Toleration, Skepticism, and Blasphemy: John Locke, Jonas Proast, and Charlie Hebdo

John William Tate. American Journal of Political Science. Volume 60, Issue 3. July 2016.

As the recent Charlie Hebdo, Copenhagen café, and Garland, Texas, shootings show, religion has recently reemerged as a source of violence within liberal democracies, particularly in those instances where cases of alleged blasphemy are involved. Although toleration arose, within the liberal tradition, as a means of dealing with such conflict, some individuals, possessed of devout religious belief, when confronted with beliefs or practices profoundly at odds with their faith, cannot conceive of toleration as a possibility. In such situations, the demand that these individuals tolerate that to which their faith is at odds is likely to run up against a more personal and, for its adherents, eternal agenda. This article considers a way in which those with devout religious beliefs might tolerate that which is profoundly at odds with their faith, thereby providing a means to avoid violent outcomes such as those in the extreme cases” above.

This article will consider how policies of toleration within liberal democracies, if they are to be effective, must confront what I call “extreme cases.” These are cases that arise when individuals encounter beliefs, practices, or values at odds with their own deepest commitments, are expected to tolerate these, but resist doing so. “Extreme cases” often arise when the individuals concerned possess deep religious beliefs. Religious belief, when deeply held, is likely to define the core identity of a person, and so demands that such individuals tolerate that which is at odds with such belief are likely to produce some resistance. This is particularly the case with “blasphemy,” which in advancing images, statements, or opinions profoundly at odds with particular religious beliefs, sometimes in a derisive or satirical way, impugns all that religious believers hold dear. Demands that the faithful tolerate what they perceive to be blasphemy is therefore likely, in some instances, to produce “extreme cases.”

“Extreme cases” are most likely to arise in liberal democracies, where toleration is an expected norm. In such polities, the faithful, in confronting that which their faith finds abhorrent, are likely to experience a conflict between the norm of toleration (backed by the underlying values of their polity) and the imperatives of their faith. We see, therefore, that an “extreme case” (as defined for our purposes) does not arise simply when the faithful confront that with which their faith is at odds. Such confrontations occur all the time in theocratic polities. For instance, the decision of the Taliban, when they took power in Kabul in 1996, to publicly hang television sets and execute computers (Burns), might be considered “extreme” (or, from a Western perspective, “bizarre”) but it does not constitute an “extreme case” for our purposes because it was not juxtaposed, in the minds of its protagonists, with a countervailing norm of toleration.

In some instances, where toleration is not affirmed in “extreme cases,” violence can be the result—as occurred in the circumstances of the Rushdie Affair (1989), the Danish Cartoons Affair (2005), the Charlie Hebdo attack (2015), the Copenhagen café shooting (2015), and the Curtis Culwell Center attack in Garland, Texas (2015). The common features of each of these is that they all occurred within Western liberal democracies and were an outcome of individuals of devout religious belief finding it impossible to tolerate instances of what they perceived to be blasphemy, with the result that each culminated in violence as these individuals sought physical retribution against the alleged blasphemers, their sympathizers/supporters, and, at times, law enforcement officers, and innocent bystanders.

This article seeks to identify a way whereby toleration can be affirmed, in “extreme cases,” by those possessing deep religious belief, but in such a way that this does not require them to displace that belief in the name of other competing values or abandon that belief itself. This last proviso is significant. Given that for the religiously devout, their faith is foundational, any attempt to include, among the conditions of toleration, a requirement that they give other values a priority greater than their faith, or indeed abandon that faith, presenting this as the only means whereby they might be able to tolerate that to which their faith is at odds, is hardly likely to gain adherents. Only if the religiously devout, in tolerating that which is at odds with their faith, are able to do so while retaining a full commitment to that faith itself, is toleration likely to gain a hearing among them. To render toleration possible, in these types of “extreme cases”, therefore requires establishing a conception of toleration that does not include, among its conditions of possibility, the diminishment of the religious faith that has rendered toleration so difficult, and has made the “case” so “extreme,” in the first place. It is to this somewhat paradoxical challenge that this article is directed.

The article will begin with a discussion of what are widely perceived, within the literature, to be the necessary conditions of toleration. It will then distinguish two primary means of justifying toleration—either in terms of an “attitude” we adopt toward the “good” or in terms of a set of values that we affirm as “good” in themselves. It will be shown that the second type of justification is ill equipped to deal with “extreme” cases because it requires the faithful to displace their faith by according a higher priority to other values (e.g., “autonomy” or “equal respect”) capable of justifying toleration and underwriting its prescriptive claims. In contrast, it will be argued that the first type of justification, arising when toleration is underwritten by a skeptical attitude we adopt toward the good, makes no such demands. It is this skepticism which, it will be argued, is a necessary condition for toleration to be successfully advanced in “extreme cases.”

Having put forward the proposition that toleration can be justified on the basis of skepticism, the article considers the views of those who deny that toleration is possible on this basis, and seeks to refute such an outlook. The article then considers what I call the “moral challenge of toleration,” and the association of this challenge with what I have called “extreme cases.”

