Why Tolerate Religion?

By Leiter, Brian | Constitutional Commentary, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Why Tolerate Religion?


Leiter, Brian, Constitutional Commentary


I. PRINCIPLED TOLERATION

Religious toleration has long been the paradigm of the liberal ideal of toleration of group differences, as reflected in both the constitutions of the major Western democracies and in the theoretical literature explaining and justifying these practices. While the historical reasons for the special "pride of place" accorded religious toleration are familiar, (1) what is surprising is 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 or other principle, we ought to accord special legal and moral treatment to religious practices. There are, to be sure, principled arguments for why the state ought to tolerate a plethora of private choices, commitments, and practices of its citizenry, but none of these single out religion for anything like the special treatment it is accorded in, for example, American and Canadian constitutional law. (2) So why tolerate religion? Not because of anything that has to do with it being religion as such--or so I shall argue.

To see why this is so we will need to start with some distinctions that make possible a more perspicuous formulation of the question. In particular, we need to state clearly what is at stake in something called a "principle of toleration." I shall take as a point of departure a useful formulation of the issues by the late English philosopher Bernard Williams:

   A practice of toleration means only that one group as a matter
   of fact puts up with the existence of the other, differing,
   group.... One possible basis of such an attitude ... is a virtue
   of toleration, which emphasizes the moral good involved in
   putting up with beliefs one finds offensive.... If there is to be
   a question of toleration, it is necessary that there should be
   some belief or practice or way of life that one group thinks
   (however fanatically or unreasonably) wrong, mistaken, or
   undesirable. (3)

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. That means that toleration is not at issue in cases where one group is simply indifferent to another. I do not "tolerate" my neighbors who are non-White or who are gay, because I am indifferent as to the race or sexual orientation of those in my community. "Toleration," as an ideal, can only matter when one group actively concerns itself with what the other is doing, believing, or "being." Obviously, in many cases, the attitude of "indifference" is actually morally preferable to that of "toleration": better that people should be indifferent as to their neighbors' sexual orientation than that they should disapprove of it, but "tolerate" it nonetheless.

But a practice of toleration is one thing, a principled reason for toleration another. Many practices of toleration are not grounded in the view that there are moral reasons to tolerate differing points of view and practices, that permitting such views and practices to flourishes is itself a kind of good or moral right, notwithstanding our disapproval. Much that has the appearance of principled toleration is nothing more than pragmatic or, we might say, "Hobbesian" compromise: one group would gladly stamp out the others' beliefs and practices, but has reconciled itself to the practical reality that they can't get away with it, at least not without the intolerable cost of the proverbial "war of all against all." To an outsider, this may look like toleration--one group seems to "put up" with the other--but it does not embody what Williams called a "virtue" of tolerance (or what I will call "principled" tolerance), since the reasons for putting up are purely instrumental and egoistic, according no weight to moral considerations. One group "puts up" with the other only because it wouldn't be in that group's interest to incur the costs required to eradicate the other group's beliefs and practices. …

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