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    Religious Toleration and Locke



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    Join date : 2009-02-10

    Religious Toleration and Locke

    Post  Blue on Tue Feb 10, 2009 12:05 pm

    “All the life and power of true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.” (Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration)

    Locke argues that people may be persuaded, but never forced, to change their view of the here and the hereafter. Imprisonment and torture can, but often do not, turn out belief. Locke relies on one simple distinction to shore up this premise. The distinction is this: the mind is internal, and force is external. Consider slavery in the US South. Though slaves could be forced to pick cotton, they could not be forced to believe in the institution of slavery. Why? Master could monitor the actions, but not the thoughts of slaves. Masters and overseers could see when slaves were not meeting physical expectations. Overseers often whipped slaves, until they worked harder and faster.

    Of course, a master could not always force a slave to pick cotton, or otherwise physically carry out his will. Some slaves rebelled, while others escaped. In these cases, dissent is visible, and thereby punishable. It follows that, when dissent is invisible, it cannot be punished, or even perceived. When Locke describes the mind as internal, he means that its thoughts are concealed. Slaves could be made to attend Christen mass, to give up practicing their own religion (openly), but as long as they wore the mask and concealed their thoughts, masters had no way of knowing whether they truly believed in Christianity. In “After the Escape,” Frederick Douglass writes, “The religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity….I hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” Clearly, the whip could not convince Douglass to believe in anything but the hypocrisy of Christianity.
    It is crucial that Locke’s distinction the realms of mind and force grew out of the Thirty Years War. After 150 years of religious civil wars in Europe, Locke sought to stamp out persecution in the name of religion. He argues that to do so, it essential, first, to tease out the difference between “the business of the central government from that of religion” (218); the commonwealth preserves and protects civil interests, while religion sees to spiritual interests—personal salvation. Civil interests include protection of life, liberty, property. If a man steals a goat from another woman, the magistrate will punish or imprison the man. Given Locke’s assumption that neither punishment nor imprisonment can change belief, potential for reformation seems bleak. How can we persuade criminals that their actions are not only reprobate, but wrong? It seems that Locke would answer: As criminals want to protect their own goats, then prison reform will work. To reform criminals must be able to step into the victim’s shoes, to come to agree that the same system that protects the victim’s goat could also protect their own goat. Salvation does not work in the same way. Belief implies doubt. There is no way to prove which religion leads to salvation, and there is no call for a social contract when it comes to salvation. Your belief in a different religion, does not stand the way of my own salvation, and thus is not intolerable.

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