Accommodations for religious and family/cultural purposes

I’ve just begun reading Brian Leiter’s new book, Why Tolerate Religion?, about which I’ll doubtless have more to say – here and elsewhere. Meanwhile, I can report that the book is focused on one main topic within the larger field of freedom of religion (and/or secular government). Leiter concentrates on the topic of why we should accommodate religious practices, even if they fall within the terms of prohibitory laws that are religiously neutral and of general applicability.

For those of you who are familiar with my book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, Leiter is covering the terrain that I deal with mainly in Chapter 7 (although the issues do come up to an extent elsewhere).

Leiter raises the particular issues that he has in mind by presenting us with the example of a Sikh boy who is required by the canons of conduct of his religion to wear a dagger at all times. Should he be exempt from a generally applicable legal rule, with no religious or anti-religious purpose behind it, that forbids weapons at school? If so, what do we say of a boy of the same age who is required to carry a particular dagger that is a family heirloom: one that has been passed down to him ceremonially as part of a longstanding family custom that is, in turn, well grounded in the local culture? Imagine that Boy A (the Sikh) and his family will suffer about the same amount of emotional distress as Boy B and his family… if they are not exempted from the rule to the necessary extent.

Thus, we assume that the family/cultural custom binding Boy B is very meaningful or emotionally important to Boy B and his family, even though the custom is not enjoined by anything that courts of law would regard as a religion (e.g., the custom is not entangled with beliefs about an otherworldly order, or a transcendent way for human beings to flourish, or ideas of immortality or spiritual salvation, or anything that seems closely analogous to any of these).

Leiter offers a fair bit of detail about the two scenarios to make them seem emotionally about equivalent. Should Boy A be exempt from the rule? Should Boy B be exempt from the rule? Both of them, perhaps? Neither of them?

Leiter hasn’t raised this so far, but who, in a liberal democracy, should decide this issue? The legislature (or someone with delegated authority to create rules with the status of subordinate legislation)? The courts? Someone else?

Please discuss.

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  1. Religious freedom is valued in the US. So much so that religions are invented quite often (Momonism, Scientlogy). What happens when a new religion insists that adherents should carry guns, so that they should be allowed to do so in school. There might be greater resistance to and less deference to an ‘invented here’ religion than to some ancient one that is integrated into a culture. But really, what’s the difference?

    “… but who, in a liberal democracy, should decide this issue?”

    This question goes deeper than just this topic. It can apply to genital mutilation, male and female, for example. It raises the whole issue of moral relativism: what right anyone has to dictate proscriptions or prescriptions to others.

    There is sufficient reason to think that our morals are a function of our evolution and our cultural heritage. This makes morals an entirely arbitrary issue, cosmologically. There is no objective morality out there that we can tell. We can imagine all sorts of variations in evolution and cultural development that might have provided us with different moral values. As we might expect from shared evolution and similarities in culture, there will be some common moral feelings. But to some extent moral relativism is factually descriptive. There is no absolute measure, only a relative human one, a human contextual one; and humans vary.

    Of course, liberal democracy itself is an arbitrary moral system. Nowhere in nature is it written that everyone should get a vote. If anything it is the arbitrary dominance of the greater number that inflicts democracy on those poor few who would happily be dictators.

    But there it is. That’s what dominates: our liberal democracy (or so we wish). Simple majority power, enforced by the majority who see some greater benefit from it than from other systems. The consequence of observing a moral relativism is not moral nihilism, or moral chaos, as some would have it, but the acceptance that we all have our own personal moral preferences, but that there is enough common ground to make liberal democracy work – at least making it the least bad over all.

    So, it is liberal democracy that decides. And as individual members of those democracies we each have a say. And on the topic of the OP I say Sikhs should not be allowed to carry their daggers. I might want to offer supportive persuasive reasons, such as that if they are given dispensation then why not any religion for any weapon. But I need not. I can say that I merely don’t want them to have that option. I also accept that a pro-life anti-abortionist has his say on that issue, even if he believes in his position for what I consider to be crack-pot reasons. I also accept that Sikhs might vote for or merely lobby politicians that support their freedom to wear their daggers.

