best, and thereof be as fully members as any freemen.”µ
Much of this description of Locke™s involvement I have taken from an
article by Jennifer Welchman. Professor Welchman concludes that part
of her article by saying: “The man whose career I™ve just described to you
is not a man likely to construct or defend a theory of political or natural
rights incompatible with slavery.” Let us think about that. What does
Welchman™s comment assume about the notion of a life or a career?
What does it assume about integrity and about the unity of a political
and intellectual life? I suspect it depends on quite modern twentieth-
or twenty-¬rst-century notions of career and integrity “ notions that
are underwritten in our lives by a certain amount of prestige, safety, and
independent prosperity (not to mention academic tenure). Paradoxically
they are underwritten also by our political impotence. We who have no
power can afford to cultivate a fastidious unity (or appearance of unity)
in the theories we espouse and the political actions we undertake, for
our political actions are nothing more than the casting of a secret ballot
or the signing of an open letter.· (Is it putting it too meanly to say that,
for us, the integrity of theory and practice means at most some sort of
continuity between what we write in an academic journal and what we
write in the New York Review of Books?) At any rate, these notions of integrity
 For doubts about Locke™s actual involvement as an author, see Milton, “John Locke and the
Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina,” pp.  ff.
 µ Ibid., p. ±·.
Locke, “Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina”, p. ±°.
 Welchman, “Locke on Slavery and Inalienable Rights,” p. ·µ.
· See Posner, Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, Ch. ±; and Waldron, “Ego-Bloated Hovel,”
pp. ±“.
“By Our Saviour™s Interpretation”
and the unity of a life are arguably anachronistic in terms of seventeenth-
century intellectual culture. Certainly what I have referred to as their
underpinnings (in our case) have little application to the material and
career circumstances of a man who did not make a living as a university
scholar with tenure, who was involved in deadly political conspiracy, and
who often “ as when he ¬‚ed Oxford in ±, his books blazing behind
him “ could not even guarantee his physical safety as a scholar, let alone his
livelihood. Let me add that I am not trying to excuse Locke™s investment
in slavery. I am simply resisting an inference from something he did to
something he “must have” thought. No doubt there is something to be
said, too, about the role of Locke™s own character in all of this: he was not
the sort of man one would expect to dissociate himself fastidiously from
power and patronage in order to vindicate his own moral views. But it™s
not just a matter of character. Historians of ideas need to be sensitive to
the historical events of Locke™s life, certainly; but they also need to be
sensitive to the historically speci¬c idea of what it is to make a life for oneself
out of such events. The symbolic politics familiar to us “ the politics
of disinvestment, conscientious refusal, and righteous dissociation “ are
not unproblematically available as an ahistorical matrix on which we
can infer what Locke must have thought from the company he kept and
the investments he made.
As a matter of fact, I think we can see our author slipping in some
distinctly Lockean ideas into the Constitutions of the Carolinas. The stuff
about slaves going to whatever church they like is clearly Locke, as is the
comment he adds to it “ “religion ought to alter nothing in any man™s civil
estate or right” “ which (as we have seen) is exactly what he was writing
around the same time in the First and Second Tracts on Government. Be that
as it may, it is obvious that any seventeenth-century constitution for the
Carolinas (for that matter any eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century
constitution for the Carolinas) was going to include a clause permitting
slavery. I don™t think we can infer anything about the personal politics let
alone the political philosophy of the transcribing secretary from the fact
that he failed to persuade the Lords Proprietors of the colony to take the
slavery clause out (and abolish the institution). Indeed I doubt that we
can infer very much about Locke™s political theory from the fact that he
probably didn™t even try.
 My point is not that it is anachronistic to reproach Locke for not holding opinions like ours about
slavery (cf. Ashcraft, “Simple Objections and Complex Reality,” p. ±°). I am saying that it is
anachronistic to use our concept of political or scholarly integrity as a heuristic for determining
whether he in fact did hold anything like our position.
 I am grateful to Karma Nabulsi for conversations on this topic.
° God, Locke, and Equality
If we read the theory as it is written in the Two Treatises then the
position is clear. There is simply no possibility of reconciling Locke™s
very limited theory of legitimate enslavement with the reality of the
institution in the Carolinas or anywhere else in the Americas. Locke was
well aware of the methods of the slave-hunters and could have been under
no illusion that the slaves they traf¬cked in were aggressors defeated
in a just war. Englishmen at that time had no interest in establishing
agriculture in Africa and so they could not construct a plausible defense
of a just war against its native inhabitants along the lines that James Tully
suggests Locke contemplated against native Americans.µ° Also Locke
was perfectly familiar with the fact that women and children were also
enslaved, in proportions that suggest patent violations of the natural law
principle he insisted upon “ that the just captivity of an aggressor does
not implicate his family (nd T: ±). He was well aware, too, that slavery
in the Americas was an inherited status, that slaves were bred; and of
course, this straightforwardly contradicts the moral individualism which
is as crucial to his moral and political theory generally as it is to his
opposition to speci¬c theories about corruption of the blood and the
posterity of those who have engaged in aggression.
So what can I say? Two facts are clear: (±) There is nothing in Locke™s
theory that lends an iota of legitimacy to the contemporary institution
of slavery in the Americas; and () African slavery in the Americas was
a reality and Locke himself was implicated with it, in the ways that
I have described. I prefer to leave those facts where they lie, sitting
uncomfortably together, than to try and resolve a contradiction between
them, a contradiction which exists only by virtue of our own late
twentieth- or early twenty-¬rst-century ideas about the political integrity
of an intellectual life.

I have been proceeding, as I hope the reader can tell, on the basis of theme
and digression. I want to return now from this digression about slavery
to the main theme that I introduced at the beginning of this chapter: the
comparative absence of any New Testament references, material, and
argumentation in John Locke™s Two Treatises of Government.
We have pursued a partial explanation. Locke did not believe that
there was any speci¬cally political theory contained in the teachings of
the Gospels; and to the extent that he drew anything political from the
µ° Tully, “Rediscovering America,” pp. ± ff. See also my discussion in Chapter , above.
“By Our Saviour™s Interpretation”
Epistles it was precisely to reinforce that point. Christianity changes noth-
ing so far as the legitimacy of terrestrial political institutions is concerned.
But this will not do as a complete explanation. For although the Second
Treatise is an attempt “to understand Political Power” and distinguish it
from other forms of power, it does so on the basis of natural law theory, to
which the whole ¬rst half of the Second Treatise is devoted and which, if the
Locke of The Reasonableness of Christianity is to be believed, has nowhere
been better and more forcefully expounded than in the teachings of Jesus
Christ (RC: ± ff.). Admittedly, we must take care not to exaggerate the
continuity between the Treatises and the Reasonableness. Depending which
view you accept about the composition of the Second Treatise, there might
be as many as ¬fteen years between them. It is often suggested that the
key contrast is between the Essay and the Reasonableness “ The Reasonable-
ness of Christianity being a sort of apology for the failure of the Essay to
demonstrate the foundations of morality. (I said in Chapter  that I had
my doubts about that picture, and I won™t repeat them here.)µ± Where
there is a striking dissonance, however, is in the way in which natural law
foundations are set out in the Second Treatise and the way in which they are
discussed in The Reasonableness of Christianity. For Locke is purporting to
do in the Second Treatise what he was prepared to say in the Reasonableness
had never in fact been done successfully without the aid of the Gospels.
It is true, there is a law of nature: but who is there that ever did, or undertook
to give it us entire, as a law; no more, nor no less, than what was contained in,
and had the obligation of that law? Who ever made out the parts of it, put them
together, and showed the world their obligation? (RC: ±)
In context, Locke™s rhetorical question is directed at the pre-Christian
philosophers. But a lot of what he says in the Reasonableness seems to
suggest that it would be hopeless to attempt a systematic and compelling
exposition of natural law, even in the post-Christian era, except on the
basis of the teachings of Christ.µ From this point of view, then, the Second
Treatise “ with its lack of Gospel-based argument “ is at odds with the
sort of pessimism about unaided reason that suffuses The Reasonableness
of Christianity.µ

