John Locke on Equality, Toleration, and the Atheist Exception

By Adalei Broers
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 2/2 |

A main threat atheists pose to society, “in addition to problems with attaining a complete understanding of moral principles,” (Lorenzo, 253) comes from their disbelief in an afterlife, namely the lack of later punishment for earthly blunders. Without the fear of eternal damnation, atheists are “threats to social order and state security” (Lorenzo, 258). This perception is a direct result of the importance Locke put on the individual experience.

He fervently articulates the lack of innate morals and while he allows for a certain understanding of right and wrong to be absorbed through the use of our senses, true morality comes from what we are taught; but it is not enough to learn about morality. Just as incentive is necessary for man to enter into society, there must be incentive to act within moral bounds; atheists lack this incentive.

Men likewise, require known punishment for wrongdoings within society, i.e. the penal system; but furthermore they must fear consequences for immoral actions which are not punished, or not found out by the state. People with religion fear the after life; atheists fear nothing beyond the present potential consequences. In Locke’s words:

"I grant the existence of God is so many ways manifest, and the obedience we owe him so congruous to the light of reason, that a great part of mankind give testimony to the law of nature: but yet I think it must be allowed that several moral rules may receive from mankind a general approbation, without either knowing or admitting the true ground of morality; which can only be the will and law of God, who sees men in the dark, has in his hands rewards and punishments, and power enough to call to account the proudest offender. For, God having, by an inseparable connection, joined virtue and public happiness together, and made the practice thereof necessary to the preservation of society, and visibly beneficial to all with whom the virtuous man has to do; it is no wonder that everyone should not only allow, but recommend and magnify those rules to others, from whose observance of them he is sure to reap advantage to himself" (Locke, Essay, 28).

With this statement, Locke’s great devoutness is revealed. The existence of ‘laws of nature’ are evidence in themselves of God’s existence, and one who seeks the truth will surely discover the un-deniability of his power. He says outright that we are indebted to God for his creation of us and our surroundings, but how we pay off our debt is a personal matter.

What is of concern to society is not that we do right by God, but that we lack the intellectual understanding of why we must act within the appropriate moral boundaries (Locke does not specify what these boundaries are). This is the reasoning that will lead Locke to advocate against tolerance of non-believers.

Clearly John Locke’s religious beliefs play a major role in all of his political theory. His understanding of the social contract as an act of consent includes a basic acceptance of religious morality (the only kind of morality as far as Locke is concerned), as agreed upon by the majority. An individual, whose actions or beliefs are seen as dangerous by the majority, is perceived as breaching the contract.

As Lorenzo explains, Locke “disqualified anyone who disavowed a belief in God and an afterlife, arguing that such a disavowal ‘dissolves’ all moral ties between the individual and society” (250). Locke believes in majority rule and it is the majority which sets the requirements and expectations of society. It is also the right of the society to decide what is acceptable and what is not. As Locke expresses in his Letter on Toleration, for the sake of the community a generally tolerant attitude is advised; however exceptions exist where there is too great a risk.

As Locke says; “no opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated” (Locke, Toleration, 19). So we see that the exceptions are not limited to atheism, but to anything deemed unacceptable. I suppose Locke would liken atheism to a standard crime; we do not tolerate theft, or violence, nor would we tolerate the inciting of such behavior. Instead we advocate religion, morality and ethics, and the views of non-believers are seen as contrary to societal teachings; therefore as treacherous as the provocation of crime.

Locke does indeed target atheists specifically, in fact fervently saying; “those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration” (Locke, Toleration, 20).

Not only does the simple idea of atheism rob you of your rights in society, but it proves you unworthy of the tolerance of others, which is apparently a benefit enjoyed by the devout exclusively. If atheists cannot be relied upon to fulfill ‘promises, covenants, and oaths,’ then they cannot be relied upon to be loyal to the ultimate contract which binds each man to all other members of society, government, and the laws thus established.

Locke’s legacy is still present in modern society and more importantly, still relevant. Religious toleration is generally encouraged in the western states who were his audience, however deep societal biases persist. Many still agree with his conception of the indivisibility of morality and religious beliefs. Likewise, morality and atheism continue to be seen as dichotomous. Fortunately, exceptions to toleration are generally forbidden by law, and society will surely continue its growth and progress towards a more universally inclusive ideology.


Black, Sam. “Toleration and the Skeptical Inquirer in Locke.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 208. (1998): 473-504.

Locke, John. “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” trans. William Popple. LibertyLibrary of Constitutional Classics, (2009):

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Project Gutenberg, 2008.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980.

Lorenz, J. David. “Tradition and Prudence in Locke’s Exceptions to Toleration.” American Journal of Political Science 47, no. 2 (2003): 248-258.

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