10. John Locke and Dividing the Faith

After More and Luther, the European economy flourished and expanded quickly, the strands of Imperial Colonialism expanding the continent’s influence across the world along with the spread of mercantilism (defined as ‘governmental regulation of a nation’s economy for the purpose of augmenting state power at the expense of rival national powers’). The authors of the day would spend significant amounts of time challenging the policy and building it up.

One of the better known thinkers of the day involved in this endeavor was John Locke. Locke spent most of his writing on ideas like expanding Rousseau’s concept of the social contract and empiricism. However, Locke partially explored issues of economics and religion (or at least religious toleration). How do these two ideas interweave for him?

The first place to start for understanding this question is looking at how Locke himself views religion. Locke divides matters of faith and logic into separate categories, since they are two entirely different ways to ‘know’ things:

Locke discussed the nature of faith and reason and their respective domains. He defines reason as an attempt to discover certainty or probability through the use of our natural faculties in the investigation of the world. Faith, by contrast, is certainty or probability attained through a communication believed to have come, originally, from God. So when [an individual] eats a potato chip and comes to believe it is salty, they believe this according to reason. But when [this individual] believes that Joshua made the sun stand still in the sky because they read it in the Bible (which she takes to be divine revelation), they believes according to faith.

While this seems like a separate mindset, it is the beginning of his view of economics. For Locke, faith-centric matters like theology and rational matters like economics are worlds apart, and should be treated differently. Underlying this thought process is the notion that faith-related knowledge is subpar to rational knowledge.

First, Locke thinks that if any proposition, even one which purports to be divinely revealed, clashes with the clear evidence of reason then it should not be believed. So, even if it seems like God is telling us that 1+1=3, Locke claims we should go on believing that 1+1=2 and we should deny that the 1+1=3 revelation was genuine. Second, Locke thinks that to determine whether or not something is divinely revealed we have to exercise our reason. How can we tell whether the Bible contains God’s direct revelation conveyed through the inspired Biblical authors or whether it is instead the work of mere humans? Only reason can help us settle that question. Locke thinks that those who ignore the importance of reason in determining what is and is not a matter of faith are guilty of enthusiasm.

That is not to say that Locke was an atheist. He had a rather strong dedication to his religious tradition despite his hesitancy regarding faith-based knowledge. But he did strive to keep his beliefs regarding religion separate from all of his other ventures.

With that in mind, his economic and political theories, primarily his concepts involving interest and Mercantilism continue to draw primarily from the enlightenment thinking of the day and from humanistic approach to reality. Here are but a few examples.

Social Contract theory: This concept, which establishes that governments gain their power due to agreed upon relations between leader and followers, stood in contrast with the ongoing theory of Divine Right of Kings in most European nations; especially in England, Locke’s home country. This is not necessarily un-religious, but it provides a non-religious source for how authority develops which would be integral to the founding of the United States.

Opposition to Atheism: Locke actively promoted a tolerance of all faiths; not acting in any way as a critic of Christianity. In fact, he claims to tolerate all faiths, though this likely just applied to all Judeo-Christian faiths, since the Eastern and Islamic traditions had not become prevalent in Europe yet. However, he did oppose one particular faith tradition; Atheism. Why did he do so? Locke held to the idea of a blank slate, that a man’s mind upon birth was empty and free of new thoughts. As such, if one wanted a starting point for their moral thoughts, then a being who could act as the source of said morality was necessary. Otherwise, man would be a being with no basis for morality, and would constantly act against their common man’s interest.

Separation of Church and State: Adalei Broers writes in the sociological journal Inquiries that:

‘Locke is adamant in his criticism of religious fanaticism and forcefulness and goes onto advocate a separation between Church and State; one of the first, if not the first, modern philosophers to do so. In support of this severance he says; “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other” (Locke, Toleration, 2).”

Locke acts as one of the stepping stones between the religious approach to life and economics proposed by Thomas Aquinas and the secularist approach to economics provided by Smith and Marx. While Locke attempts to keep faith divided from rational things like economics, his religious presuppositions support every one of his ideas. In Locke’s mind, one must be a deist in order to do, well, anything, lest the immorality of not having a God will send you careening into chaos.

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