Tolerating on Faith: Locke, Williams, and the Origins of Political Toleration

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Toleration is a core liberal ideal, but it is not an ideal without limits. To tolerate the intolerant would be to violate the principles and purposes underlying liberal societies. This important exception to the liberal ideal of toleration is dangerous, however, in that we may make it too exclusionary in practice. That is, we may mistakenly apply it to peaceful, beneficial members of our communities as well as to the truly intolerant. In particular, some contemporary liberals see religion either as inherently intolerant and dangerous or as violating standards of public discourse that they feel are necessary to uphold liberalism's core ideals, including toleration. This work argues that we risk violating the liberal ideal of toleration in a hasty over-generalization about religious belief. Through an examination of the arguments of Roger Williams and John Locke, this work argues that religious belief can be compatible with toleration, and that the practice and popular value of liberal toleration has at least in part a religious origin. These authors, and believers like them, defended toleration, partially as a result of their own experiences of intolerance, but also because they saw toleration as a theological necessity. Thus, this work shows that we have misunderstood the relationship between religion and toleration. While some forms of religious belief may incite intolerance and violence, others provide a firm foundation for toleration. We must show care in distinguishing the two to avoid violating the fundamental liberal ideal of toleration. Moreover, it is important that we do so to foster civil comity and cooperation, as well as to sustain the other benefits that religious groups provide to liberal, democratic societies.





Yeates, Owen Dennis (2007). Tolerating on Faith: Locke, Williams, and the Origins of Political Toleration. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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