µ± See above, p. .
µ See also Locke™s note in P&N: ii, p.  (commenting on Romans :±): “For though from Adam
to Christ there was noe revealed positive law but that given to the Israelites yet it is certain that
by Jesus Christ a positive law from heaven is given to all mankind, and that those to whom this
has been promulgated by the preaching of the gospel are all under it and shall be judged by it.”
(I am indebted for this citation to Spellman, John Locke, p. .)
µ Incidentally, the common view “ that Locke™s Reasonableness of Christianity is an attempt to vindicate
religion in rationalistic terms (along the lines of Kant™s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone) “ is
° God, Locke, and Equality
Is it perhaps just a matter of genre “ that the Second Treatise simply
re¬‚ects the way natural law treatises were written in the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries? I am not sure. It is worth noting that Locke also
eschewed the use of biblical material in his early Essays on the Law of
Nature (from around ±“), as did Samuel Pufendorf in his treatise
On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law. Hugo Grotius, on
the other hand, did make use of New Testament material in The Rights
of War and Peace. He cited the teachings and example of Christ in his
discussion of oaths and truth-telling, and most notably and extensively
in developing his theory of punishment.µ And it™s not just rhetoric:
Grotius feels impelled to ask, for example, whether the Christian teaching
of forgiveness con¬nes the right to punishment “within closer bounds,”
and he has to go through some quite considerable contortions to salvage
the idea of retribution.µµ (In this connection, it is surely interesting that
Locke argued in the Reasonableness that the idea of redemption could be
arrived at in principle by the same sort of reasoning that arrives at the
idea of God; and that Locke also thought, like Grotius, that reason, not
just Christian revelation, showed that “the in¬‚iction of punishment, only
to gratify resentment” was something repugnant to the law of nature.)µ

Speci¬cally Christian arguments are not always absent from Locke™s
mature political thought. They are in fact quite prominent in the
Letters Concerning Toleration. The original Letter, Locke says, contains “my
Thoughts about the mutual Toleration of Christians in their different Profes-
sions of Religion” (LCT:  “ my emphasis) and the thesis is set out quite
explicitly: “The Toleration of those that differ from others in Matters
of Religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . . that it seems
monstrous for Men to be so blind, as not to perceive the Necessity and
quite mistaken. It seems to be based on a reading of nothing more than the title of the work. For
an accurate account, see Tully, “Governing Conduct,” pp. µ ff.
µ See Grotius, Rights of War and Peace, Bk. II, Chs. ± (pp. ±± and ±“µ) and ° ( pp. , ±“,
, and µ); and Bk. III, Ch. ± (pp. , ·, and °°).
µµ Ibid., pp. °“ (Bk. II, Ch. °, para. x).
µ Compare Locke, Reasonableness, pp. ·“±° with Grotius, Rights of War and Peace, p. °: “For the
in¬‚iction of punishment, only to gratify resentment, so far from being conformable to the Gospel,
has been shewn above to be repugnant even to the law of nature.” See also Locke, nd T: , “And
thus in the State of Nature, one Man comes by a Power over another; but yet no Absolute or Arbitrary
Power, to use a Criminal when he has got him in his hands, according to the passionate heats, or
boundless extravagancy of his own Will, but only to retribute to him, so far as calm reason and
conscience dictates, what is proportionate to his Transgression, which is so much as may serve
for Reparation and Restraint.”
“By Our Saviour™s Interpretation”
Advantage of it in so clear a Light” (LCT: µ). This is not just happy talk.
Locke reverts to the Gospels many times to bolster particular points he
wants to make about toleration. For example, in his observations about
ecclesiastical organization in the Letter, he makes it clear that Gospel
authority is crucial. To the defenders of episcopacy, he says
let them show me the edict by which Christ has imposed that law upon His
Church. And let not any man think me impertinent, if in a thing of this conse-
quence I require that the terms of that edict be very express and positive; for
the promise He has made us (Matt. ±.°), that “wheresoever two or three are
gathered together” in His name, He will be in the midst of them, seems to imply
the contrary. (LCT: ±)
But he also invokes the example of Jesus and the spirit of Christian
charity as a matter of general liberal ethos, as in this passage: “[T]he
Gospel frequently declares that the true disciples of Christ must suffer
persecution; but that the Church of Christ should persecute others . . .
I could never yet ¬nd in any of the books of the New Testament”
(LCT: ). In another passage, he declares:
If, like the Captain of our salvation, they sincerely desired the good of souls,
they would . . . follow the perfect example of that Prince of Peace, who sent out
His soldiers to the subduing of nations, and gathering them into His Church,
not armed with the sword, or other instruments of force, but prepared with
the Gospel of peace and with the exemplary holiness of their conversation.
(LCT: ±)
How bracketable is this Christian material in the Letter Concerning
Toleration?µ· I had always assumed it could be bracketed off and that
a substantial argument for toleration would remain “ namely the argu-
ment based on the fact that belief is not subject to the will, and that
therefore coercion, which works on the will, is inappropriate for produc-
ing true belief. I argued that in a ± paper on toleration, suggesting
that as well as the Christian argument there was also a general argument
for toleration that might be persuasive to anyone.µ I didn™t intend to
infer from this that a secular Lockean argument could be extended to
free speech generally or to toleration of differing life-styles. John Dunn is
quite right to insist on “the yawning chasm between the implications of
Locke™s argument for tolerating varieties of Christian belief and practice
within a Christian state and society and the implications . . . for freedom
µ· Compare the discussion about “bracketing” at the beginning of Chapter .
µ Waldron, “Locke, Toleration and the Rationality of Persecution,” pp. “°. For an effective
critique, see Fish, Trouble with Principle, pp. ±·“.
±° God, Locke, and Equality
of thought and expression more broadly within a secular state or a more
intractably plural religious culture.”µ Nothing can get the bene¬t of
Locke™s argument unless it is a “religion in which authentic belief is a
precondition for valid religious worship and religious worship is a central
duty for man.”° Still, even within the realm of religion, Locke himself
did seem to think that there was something in his argument that might
appeal to a Mahometan mullah or a Hindu prince contemplating the
enforcement of their own religious views; and presumably he would have
to accept that in that regard they might be impervious to any argument
based on the teaching or example of Jesus Christ and his apostles.
But in fact I think now that the main argument of the Letter does have
to rest on its distinctively Christian foundations. This becomes apparent
once we take into account the concessions that Locke is forced to make
in the Second, Third and Fourth Letters Concerning Toleration. The argument in
the original Letter of ± had been that “true and saving religion consists
in the inward persuasion of the mind . . . And such is the nature of the
understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by
outward force” (LCT: ±). But Locke™s critics “ notably Jonas Proast “
had argued and argued persuasively that force may work indirectly to
inculcate beliefs or to make the mind receptive to beliefs, even if it does
not work directly on the understanding. Locke accepted this. There is
no denying, he said, that in particular cases force may work to procure
salvation. God himself makes use of all sorts of things to save men™s
souls “ “as our Savior did of clay and spittle to cure blindness.”± God
might have ordained the general use of force in religious matters in the
way that he gave speci¬c commandments to the Israelites to punish
idolatry with death. As a matter of fact, he says, that was a positive law
speci¬cally addressed to the Jewish nation, and not to us. But things
could have been different. (And if they had been different we would
know about it only through revelation, which means we are held hostage
in our theory of toleration to what revelation actually tells us about
the use of force in matters of worship and belief.) “If God thought it
necessary to have men punished to make them” pay attention to the
Gospel teaching, says Locke, “he could have called magistrates to be
µ Dunn, “What is Living and What is Dead in the Political Theory of John Locke?” p. ±.
° ± Locke, Second Letter Concerning Toleration, p. .
Dunn, Locke, p. µ·.
 “For no positive law whatsoever can oblige any people but those to whom it is given. ˜Hear,
O Israel,™ suf¬ciently restrains the obligations of the law of Moses only to that people. And this
consideration alone is answer enough unto those that urge the authority of the law of Moses for
the in¬‚icting of capital punishment upon idolaters” (LCT: ).
“By Our Saviour™s Interpretation”
spreaders and ministers of the Gospel, as well as poor ¬shermen.” So
the position to which Locke retreats is that even though force may work in
some cases and even though it may be ordained for some speci¬c nation,
it has not generally been ordained by God as a means of conversion: “It
is not for the magistrate, or any body else, upon an imagination of its
usefulness, to make use of any other means for the salvation of men™s
souls than what the author and ¬nisher of our faith hath directed.”
And although this is bolstered with other, somewhat more ecumenical
arguments about force being counter-productive as well as productive,
and about the poor likelihood that magistrates will have the discernment
to discover what is “true religion” before deploying force “ the main line
of argument in Locke™s case for toleration that survives Proast™s critique
is dominated by his sense of what God has and has not ordained; and
for that the speci¬c biblical evidence of the life and teaching of Jesus is
I am mindful that there is no reason to think that in the ±°s Locke
had already seen his way through to what we can discern as the outcome
of his exchange with Proast. (If the Third and Fourth Letters for Toleration
of the ±°s are any indication, I™m not sure he ever accepted that his
secular argument had been knocked down.) And as I have already said,
we should not assume that he held in the early ±°s the pessimistic view
of the natural law argument that he expounded in The Reasonableness of
Christianity. So we should be careful not to phrase our problem “ about the
absence of New Testament materials from the Two Treatises “ as though
it were a question of why Locke failed to deploy resources the need for
whose deployment only became apparent to him later.

