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Author Topic: "Why Toleration Religion", Brian Leiter asks.
Posts: 65
Post "Why Toleration Religion", Brian Leiter asks.
on: January 4, 2013, 07:32

Brian Leiter is a philosophy and law professor at the U of Chicago, and has written a new book asking "Why Tolerate Religion." See

Stanley Fish, the formerly radical postmodernist, summarizes the book in a recent NY Times column (

Rendering the suffering and death experienced in Newton intelligible is surely what Obama and others were trying to do, and it is easy to understand, as Leiter observes, why religious belief is of “central importance in so many lives.”

But Leiter has another question: Does the undoubted centrality of religion in the lives of its adherents suffice to justify exempting it from generally applicable laws? Should religion enjoy a special status that merits a degree of solicitude and protection not granted to other worldviews or systems of belief?

Leiter’s test example involves two 14-year-old boys who, in violation of the law, wear daggers in their respective schools.

But Leiter is not just another knee-jerk secularist - he knows his Enlightenment philosophy despite Fish's characterization of him as someone who thinks of religion as merely a means to provide relief from existential angst:

A sentence like this last one makes clear Leiter’s relationship to enlightenment liberalism’s conception of the state and its system of laws. Liberalism begins by dislodging the authority that in other political systems provides stability and meaning — a God or a theology or a monarch or a dictator. Liberalism replaces those rejected authorities with the idea of individual rights and it becomes the liberal project to build a political system and a system of value on that foundation. Somewhat paradoxically, the privileging of individual rights means that the substantive commitments of no individual can be allowed to inform the body of law, which must be generally applicable; applicable, that is, to every citizen no matter what his or her beliefs and biases may happen to be.

The familiar proverb that captures this requirement is, “Ours is a government of laws and not of men.” The liberal project is threatened whenever that formula is reversed, whenever the state’s generality is at risk of being eroded by the particular beliefs of men. Substance, then, is the chief danger to the liberal state, and the chief form of that danger is religion, both because of the categorical demands it places on its adherents and because it refuses the formal constraints that keep substance cabined in the sphere of the private. So that while the liberal state is pledged to refrain from burdening the claims of conscience, were it to surrender itself to them, it would, says Leiter, “cease being a state.” Just such a surrender would be involved in the “carving out of special protections” whenever someone wholly in the grasp of conviction — religious or any other — demanded them.

Does this mean that the modern state wants to own your conscience?

Posts: 51
Post Re: "Why Toleration Religion", Brian Leiter asks.
on: January 8, 2013, 11:44

I don't think the "modern state" is conscious of this as a desire to control the conscience. But I do think that this is effectively what happens in an allegedly free society when any group within it is uncomfortable with what another group does.

Look at Iran: their government oppresses the Baha'is. At least one Muslim scholar has suggested that this is because of where faith meets politics. The Iranian government is uneasy about Baha'is especially because they perceive that the Baha'is are obedient to government not because they're afraid of government but because they're faith requires it of them. Leiter is perilously close to making the same sort of argument against religion as a whole—it is a higher authority in the minds of adherents and when the law of faith conflicts with the law of the land, they seek exemption. If this were a Baha'i matter and the US government said "Baha'is can't wear ceremonial daggers (or ringstones or whatever), the House of Justice would almost undoubtedly require Baha'is to obey the law of the land. BUT, I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that even that obedience would not be good enough for Leiter and others like him because they, like the Iranian government, would be disturbed by the fact that the Bahai's were not obeying the law of the land at al; they were obeying their own religious leadership.

But I'd have to ask Leiter, how do we decide which civil rights (and whose) shall be protected and for what reason? I've had dialogues with anti-theists before in which I drilled down to the core of the argument and it is prejudice and bias AGAINST religion. The Iranian government's claim that Baha'is actually commit crimes of subversion is undermined by the fact that charges will be dropped if the Baha'i will only recant her faith. I've had anti-theists step into a similar paradox when they admit that they would allow freedom of dress, behavior, and speech as long as it is not motivated by religion.

One respected blogger went so far as to suggest that any idea that came out of religion should be simply discarded. Which led me to ask if that was not as irrational a response as the fundamentalist believer who refuses to accept any idea that comes from a secular (or other) source.

We are human. And there will always be those among us who consciously or unconsciously want to control what other people think, feel, believe, and do. What Leiter has proposed is anomalous—"individual rights" that are only protected if they arise from an approved source, which is not a real protection of individual rights at all.

This begs the question: what if the State proposes to do something that violates the secular conscience? Would Leiter suggest that it ceased being a state if it relented because that constituency requested a "special protection?"

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