No special case for tolerating religion

Why tolerate religion? Prof Alex Miller examines this question, through the views of Prof Brian Leiter.

Ayoung Sikh boy goes to school wearing a ceremonial dagger - the kirpan - and thereby causes the school teacher to alert the police, who arrive and confiscate the dagger.

In his book Why Tolerate Religion? (Princeton University Press 2012), Prof Brian Leiter points out that in most Western democracies, the Sikh boy would stand a good chance of getting the kirpan back and of being allowed to wear it to school.

In fact, Prof Leiter cites a case from Canada in which this actually happened.

This contrasts with a boy from a purely secular background where there is a tradition of receiving and wearing a dagger when coming of age: he would not be allowed to wear the dagger to school.

Prof Leiter argues this is because in most Western countries the law ''tolerates exemptions from generally applicable laws when they conflict with religious obligations but not with other equally serious obligations of conscience''.

Prof Leiter's central question is whether there is any reason to suppose that the moral ideal of tolerance should favour religious claims of conscience over secular claims of conscience.

He looks at philosophical attempts to justify the idea the state should tolerate acts of conscience, before proceeding to identify the central features of religious practice and belief.

These are that religious obligations are experienced by the faithful as trumping all other considerations, that religious beliefs don't aspire to answer to empirical evidence, and that religious beliefs provide ''existential consolation'' in that they ''render intelligible and tolerable the basic existential facts about human life, such as suffering and death''.

Having thus established why toleration is a virtue, and what religion consists in, he goes on to argue matters of religious conscience merit tolerance, but because they are matters of conscience and not because they are religious.

Prof Leiter explores the consequences of this for the law of religious liberty.

He argues that if there are good reasons to prohibit the carrying of daggers to school, these should apply equally in religious and secular cases: neither boy should be allowed to take the dagger to school.

Prof Leiter, who has taught at the University of Texas, refers to former Texas governor George W. Bush as an ''international war criminal''.

And as someone who witnessed at first hand the ''pernicious influence of reactionary Christians'' on politics and public education in the US, it is to Prof Leiter's credit that his answer to the question ''Why tolerate religion?'' is nuanced and reasonable: he argues religious belief and practice should be tolerated, but only to the same extent as secular belief and practice.

Likewise, Prof Leiter reasonably argues the French State violates the ideal of tolerance in attempting to ban private citizens from wearing religious symbols (such as Muslim headscarves) in public.

Alex Miller is professor of philosophy at the University of Otago.

Prof Leiter (Karl N. Llewellyn professor of jurisprudence and director, Centre for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values, University of Chicago) will deliver the 2013 Dan and Gwen Taylor Lecture ''Why Tolerate Religion?'' on Tuesday, August 27, at 5.30pm in Archway Lecture Theatre 3 at the University of Otago. The lecture is hosted by the department of philosophy and is open to the public.

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