I have often wondered whether the absence of New Testament materials
from the Two Treatises of Government has any connection with the fact that
the latter work also says nothing at all on the subject of religious toler-
ation. Religious toleration was one of Locke™s abiding preoccupations,
and from a purely philosophical point of view it is odd that he should
make no mention of it in a treatise concerned with the functions and
limits of government. If anything, the occasional references to religion in
the Second Treatise seem to indicate that the legitimate Lockean polity need
 
Locke, Second Letter Concerning Toleration, p. . Ibid., p. ±.
± God, Locke, and Equality
not be a secular one at all.µ In the chapters on resistance and revolu-
tion, Locke suggests that a people may be entitled to rise up against their
prince if he has by his actions or negligence endangered “their Estates,
Liberties, Lives . . . and perhaps their Religion too” (nd T: °) and he
speaks darkly too of a “Religion underhand favored (though publickly
proclaimed against)” (nd T: ±°). I am not saying that the doctrine of
toleration is incompatible with the general argument of the Second Treatise.
It certainly is not, despite these super¬cial indications. Still, the omission
feels signi¬cant.
Historically and politically, the omission of tolerationist argument from
the Second Treatise is perhaps not dif¬cult to explain. James II was trying to
enlist the support of Dissenters in favor of the repeal of Test Acts against
Catholics, which meant that during the mid-±°s, tolerationist rhetoric
was being used against the Whigs. So there was every reason for those
opposed to James, whether immediately before or after his succession,
to play down this aspect of their overall position. As John Marshall has
argued, support for resistance to James™s succession was so precarious
that Locke and his circle recognized the inadvisability of entangling the
case for resistance, argued in the Second Treatise, with an argument about
toleration that might diminish the breadth of its appeal.
I suspect, however, that there were also intellectual reasons for Locke™s
hesitation. We catch a glimpse of these, I think, when we compare the
de¬nitions of “church” and “commonwealth” provided in the Letter Con-
cerning Toleration:
The Commonwealth seems to me to be a Society of Men constituted only for
the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own Civil Interests. Civil Interests I
call Life, Liberty, Health, and Indolency of Body; and the Possession of outward
things, such as Money, Lands, Houses, Furniture, and the like . . . Let us now
consider what a Church is. A church, then, I take to be a voluntary Society of
Men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the publick
worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and
effectual to the Salvation of their Souls. (LCT:  and )
Now the temptation is to say that the key difference here is in the allocated
functions “ protection of civil interests, as de¬ned, versus worship and
salvation of the soul. But notice another cardinal difference: churches
are de¬ned as voluntary organizations whereas the commonwealth is
µ Waldron, “Locke, Toleration, and the Rationality of Persecution,” p. ±°°.
 Marshall, John Locke, pp. “.
“By Our Saviour™s Interpretation”
not. (I don™t mean the commonwealth is de¬ned as involuntary; I mean
that it is not de¬ned here by reference to its being voluntary.) Consider
what Locke goes on to say about a church:
I say it is a free and voluntary Society. Nobody is born a member of any Church;
otherwise the Religion of Parents would descend unto Children by the same
right of Inheritance as their Temporal Estates, and everyone would hold his Faith
by the same Tenure he does his Lands, than which nothing can be imagined
more absurd. Thus therefore that matter stands. No Man by nature is bound
unto any particular Church or Sect, but everyone joins himself voluntarily.
(LCT: )
There are two striking things in this passage. First, almost everything
Locke says here about a church, he says about the commonwealth in
the Second Treatise. Here he says a church is a free and voluntary society;
there he says that political power is established by consent:
Men being, as has been said, by Nature, all free, equal, and independent, no
one can be put out of this Estate, and subjected to the Political Power of another,
without his own Consent. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his
Natural Liberty, and puts on the bonds of Civil Society, is by agreeing with other
Men to joyn and unite into a community . . . This any number of men may do,
because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the
liberty of the State of Nature. (nd T: µ)
Secondly, the disanalogy that Locke raises in the passage cited above
from the Letter is precisely the source of some dif¬culty for him in the
Second Treatise. If a person was born into a church, Locke says, his religion
would descend to him by inheritance as his property does (LCT: ). But
in the Two Treatises, Locke has to scramble to sort out the relation between
inheritance of land and membership of civil society. Since “a Child is born
a Subject of no Country or Government” (nd T: ±±), his property is in principle
free of any political entanglement. However,
because Commonwealths not permitting any part of their Dominions to be
dismembered, nor to be enjoyed by any but those of their Community, the Son
cannot ordinarily enjoy the Possessions of his Father, but under the same terms
his Father did, by becoming a Member of the Society; whereby he puts himself
presently under the Government he ¬nds there established, as much as any
other Subject of that Common-wealth. (nd T: ±±)
Locke emphasizes in the Treatise that this question has caused dif¬culty “
“this has generally given the occasion to mistake in this matter” (nd
T: ±±) “ and I believe that the presence of exactly this issue in the
± God, Locke, and Equality
passage from the Letter indicates that Locke was actually quite unsure
in the ±°s how exactly to characterize civil society. Was it voluntary?
Was it in that respect just like a church? In that case, what would be the
objection to a group of people banding themselves together in an all-
purpose association, since they were entitled to band together voluntarily
in a state and entitled also to band together voluntarily in a religious
association? Clearly something had to give, and we are alerted to this
anyway in the quite different issue of property and inheritance and their
tortured relationship to the basis of civil society. Locke cobbles together
a solution in the Second Treatise, but it™s not at all clear he™s entitled to it:
by what right may a society insist that a man attach political conditions
in perpetuity to the property “ his property “ that he brings to it? Also,
a similar set of conundrums arises at the end of the Second Treatise,
where Locke has to scramble to explain why grounding the right of
resistance on the voluntary nature of civil society doesn™t generate an
all-purpose right of exit. In the Letter we are told that the voluntary
nature of a church means that people can leave it when they like and
take their property with them (LCT: °“±). Why isn™t this equally true
of the voluntary nature of civil society? Is it because civil society is not
really a voluntary organization at all? Locke™s omission of any reference
to consent in its de¬nition in the Letter indicates that he was toying with
that position. What I am saying, then, is that I don™t believe Locke had
sorted these things out in his own mind, and he certainly did not want
to contaminate the tentative settlement he had reached in the Second
Treatise with the somewhat different tentative settlement he seems to
have reached in the Letter.

