2006-06-20

"Why tolerate religion?"

I thought some readers here might be interested in Brain Leiter’s recent paper of this title (available here). It’s been available for a few weeks, but I’ve just got around to reading it and found it quite interesting, so I’m belatedly linking to it.

Perhaps I’ll have more to say about this paper in the future, but for now I’ll confine myself to the following:
        Leiter seeks distinguishing characteristics of religion —rightly, given his project of determining whether religion’s distinguishing characteristics might afford a principled basis for any special toleration of religion. He concludes that the distinguishing characteristics of religion do not justify its toleration as such, although its toleration may well be justified on other grounds. Despite some unease, I am inclined to agree with this conclusion.
        I am skeptical, however, as to whether the characteristics Leiter settles upon do distinguish religion from other, non-religious (since no better term comes to mind) world-views consisting in a complex of values, action- and reason-guiding principles, and beliefs. (Leiter is alive to this worry, labeling it ‘over-inclusiveness’.) The two characteristics which do the work in Leiter’s argument are (1) the categoricity of religious commands and (2) religious belief’s insulation from evidence (see the paper for full formulations). My initial reaction to Leiter’s argument is that the religion is less both less categorical and less insulated from evidence than Leiter imagines, and that non-religious world-views do not differ significantly from them in these respects. This is in part because I see religion and non-religious world-views as occupying comparable roles in the lives of their adherents: in structuring belief, prioritizing alternative courses of actions, offering values which motivate and give meaning to actions, etc. Accordingly, it would be surprising if they did turn out to differ significantly in these respects and, consequently, if differences in their toleration were justified. I suspect that any world-view, religious or not, which occupies such central roles in the lives of persons is will exhibit categoricity of commands and insulation from evidence to an extent which is relatively invariant across world-views, and that the same would go for any other characteristic which would provide a principled basis for differential treatment. [Obviously, much more needs to be said here.]
        Just to be clear, my worry is not with Leiter’s argument; rather, it is about the understanding of the facts of religion versus non-religious world-views that he appears to hold. He regards them as differing significantly, though these differences do not justify special toleration of religion, whereas I regard them as broadly similar in the relevant respects and hence no differences in toleration can be justified on their basis.
        Where this disagreement does matter is in the treatment, legal and constitutional, of religion. At the end of his paper, Leiter suggests that “the French conception of laïcité may be the only principled approach.” At least as practiced by the French, laïcité involves the confinement of religion, in particular, to the private sphere, while non-religious world-views are permitted to intrude into the public sphere and are even endorsed and promoted therein by the state. But for this differential treatment to be principled itself, there must be distinguishing differences between religion and non-religious world-views which justify it. In Leiter’s view there are differences which justify differential treatment, only not with respect to toleration. But, if I am right that the relevant sorts of differences required to justify differential treatment do not obtain in general, then either non-religious world-views too must also be confined to the private sphere, or both religion and non-religious world-views must be allowed to intrude into the public sphere to some degree, and the limits on this intrusion must be delineated for both together. As the former course is (I submit) impossible to pursue while maintaining any substantial public sphere at all, the latter — with its abandonment of the French conception of laïcité — remains as the only option. (I’ll add that this approach seems to fall nicely within the liberal tradition in a way that French laïcité does not.)
        Finally, I am open to the possibility that many or most religions as they are practiced have features which make them more likely to bring about harm to well-being than non-religious world-views, and so justify some degree of differential treatment against religion. (Leiter acknowledges this possibility, but leaves it aside as not relevant to his project.) If there are such features, I am committed that they do not have their basis in any defining characteristics of religion alone, including Leiter’s: the categoricity of religious commands or insulation from evidence. Be that as it may, what does seem to often bring about harm to well-being is fanatical belief, whether religious or not; what is needed, then, is an investigation into the characteristics of fanatical belief and the conditions which promote it: if religions engender these conditions to a greater extent than non-religious world-views, then differential treatment of religion may be justified accordingly on that basis.

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