The article will then investigate John Locke’s defence of toleration in his seminal 17th‐century debate with the Anglican clergyman Jonas Proast. This debate is relevant to the discussion because, in his confrontation with Proast, Locke included among his arguments for toleration a case for toleration on the basis of skepticism—and he did so precisely to convince those of devout religious belief, such as Proast, to tolerate that to which their faith is at odds. Proast, for his part, constituted an “extreme case”: a person who was confronted by particular beliefs and practices to which he, on the basis of his faith, was deeply opposed, and who resisted the demands (from Locke) that he (and the Anglican church he represented) tolerate these beliefs and practices nevertheless.

Finally, after establishing, via the Locke/Proast debate, that toleration on the basis of skepticism is possible, the article considers the limits that skepticism imposes on toleration. It points out that although skepticism is a necessary condition of toleration in “extreme cases,” there are some circumstances where skepticism vitiates the possibility of toleration altogether. To this end, the article makes a distinction between two different circumstances of toleration—one occurring when our aversion to the object of toleration arises on “principled” grounds, and one that occurs when our aversion to the object of toleration is based on affective or emotive dislike. It will be seen that although skepticism precludes the possibility of toleration in some instances of “principled” aversion, this nevertheless does not apply to instances of religious aversion associated with our “extreme cases.” In such instances, the possibility of toleration, on the basis of skepticism, remains.

Blasphemy will be used as the primary example of a practice likely to give rise to “extreme cases,” and the violence that can arise from these. Rather than focusing on possible limits to speech as a means of curtailing blasphemy and so avoiding such “extreme cases,” the article seeks to find ways whereby those individuals whose faith gives rise to these “extremes,” by finding blasphemy intolerable, might nevertheless be convinced to tolerate such speech, despite the offense it causes. It is therefore to an investigation of the circumstances in which toleration of such speech might be possible, and the violence arising (at times) from “extreme cases” avoided, that the present article is directed.

The Conditions of Toleration

Much work has been done on the conceptual features of toleration and the necessary conditions upon which it relies. Some scholars have been quite schematic in advancing these conditions. Andrew Jason Cohen has listed no less than eight necessary conditions of any act of toleration:

  • Toleration must be an act engaged in by an “agent.”
  • Toleration must be an act “intended” by the agent.
  • The act of toleration must be “principled”—that is, based on some relationship to the “good,” which gives rise to reasons justifying the act of toleration.
  • Toleration must involve an intentional act of noninterference with whatever it is that is being tolerated.
  • Toleration must involve the agent’s “opposition” to, “disapproval” of, or “dislike” of that which is being tolerated.
  • There must be an “object” of toleration—that which is opposed, disapproved of, or disliked.
  • There must be a context of diversity in which individuals are likely to encounter that which they oppose, disapprove of, or dislike.
  • Toleration must involve the agent’s belief that, if he or she wished, he or she could interfere with and deny toleration to that which is tolerated (Cohen, 78-95).

Reasons for Toleration

The range of possible reasons for toleration, sufficiently “principled” (condition 3) to allow us to put aside our opposition or aversion to the object of toleration (condition 5), and allow for its non‐interference (condition 4), can be justified in terms of two possible relations we can adopt to the idea of the “good”—where the “good” is defined, broadly, as that which ought to be. On the one hand, toleration can be justified in terms of reasons we affirm once we have adopted a particular “attitude” to the good. This attitude might be one of “skepticism” or “neutrality” toward the “good,” where we either declare we have no epistemological grounds to affirm any conception of the “good” (skepticism) or make a conscious political decision not to affirm any conception of the “good” but instead adopt an impartial attitude to all competing conceptions of the “good” (neutrality). We will discuss skepticism further below. However, some have suggested that neutrality is not consistent with toleration because a “neutrality” toward all competing conceptions of the good is inconsistent with the opposition, disapproval, or dislike (Condition 5) necessary to toleration, such opposition requiring a negative judgment concerning some “goods” relative to others.

On the other hand, toleration can be justified, not on the basis of an attitude we adopt toward the “good,” but rather because we affirm a particular value as “good” in itself—and so justify toleration as a means of realizing this good. This is the case when we argue, for instance, that toleration is justified because, in permitting individuals to express beliefs or engage in actions that would otherwise be prohibited, it expands the “autonomy” of these individuals or allows these individuals to be treated with “equal respect.” In this case, “autonomy” or “equal respect” is the “good” we wish to realize, and toleration is a means to this end. Regarding the relationship between toleration and autonomy, Bernard Williams states: “If toleration as a practice is to be defended in terms of its being a value, then it will have to appeal to substantive opinions about the good, in particular, the good of individual autonomy” (Williams, 24; see also Raphael, 139). In contrast, Anna Elisabetta Galeotti has insisted that toleration is a means of affirming the good of “equal respect” and extending it to previously excluded groups within the polity via a “public recognition of their differences” (6). As she states: “Toleration can be seen as responding to and satisfying… requirements of justice if it is understood as a recognition of excluded, marginalized, and oppressed identities” (Galeotti, 11).

