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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