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Why tolerate religion?

By Ralph Seccombe - posted Thursday, 19 June 2014

The book Why Tolerate Religion? does not invite the answer: no, let’s ban it. The meaning of the title is: given the universal human rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly etc etc, should there be a separate and additional category of religious rights? To put it another way: should religious people have rights in addition to those of non-religious?

The author, Brian Leiter, is Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago. Dauntingly, Leiter says that the book aims ‘to make the text readable by scholars in other disciplines interested in these issues, and perhaps also by educated laypeople.’ Trained in neither law nor philosophy, your reviewer is haunted by the ‘perhaps’ but did enjoy the book and found it very helpful in clarifying the issues. At least it is clear that this scholarly book is far from polemics like God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.

I came across Leiter through an Aljazeera article of his arguing that “The rule of law applies to all, even religious believers”. It inspired me to buy the book.


The book opens with a scenario about two school students. In the one case, the youth’s family tradition demands that he wear a knife: as with his father and grandfather before him, it is essential to him as a person; to deprive him of it is to demean him, his family and his manhood. The other student is a Sikh, whose religion demands that he wear a knife. Should the state privilege one worldview over the other? As Leiter puts it, ‘The central puzzle in this book is why the state should have to tolerate exemptions from generally applicable laws when they conflict with religious obligations but not with any other equally serious obligations of conscience.’ It asks whether there is ‘any reason to think that moral ideal would only single out religious claims of conscience, protecting our Sikh boy but leaving our rural boy with no legal remedy.’

Leiter finds as a matter of record that ‘no one has been able to articulate a credible principled argument for tolerating religion qua religion—that is, an argument that would explain why, as a matter of moral principle, we ought to accord special legal and moral treatment to religious practices.’

Leiter explores the concept of toleration. This is something you do in the case of something you don’t like. I don’t tolerate coffee. As Leiter says, ‘For there to be a practice of toleration, one group must deem another differing group’s beliefs or practices “wrong, mistaken, or undesirable” and yet “put up” with them nonetheless.’ Why tolerate? Leiter notes an argument for freedom of speech: ‘there is still a reason to demand that the state tolerate many different kinds of speech (even harmful speech), and that is because there is no reason to think the state will make the right choices about which speech ought to be regulated.’ Delightfully, this has been called ‘the argument from governmental incompetence.’

As for toleration of religion, in the past a state was expected to favour a particular religion or sect but might choose to tolerate non-conformists: ‘the historical problem about religious toleration was generated by conflict among religious groups’. However, ‘the contemporary problem, at least in the post-Enlightenment, secular nations (of which the United States may still be one) is different: it is why the state should tolerate religion as such at all.’

Utilitarian arguments make a contribution here: these ‘have a similar feature—namely, that they do not obviously single out religion for special consideration as opposed to other important matters of conscience. These arguments come in many different varieties, but all share, in one form or the other, the core idea that it maximizes human well-being—however exactly that is to be understood—to protect liberty of conscience against infringement by the state.’ Epistemic arguments for toleration are also important: these ‘emphasize the contribution that tolerance makes to knowledge. Such arguments find their most systematic articulation in the work of John Stuart Mill. According to Mill, toleration is necessary because (1) discovering the truth (or believing what is true in the right kind of way) contributes to overall utility; and (2) we can only discover the truth (or believe what is true in the right way) in circumstances in which different beliefs and practices are permitted.’

Leiter continues his treatment of the core question of the book by examining the nature of religion, proposing a definition: for all religions, there are at least some central beliefs that:


1. issue in categorical demands on action—that is, demands that must be satisfied no matter what an individual’s antecedent desires and no matter what incentives or disincentives the world serves up; and

2. do not answer ultimately (or at the limit) to evidence and reasons, as these are understood in other domains concerned with knowledge of the world. Religious beliefs, in virtue of being based on “faith”, are insulated from ordinary standards of evidence and rational justification, the ones we employ in both common sense and in science.

A discussion of other worldviews which may be religions or described as such or denied the status, including Marxism and Buddhism, leads to an additional proposed quality of religions:

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Why Tolerate Religion? Brian Leiter (Princeton University Press, 2013)

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About the Author

Ralph Seccombe is a former public servant (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the United Nations).

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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