John Locke On Equality, Toleration, and the Atheist Exception

Political philosopher and social psychologist, John Locke, was an outspoken supporter of equal rights within a governed society. He espoused the natural rights of man, namely the right to life, liberty and property, and he articulated that every government’s purpose is to secure these rights for its nationals.

He was a social contract theorist, believing that the legitimacy of government relies on consent from its citizens which is given on the basis of equality. Locke’s view of equality was not limited to the political realm; he also promoted religious toleration, with atheism being the one notable exception. He supported general toleration of alternative religious beliefs but encouraged the ex-communication of non-believers.

In order to understand both the progressive areas of Locke’s philosophy and the dogmatic ones, it is necessary to analyze his political and religious understanding of life, for these things inform his moral code and explain the seemingly contrary ideas of his philosophy. The analysis of Locke’s theory follows a kind of chronology, beginning with the presence of equality in the ‘state of nature’. This idea of natural equality transitions into the state as men leave the ‘state of nature’ and enter into society. Then once a government is established, the role of equality can be analyzed from a social perspective, which is when the idea of religious toleration comes into play.

Before there is a government and a nation, man lives in a state of nature where he is guided by the laws of nature as God intended. Locke begins his Second Treatise of Government establishing truths of nature mainly that God is the creator and he did not grant superiority to any individuals in modern day society, as was often argued in the past. Locke states, “In races of mankind and families of the world, there remains not to one above another, the least pretence to be the eldest house” (Locke, Treatise, 7). Here he discards the notion of royal or noble superiority that reigned supreme in his day and, more importantly, he establishes general equality of all. Thus the importance of equality comes from its existence in the state of nature. The basis of the social contract lies in mutual consent, and man, coming from a state of “perfect freedom” (Locke, Treatise, 8) and equality would not be willing to settle for less when he leaves the state of nature.


Locke describes the state of nature as one “of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creature of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection” (Locke, Treatise, 8). Because man is free and equal in the state of nature, he must be assured that he will still be so when he enters society, thus for Locke the establishment of the state occurs on the basis of assured equality without which there would be no incentive to enter into society.

Equality is the driving force of Locke's political theory because it is the basis for our consensual participation in society, a requisite for the establishment of any state. As such, equality is not just necessary in the establishment of government but is also a requisite in maintaining a safe and stable nation. Locke describes the responsibility of the government (specifically the legislative power) as “the preservation of the society, and of every person in it” (Locke, Treatise, 69), showing his belief that the obligations of the government are to provide safety and protection to all its citizens equally. Locke further articulates this point when he discusses his view on slavery.

To be enslaved is to be put “under the absolute, arbitrary power of another” (Locke, Treatise, 17) which puts those involved into a ‘state of war’. His definition of slavery is not traditional, particularly because of its connection to the ‘state of war’ which is one of “enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction” (Locke, Treatise, 15) for all involved which is in the disinterest of society and contrary to the goals of the state. More importantly, “when the actual force is over, the state of war ceases between those that are in society, and are equally on both sides subjected to the fair determination of the law” (Locke, Treatise, 15). So we see that for Locke, equality must exist in punishment as it does in protection, at all levels of society, in all aspects of government.

It should also be noted that Locke’s interpretation of freedom and liberty are directly associated with equality. In his discussion of slavery, Locke describes freedom as “not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man” (Locke, Treatise, 17) This describes an equal distribution of power. Liberty is described as the following; “my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not” (Locke, Treatise, 17). Both liberty and freedom only exist in a state where they are applied evenly, or else they exist for a tyrant(s) in a state of war. Most importantly, upon entering society individuals are required to alienate a modicum of freedom and liberty, but full equality can (theoretically) never be compromised.

In spite of legislation protecting each individual, conflict will inevitably erupt, if not between a government and its people then among the people themselves. This of course will impact the state and inevitably require response. It is in this perspective that Locke writes A Letter Concerning Toleration, addressing the issue of religious intolerance, a problem that permeated 17th century English society. He was extremely critical of the fervent behavior of people concerning their religious beliefs, particularly of those with “intemperate zeal” (Locke, Toleration, 9) who would attempt to convert others to their faith.

