Why Shouldn’t We Compel Them to Come In? Locke, the Enlightenment, and the Debate over Religious Toleration, by Nicholas Jolley

Religious Liberty, at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, 1876

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.

This essay was originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Nicholas Jolley is Research Professor and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He has also taught at the University of California, San Diego, and Syracuse University. He is the author of a number of books for OUP, including Toleration and Understanding in Locke (2017), and Locke’s Touchy Subjects: Materialism and Immortality (2015).

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Review: Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion, by Susan Jacoby

One of my favorite authors, who wrote the great Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, has written another wonderful book that I believe should be foundational to any freethinker’s library, or any historian’s for that matter.

In Strange Gods, Susan Jacoby considers religious and ideological conversions, from those as famous as Augustines’s and Muhammmed Ali’s to the lesser known Margaret Fell’s and Peter Cartwright’s, in the wider context of the political and social circumstances of their times. From Augustine of Hippo, early father of the Christian church and author of Confessions and The City of God who converted from paganism to Manichaeism to Christianity, to Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing champion and activist who converted from Christianity to the Nation of Islam, to Sunni Islam, to Sufism, her book ranges mostly through the world dominated by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam after the turn of the first millennium CE. Jacoby explores the roles of the personal forces within and the forces of family, community, and the wider cultural, political, and religious shifts without, which led people to adopt new beliefs and in many cases, to spend the rest of their lives proselytizing for them.

What a great idea for a book! Jacoby’s in-depth study shows us how stories of conversion not only offer invaluable insights into the transformative power of newfound belief on individual persons, but how it can affect the lives of those around them and of those who come after them, for good and for ill. She offers us an in-depth exploration of each conversion from a refreshingly secular viewpoint, free of partisanship and complete with associated circumstances, influences, and social dynamics. Since conversion stories are rarely explored outside of the context of the newly adopted belief system, we don’t often get a clear view of the significance of this experience for the converted as well as for the people around them. To those within a religious tradition, converts, especially those who become prominent spokespersons or martyrs, are offered as proofs of the validity and superiority of that particular faith, yet all belief systems have their own and hold them up in this same manner. To those outside of each given tradition, converts can be dismissed as lost or misled, or even considered hoodwinked, brainwashed, or traitorous. Jacoby’s treatment helps to reveal how much larger a story conversion is than the exclusively religious and personal event it’s so often considered, while retaining a sympathetic understanding of its meaningfulness in individual lives. In these pages, each conversion story is not only a rich psychological study, but a valuable history lesson as well.

One of the conversion stories that stood out for me is one I’ve thought about many times over the years. A cultural Catholic myself, I’ve long been familiar with the story of Augustine’s conversion and with his resulting views on topics such as sex, sin, women, the Jews, and so forth. As I grew older and began to consider things more critically, Augustine seemed to me less a repentant sinner and paragon of virtue and more an off-the-deep-end zealot, who went from being a man with a healthy sex life in a loving relationship with a woman and their child to a self-obsessed, Jesus-freak fastidious hater of all that’s natural. His conversion was deeply meaningful to him, but what about the woman he dumped after their long-term relationship, their child whom he cast from his home, the friends he rejected, and the father he turned against? I try now to take a more balanced and sympathetic view of the man and I find Jacoby’s profile of his spiritual and psychological journey helpful in this regard, though I still believe many of his theological views are harmful and have had a long-term negative influence on the way the Christian world has regarded sex and the nature and role of women. Augustine did what he felt he needed to do and what he came to believe was right, and in light of the circumstances of his life and personality, his thoughts and actions are understandable, even if not always admirable. Jacoby does not idolize him by any means, but respects his intelligence and his right to believe freely, and presents a full picture of his life and circumstances with the right mixture of fairness, sympathy, critique, and refreshing touch of humor. (I’m gratified to find that someone else sees his mother Monica as a real ‘piece of work! I’ve long thought of her as manipulative, passive aggressive, and kind of creepy!)

Jacoby’s exploration of the divergence, convergence, and conflict in matters of belief is a masterful one, and goes beyond the study of conversion as a matter of faith: she also offers a deep study of the personal and social effects of forced conversions, a subject not discussed often enough. The imposition or social pressure to conform to religious and ideological orthodoxy is an ancient and effective tool to impose the will of the ruler on the people, or to impose the will of some people on others. But we kid ourselves if we think it’s just something people did in the bad old days; there are still many parts of the world where conversions are still imposed at the end of a gun or with the threat of the lash, or, at least, with knowledge that it’s the only road to social acceptance, ability to get a job and live free from harassment.

In the end, Jacoby’s book is a testament to how the Enlightenment brought about one of the world’s best inventions: the social and political ideal of freedom of conscience. The more it’s realized in the world, the longer, safer, and happier lives we’ll live, with a greater ability to understand and appreciate the true richness of the variety of human thought.

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