30 November 2012


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


  1. > Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the right of a Sikh child to carry his ceremonial knife, the kirpan, in school.

    In order to head off possible anti-islamist comments, be aware the situation was more complex than noted above. The court required the knife to be heavily bound and sewn up so it could not be accessed without considerable difficulty, and it was to be worn under the clothes so it would not to be intimidating to others.


    A balance was struck between religious freedom and public safety.

    1. Thanks for the additional details.

      With regard to "anti-islamist comments," be aware that Sikhism is not a form of Islam. Born in India, it is a distinct religion, though it was influenced in some ways by Islam and Hinduism, both of which predate it.

    2. Thanks for the fact-check, Ross.

      It seems I have developed a false memory of the case! (I am Canadian and remember some of the ugly reaction on AM radio. I must have conflated it with similar anti-islamic talk from the same venues.)

    3. Terry,

      I doubt that you have a false memory of the case. It's likely that you actually heard anti-Islamic talk applied to this case. Many people mistakenly think that Sikhs are Muslims. There were physical assaults on Sikhs in the USA (where I live) in the wake of the "9-11" terror incident. The Sikhs were perceived to be Muslims.