Brian Leiter. Why Tolerate Religion? Princeton University Press, 2012.
In his Introduction the author writes: "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 serious obligations of conscience". He tackles this question by considering ethical arguments from the two major modern traditions of moral thought - deontology and utilitarianism. Deontology means adhering to one's obligations and duties when faced with a moral dilemma, thus making one's decisions more simple. Utilitarian ethics is based on predicting the outcome of an action likely to benefit more people.
He develops the argument that the principle of toleration does not apply just to religion but to other beliefs and practices. For there to be toleration it is necessary for one group to dislike the beliefs or practices of another group. If they are indifferent to one another then there is no need for toleration.
Leiter's main concern is with the principal grounds of state toleration rather than toleration in interpersonal relations. He does not agree that the state should be neutral, but he argues that every state has what he calls a "Vision of the Good", which is not necessarily religious. Toleration must recognise the liberty of conscience, but there must be limits to this to avoid denying freedom to others.
It is obviously diffcult to achieve such a balance, and Leiter finds it useful to consider what is so special about religion that bears on toleration, as opposed to the claims of people with other beliefs, such as secular or political philosophies.
In discussing what distinguishes the religious from the secular, he considers four beliefs central to religions, which are:
1. Demands that must be satisfied no matter what the individual desires or what disincentives are offered.
2. They do not answer ultimately to evidence or reasons as these are understood in science or common sense.
3. They involve a metaphysics of ultimate reality.
4. They render intelligible and tolerable the existential facts about human life, such as suffering and death.
In considering whether to tolerate certain religious practices it is necessary to consider the importance of side-constraints, such as possible danger or inconvenience to the general population. An example is given of where the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the right of a Sikh child to carry his ceremonial knife, the kirpan, in school. This was not considered dangerous to others, as there was no record of such knives being used as weapons.
After discussing the relevant arguments, Leiter's conclusion is: "Toleration may be a virtue, both in individuals and in states, but its selective application to the conscience of only religious believers is not morally defensible".
Many readers will be aware of religions insisting on certain practices and exemptions which cause inconvenience to others. Recent examples which come to mind are the reactions to proposals, in Germany, to ban circumcision (except for medical reasons) and, in Israel, to remove the exemption from military service from Orthodox Jews.
The arguments in this book can not be adequately summarised in a reasonably short review, as they are rather complex, but is well worth studying, as it is an important subject, especially for those who have any responsibility for law-making. -- John Harney