John Locke’s Irrationality Argument

John Locke’s “Irrationality Argument” stems from his “A Letter Concerning Toleration”, first published in 1689. The main thrust of the letter is Locke’s argument that religious intolerance by Christians is both unchristian and irrational. The latter “irrationality argument” is arguably the most important argument contained within the letter because while John Stuart Mill’s work focused on preserving a wide range of liberties, including freedom of speech and lifestyle, Locke’s greatest contribution to liberal thought was concerned with freedom of religious belief and his 1689 letter outlined his arguments in this matter.

The letter itself sought to answer two important questions:

• Whether a state should allow its citizens to follow the religion of their choosing, or should they be made to follow a state approved religion (in Locke’s case Christianity)?

• What are the limits of religious toleration?

Before I describe in greater detail the “Irrationality Argument” I first need to make mention of the historical context and an incident that occurred in the life of Locke in 1665. As a result of the Restoration in the 1660’s, Charles II reclaimed the monarchy’s former grip on both church and state institutions. Locke’s early papers suggest that he welcomed these changes. These papers also reveal his sympathy with the concept of a state-appointed (Anglican) religion, indicating that he still identified with the orthodoxy of his youth. He would almost completely reverse these views in later years and by the time of writing the Letter. Also during a trip to Cleves in 1665, Locke observed a community of different religious sects living together in harmony. This experience combined with the attempted plot to assassinate Kind Charles II by his Catholic brother, James, may have caused Locke to reflect on the idea of state-appointed religion and the limits of toleration.

So let us now turn to Locke’s argument that it is irrational to try to coerce someone to adopt a religious belief. Locke argued that it was irrational because a religious belief is not something that can be adopted at will. This is a direct challenge to the rationality of religious persecution which has as much resonance today as it did over 300 years ago.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an Islamic theocratic monarchy in which Islam is the official religion, and the law requires that all Saudi citizens must be Muslims. Saudi Arabia is a modern day example of a country which limits religious freedoms and where the public-practice of non-Muslim religions is prohibited. If alive today Locke would argue that although the Saudi governments cannot hope to use coercion because:

• Coercion works by operating on a persons will, that is by pressurising his decision making with the threat of penalties (e.g. prison for those practicing their non-Muslim faith publicly)

• Belief and understanding are not subject to the human will, and that one cannot acquire a belief simply by deciding to believe (e.g. if I am looking to become a Saudi citizen I cannot become a Muslim by just deciding to believe)

If I do not believe in the truth that there is only one God and Mohammed is his messenger then there is nothing I can do, no act of will that I can perform to make myself believe this. No threat or torture could make me believe there is only one God. I could say that I believe in one God but that is not the same as actually believing it. This is because belief has to do with the truth; if I really did believe in one God then I must also believe to my very core that this is true.

Sadiq Malallah, a Shi’a Muslim from Saudi Arabia, was arrested in April 1988 and charged with throwing stones at a police patrol. He was reportedly held in solitary confinement for long periods during his first months in detention and tortured prior to his first appearance before a judge in July 1988. The judge reportedly asked him to convert from Shi’a Islam to Sunni Wahhabi Islam, and allegedly promised him a lighter sentence if he complied. After he refused to do so, he was sentenced to death. He was publicly beheaded on the 3rd September 1992.

If we go along with Locke’s argument then the Saudi government’s attempts to coerce Mr Malallah are irrational because coercion works through the will and belief, such as that in Allah, are not subject to the will.

Locke reason for calling religious persecution irrational is different from that of Mill in that Mill was against persecution because it could suppress knowledge which may turn out to be worth preserving. Locke is adamant there is a God and so he argues from the basis that any coercion is irrational because any change created in the subjects mind (e.g. Malallah) is so far from genuine belief that it would call into question the rationality of the one who is trying to inculcate it (e.g. Saudi government).

Both Locke argued strongly from a negative freedom standpoint and that freedom could only be achieved by the individual when they were free from interference. Therefore it is not a right of freedom to worship as such, but rather a right not to have the government interfere with one’s worship for religious reasons. Locke stated that one may be forced to be free, be healthy or be rich, but ‘a man cannot be forced to be saved’ (p.101).