Limits of Justification

However, the second justification of toleration, where toleration is justified as a means of realizing some good, such as autonomy or equal respect, is unlikely to be of any use in (religious) “extreme cases.” This is because for the religiously devout, their faith is likely to be the most significant commitment in their lives, and therefore of paramount importance relative to all other commitments. In such circumstances, a justification of toleration that expects the devout to affirm some “principled” reason (Condition 3), such as autonomy or equal respect, as the basis for why they ought not to exercise their presumed capacity to interfere with whatever is seeking toleration (Condition 8), despite their aversion to it (Condition 5), and instead engage in an intentional act of noninterference (Condition 4), is unlikely to gain adherents. This is because, in such instances, the faithful would be asked to set aside their religious convictions, which underwrite their aversion (Condition 5), and produce the “extremity” of the “case,” and to do so in favor of a “principled” reason for toleration (Condition 3), such as autonomy or equal respect, to which they are meant to accord a priority higher than their religious convictions themselves. Only if faith is “trumped” by the reasons underwriting toleration, in this way, is noninterference (and therefore toleration) likely, in these circumstances, to take place.

Yet we have seen that, among the religiously devout, any reason or value that seeks to attain a higher priority than their faith, thereby displacing the latter’s centrality in their life, is unlikely to gain support, since such displacement would be at odds with the unconditional commitment that characterizes that faith itself. Stanley Fish articulates such a perspective as follows:

[A] reason persuasive to the devout would have to be a reason compatible with the content of their devotion, and… a reason which instead trumps, or claims to trump, that content will be seen as no reason at all but as a wolf in reason’s clothing. (Fish, 2299; see also Fish, 2288, 2291).

Of course, there may be instances where the value underwriting toleration (e.g., autonomy or equal respect) is consistent with the highest imperatives of a particular faith, and where those imperatives declare that toleration is to be applied even in relation to objects of toleration which that faith finds abhorrent. In such cases, no conflict between the faith and the demand for toleration would occur. But in those instances where the imperatives of a faith do not demand toleration, and the faithful confront objects (beliefs, practices, or persons) to which, on the basis of their faith, they are opposed, then demands that the faithful tolerate these may lead to “extreme cases.”

Toleration and Skepticism

We have seen above that toleration can be justified not only as a means to some “good,” but on the basis of an attitude we adopt toward the “good” itself. If we adopt a “skeptical” attitude toward the “good,” we declare that we have no epistemological or moral grounds to affirm any belief, value, or practice as something that ought to be, and have no indubitable basis to uphold any particular good as more worthwhile than an available alternative (see Popkin, ix‐xi, xiii‐iv).

However, just as skepticism, qua skepticism, precludes any definite epistemological or moral grounds why we might prefer one belief, practice, or value to another, so, qua skepticism, it also precludes any grounds why we might wish to proscribe a belief, practice, or value relative to another. In such a context, the ordinary assumption might be to tolerate as many of these beliefs, practices, or values as possible, so long as this is consistent with other imperatives, such as social order or civil peace. Certainly the 16th‐century humanist Michel de Montaigne premised his commitment to toleration upon such skepticism.

However, skepticism can equally concede ground to intolerance. After all, just as skepticism provides no moral or epistemological grounds for prohibiting beliefs, practices, or values, so it provides none for defending these either, in the face of competing imperatives. Consequently, if a skeptic were confronted with a pressing civil or political need to repress a particular belief or practice (say, for instance, for the sake of civil peace), there are no grounds inherent to skepticism itself that would provide strong countervailing reasons why this ought not to be (see Galston, 625; Tuck, 26, 32-33, 35). The result is that “moral skepticism… does not necessarily lead to toleration” (Levine, 5).

But in those instances where skepticism is not displaced by countervailing imperatives, toleration becomes a possibility. Of course, such toleration will not be justified on the positive grounds that it leads to particular goods like autonomy or equal respect. Rather, toleration based on skepticism will be justified in negative terms—where we decide we ought not to engage in interference (Condition 4), despite our belief in our capacity to do so (Condition 8) because (as a result of skepticism) we now doubt the reasons (arising from Condition 5) that we possess for such intolerance. Such a negative justification of toleration fulfills Condition 3, since it provides reasons for toleration arising from a specific relationship to the “good.” It is the skepticism underwriting this relationship that, as we shall see, provides a necessary condition for toleration in “extreme cases.”