Well, once again we have circled several times around the question of the
absence of New Testament material from the Two Treatises of Government
without really answering it. The Letter Concerning Toleration uses New
Testament material; the Treatises don™t. And not only the New Testament
material, but also the positions in the Letter that the New Testament ma-
terial is used to support are absent from theTreatises. There is doubtless
some connection, but that still doesn™t explain why Locke didn™t use New
Testament material to support the positions that he did want to argue
for in the Treatises.
Maybe I am making too much of this question and it is not really a
problem, any more than there is a problem about the fact that Locke
“By Our Saviour™s Interpretation”
offers virtually no discussion of Aristotle in the Two Treatises,· whereas
Filmer spends a very considerable amount of time in his company. Or
maybe I have pursued the inquiry at too super¬cial a level. Remember
that John Dunn™s claim was that “Jesus Christ (and Saint Paul) may
not appear in person in the text of the Two Treatises but their presence
can hardly be missed” in the grounding of Locke™s theory of human
equality. Certainly there is something right about that “ just as there is
something distinctively Christian (maybe even distinctively Protestant) in
¬‚avor about Locke™s insistence in the Treatises and in the Letters on Toleration
that each of us “ each one of us “ has been sent in to the world speci¬cally
by God “by his order and about his business” (nd T: ) and that it is not
for any other to meddle with or denigrate that individual commission. It
is certainly true that the Lockean argument for creaturely equality will
not work unless man™s relation with God is understood in that way; or at
least it amounts to something quite different if man™s relation with God
is understood in some other way or left out of the picture altogether. And
all that is true, though the New Testament is barely cited explicitly.
Still, I have not been able to resolve the question of why Locke of-
fered no explicit Christian argument for the speci¬cally individualist way
in which he understood man™s relation to God™s commission and God™s
purposes. I suspect “ though I have nothing to offer in support of this,
and this is the last strand of explanation that I shall venture “ that as
well as the issue of political strategy, there might also have been some
reluctance on Locke™s part to entangle his political arguments in the
Treatises, which were already strange and radical enough by contempo-
rary standards, with the various issues of Christology which we know
he was wrestling with in the ±°s. We know that at that period, he was
toying with various Socinian and unitarian possibilities.·° Certainly if
he had mingled in the sort of arguments we ¬nd ten years later in The
Reasonableness of Christianity, he would have virtually guaranteed hostile
misunderstanding of the Second Treatise (and indeed we have reason to
think that his Christological views were more rather than less contro-
versial than this in the ±°s when the Two Treatises were put together).
So this might have led him to shy away from using any New Testament
· See ±st T: ±µ, where Aristotle is mentioned together with Homer as “Heathen poets and
philosophers”; and nd T: ·, where Locke quotes from Hooker who mentions “the Arch-
Philosopher” (i.e. Aristotle). Cf. Filmer, Patriarcha, pp. ±“± and “·.
 Dunn, Political Thought of John Locke, p. .
 For the “strange” arguments of the Second Treatise, see nd T: , °, ±°; see also Waldron, Dignity
of Legislation, pp. ·“µ.
·° See Marshall, John Locke, pp. ·“µ° and Spellman, John Locke and the Problem of Depravity, pp. ± ff.
± God, Locke, and Equality
material. So “ again, quite apart from the political considerations that
John Marshall and others have mentioned “ if John Dunn is right and if a
speci¬c Christian ¬‚avor is there anyway, perhaps the best explanation of
Locke™s failure to make it explicit (in the way that the much less fraught
Old Testament material was made explicit) was a desire on Locke™s part
to avoid unnecessary controversy in respect of a work that he knew was
likely to be controversial enough already.

Tolerating Atheists?

I began this book by addressing the theme of inclusion and exclusion in
John Locke™s political theory “ in particular his views about the contem-
porary exclusion of women from politics and social power.± I mentioned
Locke™s attack on Robert Filmer™s excision of “mothers” in his account
of the signi¬cance of the Fifth Commandment, and Locke™s failure to
subscribe to the explicit position of his friend James Tyrrell that “women
are commonly un¬t for civil business.” Still, it appeared that Locke was
not consistent on the application of basic equality to women; his position
seems to have been one of clear philosophical commitment to equality
tarnished by a theoretically unmotivated presumption in favor of wives™
being subordinate to their husbands. As I said in Chapter , I don™t think
this turned Locke™s theory into well-worked-out patriarchalism disguised
beneath a liberal egalitarian veneer; it still seemed to strike many of his
contemporaries as more rather than less egalitarian than one would
expect to ¬nd in the late seventeenth century.
Since then we have pursued the theme of inclusion more generally,
considering not just the case of women, but the whole basis of Locke™s
egalitarianism in politics, religion, and morality, and especially what I
called in Chapter  his democratic conception of the human intellect “
his notion that the capacity for responsible participation in the moral
and political realm is available on much the same basis as Christian
faith is available. Christianity is, in Locke™s words, “a religion suited
to vulgar capacities” (RC: ±µ·), preached by its founder as something
intelligible to “a company of poor, ignorant, illiterate men” (RC: ).
By the same token, the natural law which Christianity clari¬es, and
knowledge of which is the basis of responsible participation in politics,
is no less available to “the illiterate and contemned Mechanick” and
the “unscholastick Statesman” as it is to the “learned Disputants and

± See Chapter  above.

± God, Locke, and Equality
all-knowing Doctors” (E: .±°.), who are all too often privileged in
philosophical accounts of politics. And I have argued that this conception
of the adequacy of the ordinary intellect is itself driven by Locke™s sense of
each person™s relation to God and his ability to consider his own actions
in the light of that relation.
In this ¬nal chapter, I want to consider a particular aspect of the limits
of this egalitarian political inclusiveness in Locke™s philosophy. I believe
(as I have said) that his politics, particularly when read in the light of
his discussions of religion, are much more accommodating than many
commentators suppose. But the inclusiveness and the accommodation
are not unlimited. So now I want to take a look at the limits that Locke
argues for, particularly in his explicit comments on the social and political
exclusion of atheists in the Letters Concerning Toleration.

