chapter  8
Locke and the political origins of secularism (2009)
Pages 24

One of the themes in Charles Taylor’s epic work, A Secular Age (2007), is that secularism, which came to fruition in the twentieth century, was the result of a slow and difficult process that was given to interruption and backtracking. From its beginnings in the seventeenth century, the drive to establish the secular condition of life that now prevails in Western and Western-influenced societies met huge obstacles along the way, and experienced, as well, periods of stagnation and retreat. Taylor also says that the domination of secularism has engendered, in reaction, a “nova” of countless religious and quasi-religious tendencies that may one day, in some uncoordinated but cumulatively forceful manner, undo secularism or at least deprive it of its hegemony. Religiousness has never disappeared in the triumph of secularism; it is always latent when it is not dominant; at the minimum, it can be counted on to mount recurrent assaults on the spirit and practices of secularism. In this essay, I will concentrate on some of the major writings of John

Locke (1632-1704), who made an unequaled contribution to the emergence of secularism in general and political secularism in particular. He is an inventive and resourceful theorist, and many of the principal elements of mature secularism are present in his work. But like the process of secularism as a whole, his own writings show hesitations and concessions, and toward the end of his life, he engaged in some backtracking. Sometimes Locke is disingenuous or over-ingenious. Like many if not most

writers about religion until, say, the later part of the nineteenth century, he is guarded or devious because he is frightened of persecution or obloquy – frightened to the point of publishing some work anonymously and never acknowledging its authorship except in his will, which would be safely read after his death. It is important to emphasize that for most of human history, thinkers about

religion, not just Locke, wrote or spoke with a caution bred of fear. We have to admit that we will never know what some of them really thought. We do have, however, enough overt radicalism, enough published or recorded heterodoxy and skepticism, that managed to appear against the odds, and that supplied the world with more than hints of probably sincere but surely unconventional opinions about divinity. It is impossible to imagine that the West would have

become secularized without the influence of secularist thinkers. Naturally, their thought had to be simplified by mediators and publicists in order to be influential. By secularism I mean nothing obscure. Let us say that it comprises the

following elements: first, as much disentanglement of politics and religion (“church and state”) as any given modern society wants or allows; second, the reign of tolerance: the state permits (and sometimes encourages) the practice of all or nearly all religions, and lifts entirely the threat of persecution of religious minorities, whether by itself or by ill-disposed forces in society; the deliberate absence of explicitly religious considerations, concepts, and mandates from public political discourse together with the abandonment of religious tests for public offices; the general decline of religious influence in social life and in the lives of individuals; and the even more marked decline of religious influence in intellectual life. These elements make up a simple sketch of a secular society. Needless to say,

there are countless variations and exceptions from one society to another. The process by which Western societies became secular commenced, let us say, in the middle of the seventeenth century – a century soaked in religious strife – and showed its vigorous beginnings in the English-speaking world. It made a great leap in the French and French-influenced eighteenth century; and has moved inexorably with the explosive scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century and after in Europe. There are some societies that have tried to abolish religion altogether and

ostensibly become purely secular societies. The most famous example is the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and after. But my concern is not with coercively imposed atheism, but rather with the slow and so far ever stronger process of secularism in more or less free societies. At this point I wish to introduce the notion of the secular disposition.

I mean that from the start of Western philosophy there has been a readiness in some thinkers, among them the greatest, who have struggled to fight free of prevailing religious beliefs and to submit religion as such to standards that are not religious. Well before there were secular societies, the secular disposition existed. Indeed one might say that the secular disposition helped to originate philosophy and to constitute it. I do not intend to equate this disposition with atheism, but rather to suggest that in the West, philosophers from their start in the Greek world, have shown, though cautiously and with some opacity, significant heterodoxy, or even an appreciable implicit or explicit skepticism toward the god or gods of their society. Some philosophers propose another theology that they think is more truthful; others indicate that the truth about divinity must always be uncertain or for the most part inaccessible. What matters above all, however, for moral and political philosophers is not the truth of theology for its own sake, but rather the consequences of actual or possible theology and religious practice for society and the state. The aim of the secular disposition is not to derive a new political and moral theory from a new theology, but to begin with new purposes for society and the state, and

then construct either new gods or a new theology with the old gods to suit these purposes. In modern times, the model thinker who is purely religious and is therefore

at the opposite end from the secular disposition is Kierkegaard. The secular disposition consists, then, in subjecting religion and theology to

the test of nonreligious consequences. What are the uses and disadvantages for the state and society of the religion that is currently practiced and theorized? The intended but sometimes implicit lesson is that organized religion should exist for the sake of ends more important than itself or at least be compatible with those ends. The secular disposition subordinates religion; often the subordination consists in making a reconstructed religion instrumental to ends that are not religious, rather than merely trying to overcome the influence of current religion while leaving that religion untouched. Obviously there must be a built-in skepticism toward prevailing religion among many philosophers, whether or not they offer ideas for a different religion. I suppose we should not be surprised that the secular disposition existed among