Skepticism Denied

However, there are those who argue that toleration is not possible on the basis of skepticism at all (see Gray, 19; Vernon, 53, 71). The grounds for such a claim are similar to those for “neutrality” (see note 2 above) and again arise from Condition 5—the belief that toleration can only occur when we possess opposition to, disapproval of, or dislike toward the object of toleration. According to this objection, if we have a skeptical attitude toward the object of toleration, or to the “good” that such an object is said (by its proponents) to represent, then we are unlikely to view the object of toleration with opposition, disapproval, or dislike at all. By not allowing for Condition 5, in this way, some argue that skepticism undermines the possibility of toleration altogether. As Richard Vernon puts it:

The conceptual issue is whether it makes sense to say that a sceptic exercises tolerance. Tolerance is clearly manifest in cases where people have hostile views about something, as well as the power to suppress the object of their hostility, but do not do so for some overriding reason. If their hostile views are undermined by scepticism, as they should be, then the category of toleration seems out of place since, if people are not hostile to something, they do not need to explain why they do not use their power to suppress it; whereas the sceptic who does have hostile views about something simply presents an interesting case of psychological conflict. (Vernon, 53)

A possible response to Vernon’s position, I believe, arises once we place skepticism in its appropriate context. Skepticism arises from an epistemological judgment concerning the possibility of knowledge. Richard Popkin distinguishes, in this respect, between what he calls “academic scepticism” and “Pyrrhonian skepticism.” Academic skepticism is the belief that no knowledge is possible; Pyrrhonian skepticism (named after the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, c. 360-275 BC) is the belief “that there [is] insufficient and inadequate evidence to determine if any knowledge [is] possible,” with the result that “one ought to suspend judgment on all questions concerning knowledge” (Popkin, ix, x). Either of these types of skepticism can be affirmed once an individual has made a conscious intellectual judgment that one or the other of these epistemological propositions is a valid account of the state of human knowledge, or parts of it.

Consequently, in response to Vernon’s position in the passage above, it is possible to conceive of an individual having “hostile views about something”—as a result of an affective or emotive aversion—and yet at an intellectual level, understanding that (on skeptical grounds) he or she has no logical or moral reasons to justify such views. Such an individual might be a person who, having been brought up in a racist household as a child, still has an affective aversion to people of a particular race, but at an intellectual level, understands that there are no moral or logical grounds to justify these feelings. In such circumstances, it is possible for such an individual to choose to tolerate that to which he or she is affectively averse, and to do so on the grounds that his or her skepticism provides no justification for this hostility (the sort of negative justification of toleration referred to earlier). In such an instance, our opposition, disapproval, or dislike (Condition 5) remains, but in removing the reasons we have for acting upon such aversion, and instead constituting the basis upon which we decide to adopt an attitude of noninterference (Condition 4), skepticism renders toleration a possibility. Contrary to Vernon’s account above, therefore, it does “make sense to say that a sceptic exercises tolerance.”

The Moral Challenge of Toleration

Cases involving toleration become “extreme” when the opposition, disapproval, or dislike (Condition 5) necessary to toleration is so intense and intractable that toleration itself does not seem to be a possibility at all. Indeed, for the religiously devout, the demand that they engage in toleration in such circumstances is likely to confront them with a “moral challenge.” This is because toleration may involve the permitting of beliefs and practices that not only elicit their aversion, but which they also believe to be in grave error—perhaps with the result that, in their view, they endanger the salvation of others. A moral challenge arises, therefore, because to tolerate such error is to allow for its propagation, thereby possibly leading others to similar error (see Coffey, 35; Rawls, xxiv; Williams, 18). Further, in the case of blasphemy, not only is religious salvation endangered, but so is the honor of God Himself. We see, therefore, how closely associated is the moral challenge of toleration with “extreme cases,” since it is the deleterious consequences believed, by the faithful, to arise from toleration that produce this moral challenge and, in providing the faithful with even more reason why toleration should not take place, further entrench the “extremity” of the “case”. This is evident in the following response of a devout Muslim, in 1989, to demands that English Muslims tolerate the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988):

Many writers often condescendingly imply that Muslims should become as tolerant as modern Christians. After all, the Christian faith has not been undermined. But the truth is, of course, too obviously the other way. The continual blasphemies against the Christian faith have totally undermined it. Any faith which compromises its internal temper of militant wrath is destined for the dustbin of history, for it can no longer preserve its faithful heritage in the face of the corrosive influences. The fact that post‐Enlightenment Christians tolerate blasphemy is a matter for shame, not for pride…. Those Muslims who find it intolerable to live in a United Kingdom contaminated with the Rushdie virus need to seriously consider the Islamic alternatives of emigration (hijrah) to the House of Islam or a declaration of holy war (jehad) on the House of Rejection. The latter may well seem a kind of hasty militancy that is out of the question, though, with God on one’s side, one is never in the minority. And England, like all else, belongs to God. (Akhtar, 240-41)

Locke and Proast

Such intransigence is not confined to the 20th or 21st century. As John Rawls tells us, in the immediate wake of the Reformation, toleration was refused by many because conceding it meant “acquiescence in heresy about first things and the calamity of religious disunity” (Rawls, xxiv). John Locke faced precisely this sort of intransigence in the person of the 17th‐century Anglican clergyman Jonas Proast, who opposed toleration in favor of state‐induced conformity to the Church of England, insisting that only in this way would “true religion” be advanced (Proast, 50). It is to Locke’s defense of toleration, in response to Proast, that we now turn.