The success or otherwise of Locke’s argument that religious intolerance and persecution is irrational can only be assessed by the extent that it can defend itself from rational counter arguments. I’d now like to use the Socratic Method to explore how successfully Locke’s argument be defended by creating an imaginary conversation with him and Jeremy Waldron at Dundee’s Tay Bridge bar.

As Locke and Waldron sit themselves down with their pints of 70 shilling next to a roaring fire across from the bar a conversation starts:

Waldron: So you claim that a government cannot use physical force to alter its citizen’s religious beliefs? So in the case of Saudi Arabia their use of physical force will not make a citizen like Sadiq Malallah believe in Sunni Wahabi Islam.

Locke: Yes, that is correct. In fact it is not only irrational but it could be argued that it is also un-Islamic because if they really wanted to save souls the government should be focusing its efforts on persecuting sinner’s rather than unbelievers.

Waldron: And would you also agree that the government’s only sanction is physical force in this regard.

Locke: Yes, quite. Waldron: So if you agree with both of these you would conclude that the government cannot alter religious beliefs. Locke: Absolutely.

Waldron: Currently in Saudi Arabia the distribution of books like The Bible and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses are banned and those found distributing them can be executed. Suppose that these books are so powerful that they could shake the faith of Muslims. By banning these books and using physical force to ensure they aren’t distributed would you say that the Saudi government is curtailing an individual’s freedoms?

Locke: Yes that could be said. However you are assuming that these books could actually shake a Muslim’s faith.

Waldron: I think the sheer fact that the Saudi government have banned these books would prove that at the very least the Saudi’s believe such a risk exists. Then although the government cannot make its citizens believe in Islam because it can’t alter the inward persuasion of the mind it can at least control what the citizen reads. The effect of this control of books may increase the number of citizens believing in Islam. So your premise that physical force cannot alter religious beliefs does not stand up to scrutiny.

Locke: Ahh, but this form of indirect coercion still won’t create a genuine belief within the citizen because ultimately they were forced into believing it. The Saudi’s were forcing their citizen’s not to do something. As such it would be just as irrational as direct coercion.

Waldron: That is absurd. Indirectly coerced beliefs are the same as most of our beliefs. Many of the things we believe are the result of indirect coercion and this comes from our upbringing, influence, constraint or simply by accident. If you are to rule out indirectly coerced beliefs then you might as well rule out my belief that Romulus Augustus caused the fall of Rome or that Cod Liver Oil is good for you. The reason I believe Cod Liver Oil is good for you is because my mother told me so, she didn’t have to force it down my throat.

Locke gives no response and instead gets up from his seat to buy another round of drinks.

So the main counter-argument against Locke’s “irrationality argument” is that although people’s beliefs cannot be controlled in a direct manner by coercive means, it could be said that governments can use power and control indirectly to reinforce the orthodox belief.  They can do this by banning its citizens from engaging in acts, such as reading particular books that go against the orthodoxy. Locke does not provide any defence against this charge.

Secondly illiberal governments or organisations can use Locke’s argument to defend their persecution of certain religions by agreeing with him that they cannot make a citizen believe something against their will. So by not teaching their children evolutionary theory fundamental Christian groups are using indirect means and upbringing to create a set of beliefs. Most people will not object if the child of a Muslim couple is called a “Muslim child”. However we would think it strange to call the child of Communist parents a “communist child”. This paradigm shift suddenly makes us aware of how subtle this form of brainwashing and indirect coercion can be. This child, by the sheer fact they come to regard themselves as a Muslim simply because of their parents, is more likely to follow that faith. This directly contradicts Locke’s “Irrationality Argument”.

So John Locke can be considered to be successful in claiming that no direct physical force can change what someone believes.

However Locke’s argument fails because it is possible to use indirect means to change a person’s beliefs. Finally the question that must be asked is if religious persecution is so irrational why have dictators from Nero to Hitler chosen to use it at an instrument of power?

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