thinkers long before the secular society we know. The amount of absurdity that prevailing religions have incorporated into themselves is stupendous, and only a portion of it is non-religiously redeemable as either rationally instructive or poetically suggestive. (I leave aside the immense aesthetic advantages.) If a good mind practices tenacious inquiry, even though with considerable circumspection, it will rebel against absurdity, and try to reach a conception of the-more-than human that has as little absurdity, as few unwarranted truth claims, as possible, even if the new understanding operates invisibly in any thinker’s published texts. The amazing fact is not that the secular disposition has existed but that a secular society has come into being. This amazing fact has an inordinately complex genesis, which Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has instructively and suggestively explored, even though in a disheartened manner. I would say that the impact of the discoveries of the natural sciences, the

consequent technologies applied to the safety, health, and ease of everyday life, and the gradual dissemination of the attitude that a good deal of religious doctrine is absurd in the face of science and what science makes possible in technological application, have all contributed to the secularization of society. (My emphasis on science, technology, and the scientific model of truth is not Taylor’s.) I would add two other developments. There is first the growth of the passions that push forward democracy and human rights, which must fight established religious orthodoxy, though heterodox religion plays a positive and important role in this fight. The second is the enormity of religious strife, which in its bloodshed and destructiveness can also lead to the will to reduce or dismantle the power of religion over state and society. Religious pluralism in its sheer diversity but even more in its contentiousness has conduced to the process of secularization. All these elements have favored secularism and in conjunction maintain the secular society. Now, this is not to say that in a secular society, the secular disposition of

various thinkers proves contagious, that great masses of people think about

religion in general with the aim of assessing its uses and disadvantages for state and society. The consciously cultivated secular disposition belongs for the most part to those thinkers who are ready to see through and beyond prevailing religions. I do not deny of course that many religious people may hold an unconscious version of the secular disposition. They may subordinate their religion and even make it instrumental to nonreligious purposes. But they seem unaware of how unreligious they are, even while professing their faith. They pray for egocentric or sociocentric reasons; they want to enlist the powers of divinity for themselves or their side. They hedge their bets. A thinker’s secular disposition can manifest itself in a metaphysics or a

philosophical outlook that interests only a few; but a thinker’s proposals for a substantially revised religion or for new religious concepts may interest more than a few. Influence of a secular disposition can work in stages, going from the teachers of teachers to teachers of the people and then to the people themselves. Examples of the secular disposition include among many others Plato,

Machiavelli, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and J.S. Mill. But the center of my story is Locke. He is a master of the secular disposition, but also a major intellectual source of the process we call modern secularization. I hazard this generalization: in his most famous and influential works, Locke’s mission is above all to make religion safe for the good political system, and then, and only secondarily, useful for it, if at all possible. In this respect, he is exemplary for the progressive realization of modern constitutional democracy, which is the true political realization of the secular society. The good political system is a constitutional polity in which the legislative assembly is supreme; where the executive power is regulated and checked; and where the people supply the representatives and have the ultimate weapon in a right of revolution. The most important reason for calling a political system good (we say, legitimate) is that it embodies political morality – that is, the extension (with some qualifications) of the morality of everyday life into the political system. One could simply say therefore that Locke’s mission is to make religion safe for, and if possible, useful for, morality as such. He says in his greatest philosophical work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) [1979], “Religion which should most distinguish us from beasts, and ought most peculiarly to elevate us, as rational creatures, above brutes, is that wherein men often appear most irrational, and more senseless than beasts themselves” (IV. 18. 11, p. 696; I omit capitals from Locke’s nouns throughout). Again, Locke is exemplary in upholding the supremacy of morality over all

values; this is the commitment of any mature secular society. Indeed, what makes the secular culture distinctive is this commitment. What makes political modernity distinctive is this commitment. Morality would matter even if religion did not exist: in a good society, morality would not need religion’s support. The irony is that religion can incite to immorality unless it is corrected. The correction must be seen to employ familiar religious ideas and sentiments; but their use is for the purpose of neutralizing the bad moral tendencies of organized

religion or religious movements and thus realizing essentially moral but nonreligious purposes. I will try to develop Locke’s subordination of religion and his belated effort to make it instrumentally valuable. These days, the relation between religion and meaning, whether meaning in

life or the meaning of life, occupies the attention of many writers, the most interestingly self-conscious of whom is Charles Taylor. Meaning is another major nonreligious purpose that religion can favor or impede. The secular disposition – in existentialism, but not only there – has looked at the problem of meaning in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and beyond with the same urgency that it has always looked at the relation between religion and morality. My reading of Locke, to summarize it at the start, is that there are two