Throughout his life, John Locke was a sincere Christian. As he put it in his Letter Concerning Toleration, the “observance” of those “things” pleasing to God “is the highest obligation that lies upon mankind, and… our utmost care, application, and diligence ought to be exercised in the search and performance of them, because there is nothing in this world that is of any consideration in comparison with eternity” (Locke, 421).

Locke spent the later years of his life engaged in a prolonged debate with Proast, in which Locke sought to defend the justification of toleration that he had advanced in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). In this confrontation, Locke was forced, for two reasons, to extend his defense of toleration beyond the terms of the Letter. The first was the “extremity” of the “case” represented by Jonas Proast. The second was that Locke, in his engagement with Proast, was confronted by what I have called (above) the “moral challenge” of toleration.

It is Proast who raises this “moral challenge,” insisting that his primary concern is “the promoting true Religion in the World, and the Salvation of Souls,” and declaring, in relation to toleration, that he sees “no reason… to expect that True Religion would be any way a gainer by it” (Proast, 26, 31. See also Proast, 28, 31-32, 34). In this way, Proast advances the “moral challenge” by directly linking his evaluation of toleration to what he sees as its negative impact on the promotion of religious “truth” and, therefore, its possibly deleterious effect on the salvation of individual “souls.”

In all these respects, Proast, in his confrontation with toleration, constituted an “extreme case.” This is because he saw in toleration, in these circumstances, a practice at odds with the fundamental tenets of his faith, likely to give rise to deleterious consequences for that faith, and therefore something to be resisted. Contrary to advocating toleration in a context of religious diversity, therefore, Proast advocated religious uniformity, insisting on the use of force (or what he calls “Penalties”), applied by the state, upon those at odds with the state‐endorsed religion, and sufficient to put those so at odds “upon a serious and impartial examination of the Controversy between the Magistrate and them: which is the way for them to come to the knowledge of the Truth” (Proast, 36; see also Proast, 27).

This justification of the use of state “Penalties” as a means for individuals “to come to the knowledge of the Truth” relies entirely upon Proast’s assumption (a) that there is “one true Religion” and (b) that it is possible for state authorities to know which religion this is (Proast, 85, 86). Indeed, by the time of his second letter to Locke, Proast declares that this “one true Religion” is the Church of England (Proast, 50). Without these assumptions, Proast could not affirm his belief that such force, “if it be rightly used” and kept “within its bounds,” “can serve the Interest of no other Religion but the true” (Proast, 30, 36). Indeed, Proast admits to Locke that his case against toleration, and in favor of force, collapses if, rather than assumptions (a) and (b) applying above, their contrary (i.e., either skepticism or relativism in matters of religion) is affirmed:

Indeed if either of the two Principles but now mention’d, be true, i.e., if all Religions be equally true, and so indifferent; or all be equally certain (or uncertain:) then without more adoe, the Cause is yours. For then, ’tis plain, there can be no reason why any man, in respect to his Salvation, should change his Religion: and so there can be no room for using any manner of Force, to bring men to consider what may reasonably move them to change. (Proast, 85-86)

Locke and Skepticism

Locke’s response to Proast extends over three letters and hundreds of pages. In this process, a number of arguments are advanced by Locke in defense of toleration (see Tate, chap. 6-9). However, by the time of his second letter to Proast, Locke has shifted his argument to a skeptical foundation, inquiring of Proast precisely how Proast can be assured that he (or the magistrate whose use of force in matters of religion he seeks to defend) has the knowledge of religious “truth” necessary to justify the use of force in favor of a specific religion, relative to all others (Locke, 174, 179, 185, 194, 205, 220-21, 228, 260, 315-16, 422, 428). Such an argument challenges Proast’s position at its core because, as we saw in the passage above, Proast was quite explicit that it was on the assumption that such knowledge was possible that his justification of the use of force depended. As he put it: “For if my Church be in the right; and my Religion be the true; why may I not all along suppose it to be so?” (Proast, 85).

Locke seeks to undercut such assumptions by advancing a skepticism concerning all such claims to knowledge of religious truth (Locke, 296-97, 332-34, 419, 419-20, 424). Locke himself does not seek to deny that there is “one truth, one way to heaven,” and therefore that one “true religion” exists (Locke, 320, 326, 327, 328, 356, 422, 424; Locke, 133; Locke, 396, 407, 408). He just insists that when it comes to revealed religions like Christianity (and by implication, Islam), we can have no “knowledge” of this truth, instead being reliant entirely on “faith” for the conviction of our beliefs. In addressing himself to Proast, Locke articulates this position as follows:

To you and me the Christian religion is the true, and that is built, to mention no other articles of it, on this, that Jesus Christ was put to death at Jerusalem, and rose again from the dead. Now do you or I know this? I do not ask with what assurance we believe it, for that in the highest degree not being knowledge, is not what we now inquire after. Can any magistrate demonstrate to himself, and if he can to himself, he does ill not to do it to others, not only all the articles of his church, but the fundamental ones of the Christian religion? For whatever is not capable of demonstration, as such remote matters of fact are not, is not, unless it be self‐evident, capable to produce knowledge, how well grounded and great soever the assurance of faith may be wherewith it is received; but faith it is still, and not knowledge; persuasion, and not certainty. This is the highest the nature of the thing will permit us to go in matters of revealed religion, which are therefore called matters of faith: a persuasion of our minds, short of knowledge, is the last result that determines us in such truths. It is all God requires in the Gospel for men to be saved. (Locke, 144. See also Locke, 424)