It is commonly said that Locke intended to exclude Catholics and atheists
from the bene¬t of the otherwise very broad toleration for which he
argued in the ± A Letter Concerning Toleration. As the title of this chapter
suggests, most of what I want to say is about atheists. But before I get
on to that, let me ask whether it is accurate to say that Locke excluded
Roman Catholics from religious toleration. It is commonly supposed that
he did; but I have my doubts.
The only explicit reference to Roman Catholicism in the Letter “ that
is, the only passage that actually uses that term “ seems to argue exactly
the opposite. Locke says:
the Magistrate ought not to forbid the Preaching or Professing of Any Specu-
lative Opinions in any Church because they have no manner of relation to the
Civil Rights of the Subjects. If a Roman Catholick believe that to be really the
Body of Christ, which another man calls Bread, he does no injury thereby to
his Neighbor. (LCT: )
And he adds, for good measure: “If a Jew do not believe the New
Testament to be the Word of God, he does not thereby alter anything in
mens Civil Rights” (ibid.). Locke continues: “I readily grant that these
Opinions are false and absurd. But the business of Laws is not to pro-
vide for the Truth of Opinions, but for the Safety and Security of the
Commonwealth, and of every particular mans Goods and Person” (ibid.).
That is the only occasion, as far as I am aware, when he uses the term
“Roman Catholic.” He does use the term “papist” in the Letter; again it
is without any indication that papist religion is intolerable:
Tolerating Atheists?
I am doubtful concerning the Doctrine of the Socinians, I am suspicious of the
way of Worship practised by the Papists, or Lutherans; will it be ever a jot safer
for me to join either unto the one or the other of those Churches, upon the
Magistrate™s command, because he commands nothing in Religion but by the
Authority and Counsel of the Doctors of that Church? (LCT: ·)
Here papist religion is simply used as a routine example “ among others
like Lutheranism and Socinianism “ in the argument for toleration.
And the same is true of Locke™s use of the term “Vatican” in an analogy
he develops between the inappropriateness of public force in religious
matters and its inappropriateness in matters of personal health:
Let us suppose . . . that some Prince were desirous to force his Subjects . . . to
preserve the Health and Strength of their Bodies. Shall it be provided by Law
that they must consult none but Roman Physicians . . . What, shall no Potion, No
Broth, be taken, but what is prepared either in the Vatican, suppose, or in a Geneva
Shop? (LCT: µ)
When Locke sums up his position on toleration at the end of the
Letter “ “The Sum of all we drive at is, That every Man may enjoy the same
Rights that are granted to others” (LCT: µ) “ we ¬nd that Rome is included
effortlessly along with Geneva: “Is it permitted to worship God in the
Roman manner? Let it be permitted to do it in the Geneva form also. Is it
permitted to speak Latin in the Market-place? Let those that have a mind
to it be permitted to do it also in the Church” (ibid.). This reciprocity
or equivalence, back and forth, between Rome and Geneva is repeated
several times also in the Second and the Third Letters Concerning Toleration. For
example, Locke illustrates his point about every prince being “Orthodox
to himself ” (LCT: ) by saying that if an English prince is entitled to
enforce his orthodox Anglicanism, then equally “king Louis of good right
comes in with his dragoons; for it is not much doubted that he as strongly
believed his popish priests and Jesuits to be the ministry which our Lord
appointed, as either king Charles or king James the Second believed that
of the church of England to be so.” And he cites as a bene¬t of the
toleration he proposes that in countries like Italy, Spain, and Portugal
“such a toleration, established there, would permit the doctrine of the
 As we saw in Chapter · (p. ±µ), Socinianism was a creed to which Locke himself was accused of
subscribing. See also Marshall, John Locke, pp. ± ff. and Spellman, John Locke, p. ±°.
 See also LCT: µ, “The Papists and the Lutherans, tho™ both of them profess Faith in Christ and are
therefore called Christians, yet are not both of the same Religion: because These acknowledge
nothing but the Holy Scriptures to be the Rule and Foundation of their Religion; Those take in
also Traditions and the Decrees of Popes and of these together make the Rule of their Religion.”
 Locke, Third Letter for Toleration, p. ±µ±.
° God, Locke, and Equality
church of England to be freely preached, and its worship set up, in any
popish, Mahometan, or pagan country.”µ
Indeed, in the later Letters, papists are routinely referred to by Locke
as being well within the pale. Richard Ashcraft may be right to say that
“there is no reason to believe that, in the whole of his life, Locke ever
doubted that Catholicism was a theologically ridiculous . . . doctrine.”
But of course that doesn™t establish its intolerability. Locke™s strategy in
the Letters is always to acknowledge the absurdity of various beliefs which
at the same time he insists are nevertheless to be given the bene¬t of toler-
ation. When he makes a long list of doctrines or practices whose evident
perversity should not disqualify them from toleration, it reads something
like this: “socinians, papists, anabaptists, quakers, presbyterians,” as well
as “jews, mahometans, and Pagans.”· Or, again, consider this phrasing
from the Second Letter Concerning Toleration: “Suppose the controversy be-
tween a Lutheran and a papist; or, if you please, between a presbyterian
magistrate and a quaker subject . . .” Here papism is included in the
examples Locke uses in his defense of toleration as effortlessly and as ca-
sually as you please. When he argues for the civil rights of Jews in the Third
Letter, Locke asks : “[W]hy might not Jews, pagans, and Mahometans
be admitted to the rights of the commonwealth, as far as papists, inde-
pendents, and quakers?” This pervasive af¬rmative evidence in favor of
Catholicism™s inclusion within the breadth of Lockean toleration is very
seldom cited by those who have convinced themselves somehow that he
must have found the Roman Catholic religion intolerable.
I guess that what people read as Locke™s rejection of the toleration of
Roman Catholics is a passage like the following:
That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the Magistrate which is
constituted upon such a bottom, that all those who enter into it do thereby,
ipso facto, deliver themselves up to the Protection and Service of another Prince.
For by this means the Magistrate would give way to the settling of a foreign
jurisdiction in his own country. (LCT: µ°)

µ Locke, Second Letter Concerning Toleration, pp. “µ. Conversely, he says to his opponent, “your way
of applying force will as much promote popery in France, as protestantism in England” (ibid.
p. ··).
 Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics, p. .
· Locke, Third Letter for Toleration, p. . This is not to mention the use he makes of lists like
“transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence” (ibid., p. °) “ a list which comprises not
only Roman doctrine but also doctrines of the holy sacrament that have at various times been
orthodoxy in the Church of England.
  Locke, Third Letter for Toleration, p. ±.
Locke, Second Letter Concerning Toleration, p. ±°°.
Tolerating Atheists?
Though the point is described here in purely abstract terms, we are all
supposed to know to whom he is referring. In fact, an example is given.
However, it is not the example of Catholics, but rather of certain Muslim
It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahumetan only in his
Religion, but in everything else a faithful Subject to a Christian Magistrate,
whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience
to the Mufti of Constantinople; who himself is intirely obedient to the Ottoman
Emperor, and frames the feigned Oracles of that Religion according to his
pleasure. (LCT: µ°)
Richard Ashcraft thinks it obvious that “a Mahumetan” here is a
metaphor for James II (and “the Mufti of Constantinople” presumably
a metaphor for the Pope). I™m not sure how we are supposed to know
this: presumably it is on the basis of other passages in the Letters, but since
there is no direct textual support for the exclusion of Catholics, presum-
ably the passages that this interpretation relies on also have to be given a
non-literal interpretation to constitute evidence which might persuade us
to read this passage metaphorically. Notice also that this passage cannot
even be read as a denial of toleration to Muslims. Throughout the Letters,
Locke is ¬rm and explicit: “neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew,
ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because
of his religion” (LCT: µ). The example is used rather to show that if
someone did combine faith in Islam with political allegiance to the Mufti
of Constantinople, he would put himself beyond the pale of toleration by
virtue of the combination, not by virtue of his Muslim faith alone. And that I
believe is the same as his position on Catholics; more of that in a moment.
Besides this passage about allegiance to a foreign power, Locke also
talks about the danger posed by men who “attribute unto the Faithful,
the Religious and Orthodox, that is, in plain terms, unto themselves, any
peculiar Privilege of Power above other Mortals, in Civil Concernments”
(LCT: µ°). He mentions, for example, the rule that “Faith is not to be
kept with Hereticks,” or the principles that “Dominion is founded in Grace”
and that “Kings excommunicated forfeit their Crowns and Kingdoms” (LCT: µ°).
These, Locke says, have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate.±° It is
well known that doctrines like these have been associated with Roman
±° Also there is to be no toleration for those “that will not own and teach the Duty of tolerating
All men in matters of meer Religion” (LCT: µ°). Again, this can™t be applied exclusively to
Roman Catholics. It evidently applies to many Protestant sects, including of course the Church
of England in Locke™s lifetime.
 God, Locke, and Equality
Catholicism; and they were the professed basis of the de jure exclusion of
Catholics from English public life in the ± settlement. But again, what
is striking in the Letter is how careful Locke is to characterize these views
in general terms, so that their link with Rome or with any particular
religious sect is understood as contingent rather than necessary.
True, Locke does refer to some of these doctrines as “secret Evil”
(LCT: ), and he does sometimes see the secretive character of Roman
Catholic political practice as a threat.±± So maybe in these passages he
is matching that secretiveness with his own esoteric speci¬cations. But
I don™t think we should be too Straussian about this.± There was no
particular reason for Locke to talk in code about the refusal of toleration
to Catholics if that is what he believed. It was orthodox state practice
in England at the time the Letter Concerning Toleration was published and
the later Letters, which I have cited extensively, were written.± Moreover
Locke had no qualms about speaking explicitly about these issues in his
early works on toleration, when he did clearly hold this view. “Papists,”
he said in An Essay on Toleration published in ±·, “are not to enjoy
the bene¬t of toleration” “ which is, he adds, no less than they de-
serve, because of their own pitiless cruelty.± And in that ±· essay, he
argues explicitly against trying to disaggregate the different strands of
Since men usually take up their religion in gross, and assume to themselves the
opinions of their party all at once in a bundle, it often happens that they mix
with their religious worship and speculative opinions other doctrines absolutely
destructive to the society wherein they live, as is evident in the Roman Catholics
that are subjects of any prince but the Pope.±µ
Now even there, where he is explicitly taking this very hard line, Locke
concedes that the magistrate may tolerate the Catholic religion if he has
some assurance “that he can allow one part without the spreading of
the other,” and that the subversive opinions “will not be imbibed and
espoused by all those who communicate with them in their religious
worship.”± And he thought in ±· that securing that assurance, that
±± See Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics, pp. µ°“.
± Cf. Rabieh, “Reasonableness of Locke,” defending the argument of Strauss, “Locke™s Doctrine
of Natural Law,” pp. “µ°±.
± Historically, Locke was well known to be associated in the ±°s with a faction opposed to the
repeal of the Test Acts; and he was associated with the success of the Revolution which embedded
the Acts even more ¬rmly in English public life. There was no political reason whatever for him
to conceal or keep implicit his opposition to the toleration of Roman Catholics, if that was really
his position.
± ±µ Ibid., p. ±. ± Ibid.
Locke, “Essay on Toleration,” p. ±µ.
Tolerating Atheists?
disaggregation of opinions, would be very dif¬cult. But by the ±°s,
when the ¬rst Letter Concerning Toleration is published, and the subsequent
Letters written, Locke evidently has less dif¬culty with disaggregation,
and he is therefore not prepared to say that papists as such may not be
tolerated. The most he is prepared to say is that certain speci¬c political
doctrines may not be tolerated. So, although Catholicism does spring to
mind as an example of such political subversiveness, Locke is also able
to cite Catholicism as a routine example of one tolerable religion among
others in a multi-faith society.