principal expressions of the secular disposition in Locke’s writings. The chronologically first is dominated by the difficult and sinuous effort to make the prevailing Christian religions safe for morality (especially in its political projection). The later expression gives greater importance to the possible usefulness of Christian religion to morality, provided the religion is reformed by a thorough cleansing or reduction. It is the first expression, found in the great works, Two Treatises of Government (1689) [1963] and A Letter on Toleration (1689) [1983], which has exercised enormous influence in promoting secularism in the West. Yet the second expression (which seems to compromise the earlier one) contains instructive lessons for the student of secularism. However, the two expressions of the secular disposition have an intellectual unity. Locke everywhere tries to make both religion and morality as simple as possible, so that religion may best serve morality. No elaborate theology or casuistry impairs either one. Morality is fully contained in the golden rule: treat others as you would be treated by them; religion, when it helps sustain the golden rule, or moves people as closely to it as possible, does so by turning the basic moral precept into a divine command that is backed up by sanctions in the afterlife. At the same time, we see that An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1979] is an invaluable accompaniment to our study of both approaches; it plays the dual role of assisting and frustrating each of them. For a secular society, Locke’s testament down the ages is his first approach.

If his first approach had not been as radical as it was, it would have brought him as little influence as his scarcely known revisionist second approach would have done if it were his only approach. In pursuing the effort to understand how Locke tries to save morality from

the uncorrected prevailing religions, we should concentrate on A Letter Concerning Toleration as the heart of his first approach. But we should first try to see what Locke’s own religious attitude is, to see how he conceives of God. To repeat our terms, he seems to join heterodoxy with some skepticism. Toleration must come more easily to a thinker who is unmistakably dissatisfied with orthodoxy and who wishes to see toleration for the heterodox as well as for skeptical speculation, even though not for professed atheism. Although a perfectly consistent secular society should profess something like atheism

uncoercively, if it professed anything at all, Locke’s influence surely could not have made its way if it depended on atheism, for all his skepticism. The key theological text is An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Let me begin with an overall characterization of Locke’s theology. My

judgment is that Locke is sincere in the arguments for God’s existence that he puts forth in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (hereafter cited as Essay). When he invokes God elsewhere he is not sincere. But though he believes that God exists, his God is not scriptural. What is more, nothing moral or political follows from his sincere theological arguments. When he therefore introduces a moral God in other works than the Essay, he feels free to say whatever he wants about God’s purposes, yet he stays within a Christian framework: he must reckon after all with his audience’s expectations, even as he drastically revises Christian teachings. Given what he says in the Essay, I do not see how Locke could believe in the truth of the characterizations of God present in either the Old or New Testaments. Yet his purposes require a nominally Christian God who sponsors morality in general and political morality most urgently – that is, he wants morality to be sponsored by God. He therefore tailors Christianity to meet his moral and political theory, which he arrives at by secular reason alone. But this God, in whom Locke does not believe, changes from the “Second treatise of government” [Locke 1963] to On the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) [1965]. Now let us turn to Locke’s arguments in the Essay for the existence of the

non-moral God, the only God. Locke’s two different attempts to demonstrate the existence of God appear

in different places in the Essay (Book I, then Book IV). The first attempt has generally but not always proved congenial to those who desired or labored to establish a more secular society, but it ought probably to appear obsolete after Darwin. The second attempt remains, I believe, instructive to all secularists, even or especially after Darwin. The first thing to notice is that neither of Locke’s demonstrations pre-

supposes the validity of revelation. Indeed, his arguments do not refer to the Old or New Testaments, even though the first attempt, which is what is called these days either creationist or intelligent design, is certainly compatible with passages in both Testaments and with Augustinian and Thomist theology. We could say that in both attempts he is determined to reason his way, preferably unaided, to God’s existence. To be sure, his first attempt is built on a standard argument; namely, that the harmony and intricacy of the world could not have arisen through the contingencies of bodies in motion. But in his second attempt, in Book IV, when he is most intent on a philosophical demonstration, he is original to some extent. His argument deserves lasting attention, even if it does not necessarily point to a creator, as he thinks it does. Locke coaxes us to see how little we can know about God, except that he

(or it) exists, and therefore how foolish all quarrels and wars about God’s attributes must be. The incomprehensible God stands invisibly in the background of A Letter on Toleration, ready to admonish anyone who would dare

set the world on fire because of religious differences. Undeniably, Locke makes a game effort in the Essay to redeem the authenticity of revelation, even though he contents himself, until Reasonableness, with showing that the precepts of morality can be determined by the method of divinely unassisted reason, even if God figures in the discussion. The God for whose existence Locke tries to argue philosophically is prescriptively unusable, except to the contemplative spirit. Locke says that speculations about “the vast ocean of being” can lead only

to irresolvable disputes and thence to doubts and skepticism. Humanity must learn modesty about the reach of its understanding. His counsel of epistemological modesty surely favors a general spirit of toleration, which he elaborates in A Letter on Toleration. For all the necessary modesty, we do have “light enough” to be led to the knowledge of our maker and the nature of our duties (“Essay,” I. 1. 5, p. 45). Locke is almost obsessive in denouncing the contention that God has implanted in us an innate idea of his existence. Any innate idea, as part of God’s endowment to us, discourages the effort to cultivate human reason by canceling its need or diminishing its importance. Locke is equally insistent that the process of reasoning will arrive – must inevitably arrive – at the conviction that God exists.