Proast seeks to reject this skeptical distinction between “faith” and “knowledge,” when it comes to religion, and does so by reference to what he calls a “third sort or degree of Perswasion.” He declares that, Locke’s statements above notwithstanding, there is a “third sort or degree of Perswasion,” which “men may and ought to have of the True Religion: but they can never have… of a False one,” and such “Perswasion” amounts to “Full Assurance” and “Knowledge” of its “truth” (Proast, 121).

Locke’s response to this “third sort or degree of Perswasion” is once again to declare that it amounts to belief, not knowledge, insisting again that “whatever is not capable of demonstration is not, unless it be self‐evident, capable to produce knowledge” (Locke, 558). The result, Locke says, is that, when it comes to belief and knowledge, “their boundaries must be kept, and their names not confounded” (Locke, 558). Thus, while Locke, in the passage above, might believe, with Proast, that “to you and me the Christian religion is the true,” his skepticism denies all possible knowledge of this, up to and including Proast’s “third sort or degree of Perswasion” (Locke, 558-59. See also Locke, 561).

As a result, Locke insists, Proast is not entitled to justify his use of force by insisting it is conducive to “the promoting true Religion in the World and the Salvation of Souls” because Proast lacks an indubitable criterion of “truth” in such matters, and therefore a knowledge of which religions should be advanced, and which proscribed, in order to achieve such ends (see Locke, 296-97, 332-34, 419, 419-20, 424, 425). The result of such uncertainty, Locke says, is that “true and false… when we suppose them for ourselves, or our party, in effect, signify just nothing, or nothing to the purpose” (Locke, 90).

It is this absence of knowledge of religious “truth” (and the skepticism that underwrites this) which makes toleration of those one believes to be in error possible, because one can never know this to be the case. As Locke puts it:

Men in the wrong way are to be punished: but who are in the wrong way is the question. You have no more reason to determine it against one who differs from you, than he has to conclude against you, who differ from him: no, not though you have the magistrate and the national church on your side. (Locke, 89; see also Locke, 419, 420; Locke, 561)

Consequently, given such skepticism, Locke, from his Christian perspective, need never confront the “moral challenge” to which toleration gives rise, because he never knows which is the “true” religion that ought to be advanced at the expense of all others in order to ensure “the promoting true Religion in the World, and the Salvation of Souls.” It is precisely this moral challenge that, we have seen, is closely associated with “extreme cases” because it arises from a belief that toleration requires the faithful to tolerate not only that which is at odds with their faith, but also to tolerate all the deleterious consequences that (they believe) are likely to follow from this, thereby intensifying their intransigence to toleration. It is skepticism that, in removing this “moral challenge,” helps make toleration possible.

Locke in Denial

Proast, in his second response to Locke, accuses Locke of advancing skepticism as a basis for toleration, declaring that Locke assumes “either the equal Truth, or at least the equal Certainty (or Uncertainty) of all Religions,” with the result that either (a) “no Religion is the true Religion, in opposition to other Religions,” or (b) “though some one Religion be the true Religion; yet no man can have any more reason, than another man of another Religion may have, to believe his to be the true Religion” (Proast, 85). Proast then declares: “Whether of these two Principles you will own, I know not. But certainly one or the other of them lies at the bottom with you, and is the lurking Supposition upon which you build all that you say” (85). Such was the stigma of skepticism, in this highly religious age, that Locke seeks to deny such accusations: “Certainly no, sir, neither of these reasons you have so ingeniously and friendly found out for me, lies at the bottom”.

Yet in acknowledging the possibility of “one true religion” (“To you and me the Christian religion is the true”) but denying the possibility of any knowledge of such truth, Locke is clearly engaging in the second type of skepticism Proast lists above. It is this which, we have seen, allows Locke to avoid the “moral challenge” of toleration, with which Proast seeks to confront him, centered on the “promoting true Religion… and the Salvation of Souls.” It is because Locke is able to avoid this “moral challenge,” and its concerns for salvation, that he is able, as a sincere Christian, to affirm toleration, not only for Christians of other denominations (“Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers, and others”) but also for “pagans,” “Mahometans,” and “Jews” (Locke, 431).