He states; “That any man should think fit to cause another man — whose salvation he heartily desires — to expire in torments, and that even in an unconverted state, would, I confess, seem very strange to me, and I think, to any other also. But nobody, surely, will ever believe that such a carriage can proceed from charity, love, or goodwill” (Locke, Toleration, 2) Locke suspects that many missionaries and evangelizing magistrates are doing so for personal gain. As Black points out “it is a consequence of his mitigated skepticism that Locke advocates a duty of religious toleration” (473).

Moreover, the violent tactics that were used and the punishments inflicted on those unwilling to convert were wholly unchristian and would lead to a state of war between the parties involved. Locke articulates this concern clearly in A Letter Concerning Toleration when he says; “No one…neither single persons nor churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights or worldly goods of each other on pretence of religion. Those that are of another opinion would do well to consider with themselves how pernicious a seed of discord and war, how powerful a provocation to endless hatreds, rapines, and slaughters they thereby furnish to mankind. No peace and security, no, not so much as common friendship, can ever be established or preserved amongst men so long as this opinion prevails, that dominion is founded in grace and that religion is to be propagated by force of arms” (Locke, 8).

Locke is adamant in his criticism of religious fanaticism and forcefulness and goes onto advocate a separation between Church and State; one of the first, if not the first, modern philosophers to do so. In support of this severance he says; “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other” (Locke, Toleration, 2). This philosophy is in fact the basis for modern democracy and a cornerstone of the American constitution. The term ‘separation of Church and State’ was coined by Thomas Jefferson, who was greatly influenced by Locke’s writings. Locke feared, as is still a concern today, that without a clear distinction between the two, the care of the commonwealth will be distorted by personal beliefs and will not be the priority, as it should be. Every member of the commonwealth, regardless of affiliation, merits equality under the law. Everyone that is, except for atheists, according to Locke.

It seems odd, given his strong belief in toleration that Locke would encourage any exceptions. The irony is that it is his devout religious beliefs that lead him to the exclusion of atheists from societal favor. Locke believed that there is a distinct and inseparable connection between religion and morality. Without the acceptance of God, or any supreme and omnipotent being, as a basic truth, one’s morals and ethics were questionable at best. In Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he discusses the progression of man’s thought process; how we develop opinions and ideas, as well as the role religion plays in our general understanding of life.

Locke sees the human mind as a sort of blank slate at birth that develops over time through the use of our senses (sight, sound, taste), through the comparison of ideas and experiences (he uses the example of tasting something sweet and something bitter) and through lessons taught by our superiors and the society we live in. These variables create for each of us our individual experience, which informs our belief system. This is, in fact, one reason Locke advocates toleration. “He reckons that human beings should, as a general rule, enjoy freedom of the understanding” and that “the state has a duty to respect freedom of the understanding on matters of religion” (Black, 473). Our understanding is a direct result of our personal experiences and according to Locke we should all have the freedom of our minds. However, because Locke believes that there are no innate beliefs, morals have to be acquired through experience which for most people happens through religious teachings.

As has already been established, the main priority of the state is security/protection for the members of the commonwealth. For Locke, morality must be present among the people to maintain the functioning of the state; and he does not view morality as subjective but as something that one must become enlightened to. Locke explains this clearly in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding;

“They [morals] lie not open as natural characters engraved on the mind; which, if any such were, they must needs be visible by themselves, and by there own light be certain and known to everybody. But this is no degradation to there truth and certainty; no more than it is to the truth and certainty of the three angles of a triangle being equal to two right ones because it is not so evident as ‘the whole is bigger than a part,’ not so apt to be assented to at first hearing. It may suffice that these moral rules are capable of demonstrating: and therefore it is our own faults if we come not to a certain knowledge of them. But the ignorance wherein many men are of them, and the slowness of assent wherewith others receive them are manifest proofs that they are not innate, and as such offer themselves to their view without searching” (Locke, Essay, 26).

Morals are clearly not a matter of pre-existing ideas, but this does not take away from their legitimacy. They must be learned like the function and application of mathematics. Morals are truths which are revealed to us once we are intellectually capable of comprehending them. Those who do not recognize the validity of certain morals are ignorant, but more importantly they are a threat to the stability of the state. Locke uses an interesting example to prove this point in saying; “even outlaws and robbers, who break with all the world besides, must keep faith and rules of equity amongst themselves; or else they cannot hold together” (Locke, Essay, 27). Social groups develop similar moral/ethical codes, just like society does, out of practicality. As Locke points out, this is even true among criminals, because society requires a certain level of predictability to function.

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.