By contrast, in Locke™s mature thought on these matters, the refusal of
toleration to atheists is as explicit as one could wish. Locke says, “those
are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises,
Covenants, and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can
have no hold upon an Atheist. The taking away of God, tho but even in
thought, dissolves all” (LCT: µ±). That sounds pretty apocalyptic: “The
taking away of God . . . even in thought, dissolves all.” Maybe John Dunn
puts it a little too strongly when he writes that Locke saw atheism “as a
sort of spiritual equivalent of AIDS in the most hysterical contemporary
understandings.”±· But Locke did see atheists as some sort of all-purpose
menace, and this precisely because of what they did and did not believe.
What is it exactly about religious skepticism± that posed this menace for
Locke? What is it about atheism that poses such a menace, according to
the author of the Letter Concerning Toleration?±
One reason Locke gives in the passage just quoted is that promises,
covenants, and oaths, which he says “are the Bonds of Humane Society,”
can have no hold upon an atheist (LCT: µ). He is assuming that the
social fabric depends on commitments underpinned by the fear of God “
people™s ability to give undertakings to one another that can be relied on
(even in the face of great danger and temptation) because they were given
in the presence of God “ undertakings that can lend some stability and
predictability to human affairs. (I don™t just mean commercial contracts,
but also things like the May¬‚ower Covenant: a few people on the edge
±· Dunn, “What is Living and What is Dead,” p. ±.
± For the equation of “atheism” and “scepticism,” see Locke, A Third Letter for Toleration, p. ±µ.
± Locke himself was sometimes accused of a form of Socinianism bordering on atheism. W. M.
Spellman notes that “[i]n ±· the Grand Jury of Middlesex presented as a nuisance The
Reasonableness of Christianity on the grounds that it denied the Trinity and forwarded Arianism,
Socinianism, atheism, and Deism” (Spellman, John Locke, p. ±°).
 God, Locke, and Equality
of a wilderness pledging their support to one another in circumstances
where they will die without it.)° In this connection, we must remember
that Locke is not relying on traditional forms of hierarchy for stability and
social cohesion in his politics: he has to make promissory undertakings,
and the spirit of such undertakings among otherwise free and equal
individuals do an amount of work in moral and political philosophy
that his more conservative critics regarded as reckless, to say the least.
Promises and contracts cannot do that work unless they are backed up
with the fear of God, in whose presence the undertakings in question
have been given.
Intriguingly, in Book © of The Essay Concerning Human Understanding,
Locke considered possible alternative reasons why people might think
that they ought to keep their promises. (In context, this is intended to
illustrate the point that moral rules are not self-evident, but always based
on reasons.)
That Men should keep their Compacts, is certainly a great and undeniable Rule
in Morality: But yet, if a Christian, who has the view of Happiness and Misery
in another Life, be asked why a Man must keep his Word, he will give this as
a Reason: Because God, who has the Power of eternal Life and Death, requires
it of us. But if an Hobbist be asked why; he will answer: Because the Publick
requires it, and the Leviathan will punish you if you do not. And if one of the
old Heathen Philosophers had been asked, he would have answer™d: Because it
was dishonest, below the Dignity of a Man, and opposite to Vertue, the highest
Perfection of humane Nature, to do otherwise. (E: ±..µ)±
It™s an interesting passage, ¬rst because it seems to illustrate, in Locke™s
work, something like a Rawlsian overlapping consensus, and secondly be-
cause it seems to represent a much more generous overlapping consensus
than Locke is prepared to acknowledge in the Letter Concerning Toleration.
For here we are to imagine that a Hobbist (whom Locke certainly re-
garded as pretty much equivalent to an atheist) might yet have some
reason for keeping his promises; and if that is so, it is not at all clear
that the atheist (at least of the Hobbist persuasion) is the sort of general
menace that the Locke of the Letter says he is. I guess it is possible to
reconstruct an argument to reconcile the two passages. The Hobbist re-
lies on fear of Leviathan to motivate promise-keeping. Yet, as Locke and
° “This whole adventure,” said the May¬‚ower compactors, “growes upon the joint con¬dence we
have in each others ¬delity and resolution herein, so as no man of us would have adventured it
without assurance of the rest.” (See Arendt, On Revolution, p. ±·.)
± Marshall, John Locke, p. °, reckons that “Heathen Philosophers” is a reference to Cicero.
 Compare Rawls, Political Liberalism, pp. ± ff. (I shall return to this theme of overlapping consensus
later in the chapter: see pp. °“± and “°.)
Tolerating Atheists?
Hobbes both know, Leviathan or organized civil society is supposed to
be constituted by promises and contracts, and those promises, by de¬ni-
tion, cannot themselves be supported by the power of the state. As I said
before, Locke™s particular worry about atheists may have less to do with
their day-to-day involvement in social and commercial life, and more
with the attitude they are likely to take to the very foundations of the
social order.
More generally, Locke sees divine sanctions as key to the whole enter-
prise of morality and natural law. “[T]he true ground of Morality . . . can
only be the Will and Law of a God, who sees Men in the dark, has in his
Hand Rewards and Punishments, and Power enough to call to account
the proudest Offender” (E: ±..). True, in the Essay he acknowledges that
God has, “by an inseparable connexion, joined virtue and public hap-
piness together, and made the practice thereof necessary to the preser-
vation of society, and visibly bene¬cial to all” (ibid.), so that in principle
one might base one™s whole morality on earthly convenience without any
thought of God and his sanctions. But elsewhere (particularly in The
Reasonableness of Christianity), Locke insists on the inadequacy of a purely
interest-based account of natural law. Though “[t]he law of nature, is the
law of convenience too,” yet so conceived, it can never really “rise to the
force of a law” (RC: ±): “That could not be, without a clear knowledge
and acknowledgment of the law-maker, and the great rewards and pun-
ishments for those that would, or would not obey him” (RC: ±). The
idea of God is necessary for the idea of natural law to distinguish it from
mere “conveniences of common life, and laudable practices” (ibid.), and
to show “the strictness as well as obligation of its injunctions . . . with the
inforcement of unspeakable rewards and punishments in another world”
(RC: ±).
And it™s not just divine sanctions; awareness of the existence of God
also underpins people™s ability to take seriously the idea of objective right
answers to the moral questions to which their actions give rise. For exam-
ple, think how important it is for Locke, in his theory of revolution, to be
able to invoke the idea of an “appeal to Heaven,” which is not at all the
 “[S]elf-interest, and the Conveniences of this Life, make many Men, own an outward Profession
and Approbation of [moral principles], whose Actions suf¬ciently prove, that they very little
consider the Law-giver, that prescribed these rules; nor the Hell he has ordain™d for the Punish-
ment of those that transgress them” (E: ±..). This is one of the grounds on which Leo Strauss
has argued that Locke was some sort of crypto-Hobbesian himself, and not really a believer in
a strong deontic notion of natural law at all: see Strauss, ˜Locke™s Doctrine of Natural Law,”
pp. “µ°±.
 See nd T: ±, citing the story of Jephtha from Judges ±±:·.
 God, Locke, and Equality
same as an appeal for divine intervention, but a kind of acknowledgment
that a person embarking on a course of active resistance makes to show
that he understands there really is an objective right and wrong of the
matter, and that he is ready to take the consequences at God™s hands if
it turns out that he is disturbing the peace and order of the realm for no
good reason. In the chapters on resistance and revolution in the Second
Treatise, Locke is evidently quite worried by the possibility (or at least by
the criticism) that his doctrine will expose law and the state to disorder
and ruin “as often as it shall please a busie head, or turbulent spirit,
to desire the alteration of the Government” (nd T: °). He attempts
to rebut the worry by insisting that such resistance will not happen as
a matter of fact, unless tyranny is both genuine and general. But also
he relies very much on the caution inspired by the idea of an appeal to
heaven. “God in heaven . . . alone . . . is Judge of the Right (nd T: ±).
“[F ]orce is to be opposed to nothing, but to unjust and unlawful Force; who-
ever makes any opposition in any other Case, draws on himself a just
Condemnation both from God and Man” (nd T: °). Well, the atheist
can™t think in this way; this is not a way in which he can take his actions
seriously. So, again, the apprehension would be that an atheist might be
much more reckless in this regard, and thus politically and socially much
more dangerous, than a God-fearing subject.

