Why tolerate religion? Brian Leiter

WhyreligionPrinceton University Press 2013 £16.95 ISBN 978 0 691 15361 2 187pp

The shoe is on the other foot nowadays when it comes to defending the good of religion. No book I have read makes that clearer than this one. It is by a high powered professor of jurisprudence, expert in philosophy, and is well-written and accessible. Within it is a cogent argument that western democracies are wrong to single out religious liberty for special legal protection.

‘Generally applicable laws intentionally burden minority claims of conscience, whereas a regime of exemptions intentionally privileges religious claims of conscience, to the exclusion of others, even though there is no reason to do so’. For a Sikh boy to be permitted to take his ceremonial dagger to school and a farmer’s boy, possessing a knife handed down through generations, not to be so allowed concentrates the legal, moral, philosophical arguments that surround singling out religious liberty for special legal protection.

Brian Leiter makes a bold, well reasoned claim in a fairly courteous way. I was disarmed by his criticism of French laïcité that endeavours to keep public life secular by banning religious artefacts. The author sees this exclusion as inherently intolerant, ‘a case of impermissible intolerance of religion’ for he sees the neutrality aspired to as a façade cloaking antipathy to Muslims. The wearing of religious symbols does not undermine democratic equality. The American professor makes unfavourable contrast of French laïcité with the legal establishment of the Church of England and principled toleration of a variety of religions in modern Britain. Both religious establishment and disestablishment can and should be associated with freedom to display religious convictions in public.

In his analysis the author details religious beliefs as distinct from other beliefs in being not based on evidence and issuing in categorical demands even if they provide ‘existential consolation’.  The conclusion of Leiter’s powerful argument is that the state should tolerate religious claims of conscience, though largely irrational and morally questionable, but not give them the respect given them hitherto which subordinates the morally important objectives of safety, health, well-being and equal treatment before the law to such claims. The Sikh boy should surrender his dagger.

Most provocative thought from Leiter is how western democracies might be legislating to exempt religious adherents as if to pacify ‘those most likely to make trouble’!  His compelling thesis builds on widely publicised bad behaviour of religious adherents to present a view that the common good, which law serves, needs purifying of the metaphysical element altogether as being not just beyond but destructively against reason.

To fully answer Leiter’s arguments you need legal and philosophical qualifications beyond my own. As a Christian apologist I was nevertheless shocked by his dismissal of the reasoned defence of religion and his failure to engage with the big minds of Christianity, dismissing Thomas Aquinas in one sentence! To write that ‘devout Catholics who still persist in believing in the resurrection of Christ hold that belief insulated from reasons and evidence’ does the author’s integrity no service.  The resurrection of Christ is an event taken seriously by secular historians. It is also, if it indeed happened, a metaphysical event bringing indeed ‘existential consolation’. Where would the common good be without those motivated to selfless service through such ‘existential consolation’? If we are, as Jonathan Sacks likes to remind us, homo sapiens we are built to seek wisdom and that quest, inseparable from religious adherence and metaphysical belief, needs the respect of the law for the sake of the common good, however much poor religious practice there may be around.

Brian Leiter’s bold yet courteous challenge invites dialogue with religious thinkers who would share his desire for the common good of humanity. It is important to take seriously the failings of religion in the modern world and to bring reminders of how much in our world – in education, healthcare, jurisprudence – owes its progress to the transcendent vision of the dignity of humanity maintained by religion.

The Revd Dr John F Twisleton                         Rector of St Giles, Horsted Keynes, West Sussex  5th January 2013  

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