Why Tolerate Religion?

Several years ago, the Canadian Supreme Court heard a case involving a Sikh boy who wanted to be able to carry a ceremonial dagger, or kirpan, to school. Ordinarily, blades and weapons are banned from school grounds; but the court, recognizing that the kirpan is an important emblem of Sikh religious identity, ruled in favor of the boy. The case raises in stark form the question that law professor Brian Leiter asks in the title of his new book, Why Tolerate Religion? (Princeton). Imagine, Leiter writes, that the boy in question was not a Sikh but the product of a rural family, for whom carrying a knife was seen as a badge of manhood; imagine the knife had been handed down from father to son for generations. If that boy asked to carry his knife to school, not a court in Canada would have ruled in his favor. Religion alone, Leiter observes, has the power to suspend the usual rules, in the name of toleration. Is this just?

There are, of course, a number of rejoinders that immediately come to mind. A government should respect its citizens' consciences, since everyone finds it intolerable to have his or her most cherished beliefs interfered with. A free society benefits from a diversity of religious beliefs and traditions. Pragmatically speaking, it would be impossible to force all citizens to share the same religious beliefs. All of these answers Leiter accepts at the outset, and then sets aside. He is not interested in whether it is wise, beneficial, or practical to interfere with religion, nor does he doubt that liberty of conscience is a cherished right. Rather, his narrow focus in this long essay is whether there is a principled reason why a society should tolerate religion, even when the dominant group in that society disapproves of the religion in question and has the power to suppress it.

In the course of answering the question, Leiter covers a lot of philosophical and legal ground. He examines the thought of John Rawls and John Locke as it pertains to the question of religious toleration; he offers a neutral definition of religion that emphasizes the way it makes categorical demands and resists ordinary standards of evidence; and he asks whether an established religion, such as the Church of England, is necessarily a form of intolerance. Leiter is especially concerned with the French policy of laïcité, which bans all religious expression in the public sphere, and which came under heavy criticism when France prohibited Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in school.

Leiter criticizes that policy, arguing that there is a crucial difference between allowing citizens to identify themselves as members of a particular faith and using the state to advance that faith. Even though every state, including the U.S., promotes what Leiter calls a "Vision of the Good," he insists that it "cannot…try to shut down private citizens who support a different Vision of the Good." Finally, he arrives at the conclusion that there is no good reason to favor religious conscience over other forms of conscience; either you allow both the Sikh and the country boy to carry knives, or you should prohibit both of them. Why Tolerate Religion? is a closely argued and thought-provoking examination of questions that will only become more important in our increasingly multicultural world.


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by JWil on ‎01-04-2013 10:02 AM

Though I'm sure titles such as Why Tolerate Religion? are chosen specifically to induce conflict and debate, it is clearly evident that--despite numerous reminders that freedom of religious conscience is a 'cherished right'--this kind of thinking will lead to an abolishment of religion (or at least support to the concept).  Either directly or indirectly, intended or otherwise, it is the natural conclusion.  I certainly don't have any problem with people speaking their mind, but I find it rediculous and nigh intolerable when people try to mask biased motives under a guise of neutrality.  There are very important reasons why religion is tolerated, even if it is frowned upon at every possible opportunity, and thinking for a moment that we might ever abolish it completely (as Leiter himself admits) is not only impracticle, but also rediculous.


It is a very clear and unimpressive step towards promoting the abolishment of religion, in the hopes that good people would suspend their sound judgement and thus approve what is--at best--a misguided attempt to sell entertaining propaganda, and at worst a motion to legitimize the supression of free will.

by CeciliaChicken on ‎01-06-2013 01:06 PM

JWil;  You make several possibly or truly erroneous assumptions in your comment that negates points you try to make. Some express your attitude toward conflict that is a premise of much religious thought and actions.

1. You assume that the author is trying to induce conflict.  Have you read the book? You don't tell us. That is always the attitude of anyone who with a closed mind.

2. Just because something has been a "'cherished right'" does not mean that it should contintue to be so if it has been proven to be a dangerous, divisive, and conpletely erroneous idea. Your stance that such ideas should continue unquestioned is the stance of many religious who believe, again, erroneously that science and social advances should be ignored by an intelligent populace.

3. Again, did you read the book?  And where is your neutrality?

4. What are the "good" reasons religions should be tolerated? Our jails are full of religious people. Our courts are kept busy with religious divorces while Atheists have the lowest divorce in the U.S.

These are quite good reasons to examine what good if any religion has done in our society.

5. Why do you assume it is ridicuous to abolish religions? You offer no reasons except an evidently biased attitude. Religious thinking is easily disproved and it is abundantly clear, with wars, hate mongering, degrading of women, constant proselytizing by such ignorant and arrogant people like you the world would very possibly be better off without religion.


Are you supposed to be an example of "good people"?  If so I vote to abolish religion. You need to use some good judgment and avail yourself of literature not so biased as what you have apparently filled your mind with. You nearly personify the reasons for a book that asks the questions this book asks.

About the Columnist
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Nextbook.org. He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.

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