On the whole, I have opposed any interpretation of Locke that involved
trying to read between the lines. But now I want to deviate from that
practice and propose one additional line of argument about the intoler-
ability of atheism, of which I can ¬nd only one or two hints in Locke™s
explicit argument in the Letter Concerning Toleration.
One aspect, it seems to me, of the general menace posed by the atheist
in Locke™s moral and political system, is that the atheist cannot really get
hold of the notion of human equality. On Locke™s account, the atheist
doesn™t have the wherewithal to make sense of that idea. He has no no-
tion of human individuals as God™s workmanship or God™s property, let
alone of their being “sent into the World by his order, and about his
business . . . made to last during his, not one another™s Pleasure”
(nd T: ). His conception of the essence of the human species will
be as chaotic and indeterminate as Locke™s in Book ©©© of the Essay “ I
mean the skepticism about species and their criteria and boundaries
that we found in the Essay™s discussion of real and nominal essences. As
Tolerating Atheists?
we saw in Chapter , in order to get anything remotely approaching
human equality out of that, there had to be some basis of interest or
value that could rivet our attention on certain human attributes as range
properties. Maybe the Hobbesian desire for survival could be the basis
of a human equality founded on mutual fear.µ But it would not be a
moralized equality; it would not be the basis for a strong theory of natural
rights of the sort that Locke insists upon. And my argument there was
that no one who denied the being of a God or His interest or relevance
to human affairs could be expected to come up with the sort of basis
for equality that Locke came up with. Locke emphasized possession of
a degree of rationality that consists in the power of abstraction and the
power to relate an abstraction like God to the idea of one™s own actions
and one™s own person. That particular moral capacity might strike an
atheist as interesting, perhaps. But there is no reason to suppose that the
atheist would think it made sense to draw any sort of important line at the
threshold of that capacity, let alone think that beings endowed with such
capacity were for that reason to be treated as special and sacred in the
way Locke thought. Or if the atheist did just stake a normative claim on this
threshold, one would be inclined to suspect that the reason for choosing
this threshold rather than some other was that this was the one that has
traditionally been identi¬ed “ as it happens, on religious grounds “ as the
basis of human equality. Like someone using the cadences of the Book of
Common Prayer to design his own “secular” marriage vows, the atheist
would at best be taking advantage of a tradition that he pretended to
repudiate, and doing so in a way that was quite disingenuous about the
dif¬culties that have to be faced in this area.
Left entirely to his own devices, then, the atheist could not really be
relied on to get hold of, or suffuse his actions and deliberations with,
the principle of human equality “ this principle that is so important
in Locke™s theories about consent, natural rights, slavery, property, the
common good, and the basis of political representation. If he had a rights
theory, it might be too radical a rights theory: for the atheist cannot really
grasp the basis of the inalienability of human rights. And if he cannot
grasp that, he cannot grasp the point that a certain sort of respect is due
to each one of God™s human creatures as such, irrespective of what they
have chosen or what their value is. The atheist, then, is not just a menace
to society; he is, as John Dunn puts it, “an inherent menace to every other

µ Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. ±, p. ·. (Cf. Chapter , above, pp. ··“.)
 Cf. Tuck, Natural Rights Theories, pp. “µ°.
 God, Locke, and Equality
human being” according to Locke.· True, acknowledging the existence
of God is no guarantee that one will come up with the right view about
equality or the right mode of respect for other persons as equals. Robert
Filmer and the Anglican divines who republished his work are suf¬cient
evidence of that. But at least in their case there is something to work
on “ if not the actual scriptures, then the idea of a God and his human
creatures “ which might provide some sort of leverage for arguments
about equality and the implications of equality.
That™s my hunch “ or rather, that™s my inference “ for it seems to
me that the notion of human equality is so essential to the fabric of
Lockean politics and Lockean morality that there can be no question
of allowing any person who does not grasp it, or who denies the main
foundation of it, to play any sort of signi¬cant part in politics. Admittedly
the textual basis for this inference is quite slim. I believe it follows as a
particular instance of Locke™s general assertion that “The taking away
of God, tho but even in thought, dissolves all” (LCT: µ±), i.e. dissolves
the whole framework of natural law equality, and not just the fear of
sanctions that motivates compliance with it. It can be discerned also
in the sentence with which Locke concludes the passage on atheism
in the Letter Concerning Toleration, where he says: “As for other Practical
Opinions . . . if they do not tend to establish Domination over others . . . there can
be no reason why they should not be tolerated” (LCT: µ±). The tendency
“to establish Domination over others” “ that seems to be the hallmark
of a religious view or a view about religion that is intolerable. And that™s
my clue: if the general issue of domination is regarded by Locke as the
fallback criterion of intolerability, then it does look as though this issue
of equality may rightly be regarded as a litmus test, and one reason for
refusing toleration to the atheist is that he is in no position to maintain it,
or teach it, or interpret it, or apply it, except by disingenuous imitation
of those who own up to its real basis.

