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Liberal Intolerance: John Locke's Dark Secret



If Liberalism had a prophet, it would be the classical Libertarian philosopher, John Locke. He is credited with giving form to the enlightenment ideas pervading europe, and collecting them, nay coalescing them into a formal system of thought that was called ‘Libertarianism’, which would later be called Liberalism (known euphemistically today as ‘freedom’, or ‘liberty’). In fact, I would dare say John Locke is Liberalism’s foundational lawgiver, who revealed what he thought was human ‘natural law’, which then helped lead the Western nations into the ‘promised land’ of life, liberty and the “possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like”.

Today, Liberals greatly revere John Locke for the pivotal and central role his works played in systematically formulating the ideology of Liberalism, and his justification of a separation of church and state, positing a set of ‘universal’ set of human rights and values for a new human society. One of his famous writings, A Letter Concerning Toleration, is held as a seminal text for the alleged Liberal value of toleration.


However, what most people don’t know, is in the very same hallowed documents written by Locke, which Liberalism praises so fiercely, lies a dark and terrible secret that Liberals would find horrifying. Namely, John Locke negates the universality of Liberal values by affirming that there is a time when apostates ought to be killed, and there is justification for the fundamental intolerance towards Atheists and Muslims.

In the case of the Apostate, John Locke writes in his famous document A Letter Concerning Toleration:

The case of idolaters, in respect of the Jewish commonwealth [i.e. the Kingdom of Ancient Israel], falls under a double consideration. The first is of those who, being initiated in the Mosaical rites, and made citizens of that commonwealth, did afterwards apostatise from the worship of the God of Israel. These were proceeded against as traitors and rebels, guilty of no less than high treason. For the commonwealth of the Jews, different in that from all others, was an absolute theocracy; nor was there, or could there be, any difference between that commonwealth and the Church [i.e. the Jewish religion]. The laws established there concerning the worship of One Invisible Deity were the civil laws of that people and a part of their political government, in which God Himself was the legislator. Now, if any one can shew me where there is a commonwealth at this time, constituted upon that foundation, I will acknowledge that the ecclesiastical laws do there unavoidably become a part of the civil, and that the subjects of that government both may and ought to be kept in strict conformity with that Church by the civil power.

Of course, John Locke does not advocate such a punishment for all societies. But the question we must ask ourselves is why? Is it because Locke believes in freedom of conscience? or the natural right of all humans to believe and profess whatever they desire? No, here is his reason:

But it may be urged farther that, by the law of Moses, idolaters were to be rooted out. True, indeed, by the law of Moses; but that is not obligatory to us Christians. Nobody pretends that everything generally enjoined by the law of Moses ought to be practised by Christians; but there is nothing more frivolous than that common distinction of moral, judicial, and ceremonial law, which men ordinarily make use of. For no positive law whatsoever can oblige any people but those to whom it is given. “Hear, O Israel,” sufficiently restrains the obligations of the law of Moses only to that people. And this consideration alone is answer enough unto those that urge the authority of the law of Moses for the inflicting of capital punishment upon idolaters. But, however, I will examine this argument a little more particularly.

In regards to Muslims, John Locke says:

That Church [i.e. religion] can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate [government] which is constituted upon such a bottom [i.e. foundation] that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince [i.e. a foreign ruler]…It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan [i.e. Muslim] only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate [government], whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor [i.e. Caliph] and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure.

Locke then continues from Muslims to Atheists:

Lastly, 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.

Atheists only became tolerated with the decline on Christianity in Europe, and the rise of Atheism and secular morality as an inevitable result of the secular and materialist trajectory of Liberalism. However, it seems that the intolerance against Islam and the mistrust  of Muslims seems to be an age old problem with Liberalism. A problem as palpable  today, as it was in 1689.

All quotes in this document were taken from John Locke’s writing: A Letter Concerning Toleration

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