Keeping Faith

One of the primary reasons why the model of toleration that Locke advances against Proast is able to overcome “extreme cases” is that it does not require the devout to abandon their faith in order to tolerate that which is at odds with it, or accord to some other value (seeking to justify toleration) a priority over that faith, thereby displacing that faith itself. For instance, by insisting that Proast not suppose “all along your church in the right, and your religion the true” (Locke, 111), Locke is not insisting that Proast abandon his faith or diminish it in relation to other values. Instead, he is insisting that Proast make a basic distinction between such faith and a knowledge of its truth, acknowledge that the latter is not possible, and thereby relinquish any intent to justify, on the basis of such “truth,” the advancement of such faith by the use of force. In so doing, Locke believes, the religiously devout can still adhere with full fervency to their faith, but the fact that they can never know this faith to be “true,” and therefore that others are in error, means that they can avoid what I have called the “moral challenge,” centered on the “promoting true Religion… and the Salvation of Souls,” with which toleration would otherwise confront them, and so overcome the motivation to eradicate or expunge that to which their faith is at odds. It is this suspension of judgment concerning religious “truth”—a suspension that skepticism makes possible—that enables such outcomes, thereby rendering toleration a possibility, but still allowing the devout to affirm their beliefs with as much faith as before.

It is true that Locke, elsewhere, is a critic of what he calls “enthusiasm”—where the fervor of religious belief extends beyond the bounds of “reason” and “Scripture” and claims an “inner light” based on “faith” or “revelation” alone (Locke, Bk. IV, chap. xix, §3, 5-9; Locke, 289-91). But this does not amount to a declaration that religious fervor, or devotion to one’s religious beliefs, is incompatible with toleration. So long as religious belief remains in accord with reason and Scripture, and does not degenerate into “enthusiasm,” Locke fully affirms the right of each individual to fervently embrace his or her faith, wherein, he tells us, “nothing in this world… is of any consideration in comparison with eternity.” However, it is Locke’s skeptical insistence that such faith does not amount to knowledge of religious “truth” that, we have seen, is the basis of his claim that the devout are yet also able to tolerate that with which their faith is at odds.

“Principled” Aversion

But there are limits to toleration when it comes to skepticism. We saw that not all acts of toleration depend on skepticism, some depending on values such as autonomy or equal respect. We also saw that skepticism is unable to endorse toleration in the face of strong countervailing imperatives like civil peace. Finally, as we shall see below, skepticism can preclude toleration when it comes to some acts of toleration in which the aversion (Condition 5) arises from “principled” judgments alone. By “principled” judgments, I mean judgments arising from normative considerations concerning what ought to be. Aversion arising from such “principled” judgment therefore tends to contain a moral element, where such aversion is seen as morally justified (see Raz, 401-2). Consequently, aversion arising from “principled” judgments must be contrasted with aversion arising from affective or emotive sources such as mere dislike, as with our racism example above.

Further, these “principled” judgments underwriting our aversion are not to be confused with the “principled” judgments that Cohen refers to in his Condition 3. The “principled” judgments above refer to the basis upon which we justify our aversion to the object of toleration (Condition 5). Those in Condition 3 seek to justify toleration itself as a policy preferable to its alternatives. The two sets of “principled” judgments are quite distinct, since it is the judgments associated with Condition 3 that must “trump” or override (but not extinguish) the judgments associated with Condition 5 if toleration is to take place.

Toleration theorists divide on the question of whether the aversion toward the object of toleration (Condition 5) must arise from “principled” judgments, or whether, as with our racism example above, it can also arise from an affective or emotive foundation (Balint, 266-67; Cohen, 88-90; Horton, 29-30; Raphael, 139; Raz, 401-2). I agree with Andrew Jason Cohen that the latter model of toleration encompasses our everyday usage of the term, where we tolerate things like “rap music,” which we may dislike, even though this dislike is not based on a “principled” judgment of moral condemnation (Cohen, 89).

Skepticism has very different consequences for each of these models of toleration. We have seen in our earlier discussion that skepticism can, in some circumstances, be a condition of toleration. But in those instances where the aversion necessary for toleration arises from “principled” judgment, skepticism can remove the possibility of toleration altogether. This is because the aversion, far from arising from emotion, is constituted, in these instances, by “principled” judgments themselves—these judgments providing the reasons that underwrite our moral disapproval (and therefore our aversion) toward the object of toleration. Once skepticism undermines the basis for these judgments, aversion, as a necessary condition of toleration, disappears, thereby removing the possibility of toleration itself.

“Extreme Cases” Revisited

Yet while skepticism might undermine the possibility of toleration in cases involving these types of “principled” aversion, it does not do so in the case of the religious aversion characterizing our “extreme cases.” The sort of aversion that arises in these “extreme cases” is also “principled,” based, as it is, on a reading and interpretation of what are perceived, by their adherents, to be divine sources (e.g., the Bible or Quran). But in the sort of skepticism advanced by Locke against Proast, while such skepticism denies knowledge of the “truth” of such sources, thereby undermining such “truth” as a reason for action, it still leaves the aversion itself intact because it leaves faith in these “truths” (as distinct from knowledge of these “truths”) intact. In the context of our “extreme cases,” therefore, because such faith remains, the aversion remains (Condition 5), but when it is not acted upon (Condition 4), toleration is the result.