My theme has been “Christian Equality” in Locke™s political thought, but
it is pretty clear that in all this stuff about dangers of denying the existence
of God, Locke™s main concern has been with theism (belief in God) as
such, rather than speci¬cally with Christian theism. Though much of
the Letter Concerning Toleration is about “the mutual Toleration of Christians
· Dunn, “The Claim to Freedom of Conscience,” p. ±·.
Tolerating Atheists?
in their different Professions of Religion” (LCT:  “ my emphasis), still
the Letter recognizes the sense in tolerating Jews, Muslims, and others,
even though they accept little or nothing of the speci¬cally Christian
Is this because they are at least monotheistic? It is never entirely clear
whether atheism includes polytheism for Locke. There are some passages
about tolerating pagans in the Letters Concerning Toleration, which seem to
indicate that Greek and Roman polytheism gets under the bar. But
there are also passages about the ancients and the unsatisfactory state of
their theories of morality, which seem to indicate that polytheism might
lie beyond the pale.
There was no part of mankind, who had quicker parts, or improved them
more; that had a greater light of reason, or followed it farther in all sorts of
speculations, than the Athenians: and yet we ¬nd but one Socrates amongst
them, that opposed and laughed at their polytheism, and wrong opinion of the
Deity. (RC: ±)
The passage is not conclusive by any means, and Locke is mainly at
pains to show that philosophy unaided often couldn™t even get to ¬rst
base so far as the derivation of morality was concerned. But it hints at a
suggestion that, as long as there is no acknowledgment of “one invisible
God” (RC: ±·), there will always be serious moral de¬ciency. Maybe
the fear of God subsides a little if you can play off one god against
another; or maybe, as some have argued, polytheism sits uncomfortably
with basic equality, since there might be different types of human being
as there are different types and levels of god for them to be created in
the image of.
Anyway, leaving polytheism aside, Locke seems committed to the view
that the main monotheistic religions are certainly within the pale. Their
theologies do not threaten the foundations of social order, which I have
interpreted to include, indeed to be pervaded by, the principle of ba-
sic equality. What does this do, then, to my argument in the preceding
chapters that there is in fact a distinctively Christian content to Locke™s
own conception of equality? Well, it is hard to ¬gure out, and Locke™s
views certainly have changed over time. Basically, I think there is sup-
posed to be a difference between what is said to be required as a matter
of elementary public safety, and what is required so far as the detailed
elaboration of a particular theory is concerned. There may be something
 See Locke, Third Letter for Toleration, pp. “.
 I am grateful to George Fletcher for some discussion of this issue.
° God, Locke, and Equality
like a distinction between concept and conception here.° A person with the
idea of God can reason to the concept of equality and use that concept
in his theorizing about social order and natural law; but he may need
something more speci¬c in the way of religious truth in order to develop a
detailed conception of social policy. I don™t think Locke believed one could
get very far towards the truth about property and economy, for example,
without attributing at least some speci¬cally Judeo-Christian content to
the evaluation of modes of subsistence. As I said in Chapter , he ¬gures
out some of the details of what equality requires in these contexts by refer-
ence to the meaning of biblical texts like “[b]e fruitful, and multiply, and
replenish the earth, and subdue it.”± Now admittedly that™s a passage
from the Old Testament and so it is something held in common among
Christians, Jews, and Muslims also, who Locke thought “derived and
borrowed” many of their doctrines from the Judeo-Christian heritage
(RC: ±·). But there may be elements that require a more particular
elaboration “ for example, elements of the doctrine of charity that can
only be understood in light of the story of the good Samaritan or the
parable of the sheep and the goats.
Unfortunately, Locke does not say much about any monotheistic be-
lief that exists entirely outside the Judeo-Christian framework. At one
point in The Reasonableness of Christianity, he asks how those people in the
world stand who were not the bene¬ciaries of God™s revelation of Him-
self in ancient Israel. (We mentioned Socrates a moment ago: an isolated
monotheist, but not a Judeo-Christian monotheist, in a culture of poly-
theism.) Locke™s answer suggests that such people can get at least to the
bare idea of God and of His moral signi¬cance by the fairly elementary
processes of reasoning that I talked about in Chapters  and :
Many to whom the promise of the Messiah never came . . . were never in a
capacity to believe or reject that revelation; yet God had, by the light of reason,
revealed to all mankind, who would make use of that light, that he was good and
merciful. The same spark of the divine nature and knowledge in man, which
making him a man, showed him the law he was under, as a man; showed him
also the way of atoning the merciful, kind, compassionate Author and Father of
him and his being, when he had transgressed that law. He that made use of this
candle of the Lord, so far as to ¬nd what was his duty, could not miss to ¬nd
also the way to reconciliation and forgiveness, when he had failed of his duty:
though if he used not his reason in this way, if he put out or neglected this light,
he might, perhaps, see neither. (RC: ±)
° For the concept/conception distinction, see Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously, pp. ±“.
± Genesis ±:.
 For the Good Samaritan, see Luke ±°:µ“·. For the parable of the sheep and goats, see Matthew
µ:± “, discussed by Locke at RC: ±·.
Tolerating Atheists?
On this basis, people outside the Judeo-Christian heritage might be
able to share with those inside it some sort of consensus (like a Rawlsian
“overlapping consensus”) on the broad outlines of divine rewards and
punishments, on the requirement to keep one™s promises, and on the ba-
sics of human equality. How much of the natural law theory you could get
right on this basis, and how much would need the resources of a particu-
lar body of theological belief may have been something Locke vacillated
about in the latter years of his life. Certainly there are passages in the
Reasonableness which suggest that the speci¬c teachings of Jesus Christ
are indispensable; though there too, as we saw earlier in this chapter, a
Christian orientation is no guarantee that you will get the details right.
Still, if someone cannot even reason his way to the concept of a religious
foundation for morality and for our status as equals “ if he does not have
the elementary theistic premise, in the light of which moral responsibility
and human equality become sensible and compelling ideas “ then I think
what Locke is saying is that he is not just likely to get the detail wrong,
he becomes a general menace, who probably shouldn™t be counted on
for anything very much in social and political life.

What does Locke™s refusal of toleration to the atheist amount to? What
does he think should happen to an atheist by virtue of the fact that he is
“not at all to be tolerated”?
These questions present something of an embarrassment for Locke™s
account. The most powerful argument in the Letter Concerning Toleration is
that religion is a matter of authentic belief, and belief cannot be coerced
by political power because belief is not subject to the will.µ Now pre-
sumably this is as true of the elemental belief in the existence of God as
it is of any of the detailed doctrines of any particular religion. An atheist
cannot choose to believe in God, and so we cannot pressure his choices in
order to get him to have the right beliefs. It is not just a point about the
importance of respecting beliefs. If that were all, Locke might be able
to get away with saying that “those that by their Atheism undermine
and destroy all Religion, can have no pretence of Religion whereupon
to challenge the Privilege of a Toleration” (LCT: µ±). He might say they
are not entitled to have their beliefs respected because they stake nothing
in the way of their own salvation on the integrity of their beliefs. John
  See above, p. .
Rawls, Political Liberalism, pp. xvii ff. and ± ff.
µ See LCT: “·. See also Waldron, “Locke, Toleration and the Rationality of Persecution,”
pp. “.
 God, Locke, and Equality
Dunn makes much of this point in his interpretation. But actually I
don™t think this argument works at all. What the atheists happen to think
does not affect their accountability for their beliefs to God; nor does it
change the complex mystery of the granting or withholding of His grace
in belief or unbelief (LCT: ). The fact that in their own view the atheists
stake nothing in the way of their own salvation on the integrity of their
beliefs does not except them from the bene¬t of the general point that
Locke makes about the importance of the relation between man and God
in respect of belief. In the case of believers, the point is supposed to be
objective: it is not about the importance of respecting what the believer
thinks is his relation to God in regard of his beliefs, it is a point about
respecting what that relation actually is. And so it is not a point that can
vary depending on whether you™re dealing with a theist or an atheist.
So, when Locke says in the Letter that “this at least is certain, that no
Religion, which I believe not to be true, can either be true or pro¬table
unto me” (LCT: ), that has to be applied to the atheist as well. And
it™s not clear why the immediate inference does not also apply: “[a]nd
therefore, when all is done, they must be left to their own Consciences”
The same is true of the point about coercion. “[S]uch is the nature
of the Understanding, that it cannot be compell™d to the belief of any
thing by outward force” (LCT: ·). The most that coercion can produce
in an atheist, on Locke™s account, is presumably a willingness to say
that God exists and perhaps a willingness to act accordingly. But that™s
not enough to avoid the general Lockean argument in the Letter about
the ineffectiveness of human penalties. Indeed Locke™s argument that
political power can produce only a hollow mockery of religion would
apply as much to the atheist as it would to any other religious dissenter.
If “[i]t is in vain for an Unbeliever,” it is presumably also in vain for
an atheist “to take up the outward shew of another mans [religious]
Profession” purely to avoid the force of the magistrate™s sword (LCT: ).
These questions of what to do about the atheist go to the heart of our
interest in equality. In order to treat other persons as one™s equals, one
has to view them in a certain light, i.e. in light of certain beliefs about
their attributes and their relation to their Creator. But then there may
be a problem enforcing the basis of this egalitarian orientation, for it
involves enforcing beliefs. We might say that respect for equality can be
enforced at the level of action even if the beliefs that are supposed to
 Dunn, “The Claim to Freedom of Conscience,” p. ±±.
Tolerating Atheists?
ground equality are not enforced. But that is in some tension with the
suggestion I made in Chapter  that one may not be able to get the
actions right unless they are shaped in one™s deliberations by the right
beliefs. Another possibility is that equality may be secured in the basic
structure of a Lockean society, i.e. in its laws and institutions, even if it
cannot be enforced in the minds and ethics of the people. But doubts have
been expressed in recent political philosophy about approaches of this
general character. For example, G. A. Cohen has argued against Rawls
that there cannot be a stable and effective basic structure dedicated to
equality unless an egalitarian ethos is implicit in the lives and motivations
of the citizens.· I suspect Locke would say something similar: atheists
are a menace precisely because the integrity of the social and political
structure is not independent of what ordinary people think. So we are
left with the problem of what can be done about this menace in light of
what the Letter says is possible and impossible so far as affecting people™s
beliefs is concerned.
Presumably the same dif¬culties would apply to the refusal of toler-
ation to Catholics, if the common interpretation of Locke™s views on
that were correct. I don™t think Richard Ashcraft would accept the argu-
ment that I made at the beginning of the lecture (though he should). But
Ashcraft argues that to the extent that Locke was hostile to the toleration
of Catholics, he


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