Most people in the West today unreflectively accept the need for religious toleration. Of course, if pressed, they will admit that toleration, like freedom of speech, can’t be absolute; there must be some limits. Suppose, for example, that my religion calls for human sacrifice every Sunday; no one will think that such a religion should be tolerated. Again, if pressed, people will agree that there are difficult cases: to take an issue that troubled John Locke, suppose that my religion demands allegiance to a foreign power. We may think that reasonable people can disagree over such cases. But the fact that there are these problem cases doesn’t shake people’s commitment to the principle of religious toleration.
We tend to be so wedded to this principle that we can easily forget how seductive the case for intolerance can be. Consider, for instance, a person who says with an authoritative air: “I know that my religion is the true one and that yours is completely false. I also know you will go to hell if you don’t convert to my religion.” Wouldn’t it be an act of charity on his part to convert you, by force if necessary, to the religion that will ensure your happiness in the afterlife? Here one might adapt an example given by that champion of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, for another purpose. A police officer sees a person trying to cross a bridge that he knows to be unsafe. According to Mill, it’s not an unwarranted interference with the person’s liberty for the officer to use force to prevent him or her from stepping on to the bridge; he knows, after all, that the bridge is unsafe and he knows that the person doesn’t want to fall into the river. One might take a similar line in the religious case: I know that John’s religion is leading him to hell, and I know that that’s not where he wishes to end up. Theologians in the Western tradition such as Augustine have argued for intolerance along these lines, and they have buttressed their argument by appealing to the biblical text: “Compel them to come in.”
Modern liberals are likely to respond that the appeal to Mill’s example is unfair, for the analogy is far from exact. For one thing, Mill builds into his example the assumption that there is no time to warn the person about the danger of the bridge; presumably, if there were time to warn him, then other things being equal, Mill would admit that there was no case for coercion. More importantly, one might argue that no one really knows, or can know, that the doctrines of revealed religion are true; acceptance of such doctrines depends on accepting the accounts of witnesses who may be unreliable or whose words may have been misinterpreted down the ages.
The idea that no one can know the claims of revealed religion are true is the basis for one of Locke’s main strategies of argument for religious toleration. The strategy is a powerful one, but it is open to a couple of objections. First, Locke sets the bar for knowledge very high: he allows little to count as knowledge that isn’t on a par with mathematical demonstration. By his lights, in the bridge example, even the policeman doesn’t strictly know that the bridge is unsafe. Further, even if the champion of intolerance concedes that he doesn’t strictly know his religion to be true, he may still say that he has very strong support for his beliefs, and that this level of support justifies him in coercing others. So the kind of case that Locke makes here may not be conclusive.
Fortunately, Locke has other strings to his bow. One intriguing argument turns on the nature of belief and its relation to the will. Suppose that the champion of intolerance says to the unbeliever: “You ought to believe the articles of my faith” (e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity). It seems apt for the unbeliever to reply to such a claim by saying: “It’s not in my power to believe this doctrine. You misunderstand the nature of belief. Belief is not a voluntary action like switching on a light. Rather, belief is more like falling in love; it’s something that happens to you.” One might then plug in the Kantian principle implicitly accepted by Locke: ought implies can. If belief is not in my power, and ought implies can, then I can have no obligation to believe the proposition in question.
This can seem like a powerful reply to the advocate of intolerance, but again, unfortunately, it’s not conclusive. For the advocate may say: “I agree that belief is not directly under your voluntary control, but I maintain that it is indirectly so. True, you can’t just switch on belief, but it’s in your power to do things that will result, or are likely to result, in your coming to believe.” Pascal, for instance, thought that though we can’t just believe at will, we can do things such as going to Mass and mixing with the congregation of the faithful that will have the effect of producing belief; faith, he thought, is catching. And then the intolerant person is in a position to make a case for religious persecution on the part of the state: there should be penalties for non-attendance at church so that people are induced to attend and at least to give a hearing to the teachings of the state-approved religion. This was the argument put to Locke by his opponent, Jonas Proast. Locke seeks to reply to this argument by saying that sincere religious belief can’t be produced in this way, and that it’s only sincere religious belief that is acceptable to God. Whether this reply to Proast is successful is a controversial issue among philosophers who have studied the debate. And the issue isn’t a narrowly academic one: it should be of interest to all those who seek to defend the values of the Enlightenment today.
Featured image: Winslow Homer – Sunlight on the Coast. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
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