Indeed, we saw that precisely this outcome was necessary if toleration was to be possible in “extreme cases.” After all, if skepticism, in addition to undermining religious truth, also undermined religious faith, toleration itself would appear to the faithful as a “wolf in reason’s clothing” (to use Stanley Fish’s expression above). This is because it would require an abandonment of their faith in the name of other competing commitments (in this case, a commitment to skepticism), and so would be unlikely to gain a hearing among them.

Present Realities

So what does this mean for contemporary “extreme cases,” such as the five examples of religious violence, arising from blasphemy, with which this article began? In each case, the protagonists assumed that if they tolerated that with which their faith was at odds, it would be to the detriment of God’s “honor” This led to a strong motivation to avenge God’s “honor” by punishing those responsible for impugning it. For instance, the two gunmen who invaded the editorial meeting at the Charlie Hebdo offices, on January 7, 2015, singling out editors and cartoonists by name before shooting them dead, were also heard by witnesses to yell “God is great” and “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad,” in Arabic, as they did so (BBC).

Skepticism, in encouraging the devout to recognize that the religious convictions informing such extremely violent actions are based on faith, rather than knowledge, and so have no indubitable claim to religious “truth,” is one means whereby such murderous motivations might be displaced, by vitiating the claims to “righteousness” and “certainty” upon which they arise. In such circumstances, we have seen, toleration becomes a possibility because skepticism, by undermining certainty regarding such “truths,” also overcomes the “moral challenge” to which such “truths,” when faced with competing demands for toleration, help give rise. In this way, by encouraging the faithful to recognize, if not the equal status of other faiths, at least the epistemic uncertainty of their own, it is hoped that the violence associated with “extreme cases” might be averted. Skepticism would not, however, be likely to avert politically motivated attacks, such as those in Paris on November 13, 2015, where theological belief concerning blasphemy and the “wrath of God”, or other such concerns, arguably played a lesser role.

We have seen that skepticism is much better situated to ensure that toleration gains a hearing among the devout than other values underwriting toleration, such as autonomy or equal respect. This is because, unlike these other values, skepticism (at least as advanced by Locke) does not seek to diminish or displace the faith of religious adherents by demanding that competing values be accorded a higher priority than faith itself. In such circumstances, far from presenting itself as a “wolf in reason’s clothing,” demanding that the faithful adhere to an external (and perhaps alien) set of values to affirm a toleration that their faith may deny, skepticism operates from within the hermeneutic horizon of the faithful themselves. After all, to a sincere Christian, while matters of “autonomy” may not be of central importance, it is of profound importance whether (to use Locke’s phrase above) “Jesus Christ was put to death at Jerusalem and rose again from the dead”. It is upon such purported statements of fact that the claims to truth and certainty of their faith relies. Equally, it is of profound importance to a Muslim whether, over a period of 23 years, the Archangel Gabriel revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. In each case, these propositions are epistemic claims that, among others, purport to establish the veracity of these respective religions.

Skepticism denies that the faithful can know that these epistemic claims are true because, in the words of Locke to Proast, such “divine revelation” depends upon “particular matters of fact, whereof you were no eye‐witness, but were done many ages before you were born,” and so “by what principles of science” can these things “be known to any man now living?” (Locke, 424). By denying knowledge of such things, skepticism denies faith the certainty of truth, and therefore denies the faithful the entitlement to act on that “truth,” to the detriment of others, thereby making toleration a possibility. But in so doing, it leaves faith, insofar as it is premised on belief rather than knowledge, itself intact.

In this respect, by operating within the hermeneutic horizon of the faithful, casting doubt on matters that they perceive to be of the upmost importance, but allowing them to retain their faith in such matters nevertheless, Locke’s skepticism allows us to avoid what Jürgen Habermas calls a clash of “world views,” which would arise if we confronted the faithful with values underwriting toleration, but not endorsed by their faith, expecting them to affirm these values in preference to their faith itself (see Habermas, 48).


Toleration based on skepticism is a fine line. Toleration becomes possible when skepticism casts doubt on our aversion and therefore undermines the reasons we have for acting upon that aversion. But toleration is not possible when skepticism casts so much doubt as to remove that aversion itself, since aversion is a necessary condition of toleration. In removing the possibility of knowledge but retaining the possibility of faith, the sort of skepticism advanced by Locke (based on the assumption that we can never know our religion to be “true”) makes toleration possible in those instances where “extreme cases” are underwritten by religious belief. Indeed, we have seen that skepticism is a necessary condition of toleration in these circumstances, since without such skepticism, toleration would be precluded altogether.

Given the intensity of belief involved in such “extreme cases,” the alternative to toleration is liable to be a situation of either repression (should the party possessing the aversion to the object of toleration be sufficiently powerful) or ongoing internecine upheaval (if they are not). No polity is likely to be at peace with itself in such circumstances, and as the Rushdie, Danish Cartoons, Charlie Hebdo, Copenhagen café, and Garland, Texas, examples show, our contemporary liberal democratic polities are just as possessed of potential “extreme cases” as was Locke’s own. It is in this context, therefore, that the importance of skepticism, as a necessary condition of toleration, remains.