    But I have no qualms about contributing my dictatorial lone vote to the mass of votes that think along the same lines. I’ll happily work for the reduction in accommodation for religious practices I think abhorent, or merely disagreeable. I am under no illusion that the more fundamentally religious do not try to force their views on me. My fairness and accommodationism is given by me in relation to any mutual accommodationism I receive. So, I’ll happily engage in intellectual debate and tell the moderate religious how dumb their ideas are, while defending their right to believe what they will. But I adapt my antagonism and my unaccommodationism proportionately against practices I dislike.

  2. A Sikh boy is welcome to attend any children’ party I might organise. However he must leave his dagger at home for the simple fact that in my community daggers are seen as dangerous and a strong possibility exists that some hooligan may well snatch the dagger from the boy’s person and go on the rampage with it. I am not a religious person but if I enter a Christian Church I remove my hat, and similarly my shoes if I enter a Mosque. If for any reason I am not prepared to do these acts than I would not Expect Christians or Muslims to bend their rules to suit my requirements and I would accordingly not enter such places.

  3. Leiter offering as equivalent the carrying of a knife for boy A and boy B is clearly invidious. The animus towards religion is clear. The knife can be carried in a way which makes it impractical as an offensive weapon.

  4. I think cultural practices, customs, religious belief etc have not kept up with the implications of accepting democracy as the best way (as far as we know) to manage societies. Democracy is a relatively new idea and democratically run societies seems to function better with constitutionally guaranteed ‘modern’ human rights and freedoms but with secular government. Secular government ensures that no particular religion dominates in decisions that effect everyone.

    Unfortunately the same doesn’t seem to hold for other cultural/customary, less obviously religious, practices. I’d suggest that for an ‘ideal’ democracy to function smoothly, all parties to the drafting of the democratic constitution should agree to abandon all cultural and customary practices that affect any other people in any way while they are being practiced. That is not to say that they should be prevented from doing their cultural/customary activities if they do them in their own groups without affecting others and provided they do not go against basic human rights. Examples might be; in South Africa, which supposedly has a very modern constitution, there is presently pressure from some groups to stop christmas and easter from being official public/bank holidays because it favours christians but not muslims etc. If one want to modernise the democracy and remove such friction points, there is no doubt that the holidays should be scrapped and possibly replaced by secular days in the calendar. Needless to say, christians (who are the majority) are protesting vehemently! Another example would be bishops in the UK house of lords…
    In a sense, by agreeing to or demanding a democratic style of government (eg Egypt, Syria etc), one is deciding to stop being ruled by a tribal chief/king/dictator who historically enforced or tolerated certain cultural norms for everyone.
    By choosing democracy I think you are by definition giving up certain things (usually historical/cultural/religious) but gaining many other rights. People try to keep both and end up in disputes. In effect what happens is that instead of being ruled by a dictator you are to an extent being ruled by the cultures and customs of others around you who insist on their democratic rights to practice their culture.
    Of course, in non democratic countries, anything is possible!
    Other examples:The demands for anti blasphemy laws;
    genital mutilation of children- male and female
    ritual slaughtering of animals (often in public places eg in South Africa)
    Romney and Mormons
    faith schools

    Perhaps what is needed is a negotiated model of ‘the perfect constitutional democracy’ that considers these issues and gives all people something to aim for!

  5. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper

    I struggle to think of any justification for allowing an exemption in one case but not the other. If we are to allow for exemptions from generally applicable laws on the basis of religious practice, we would also have to allow it for cultural practices too, where these are shown to be of equal significance for the individual’s identity, wellbeing, etc. I would be interested to hear if anyone can make a compelling case for allowing religious exemptions but not cultural ones; I’m dubious.

    I’m inclined to think states ought to allow for some religious and cultural exemptions, and therefore both boys ought to be permitted to carry the dagger. But I can see I’m instantly in trouble with that view, because other people might claim carrying a weapon is part of their culture – for example, suppose Boy C is a member of a gang, claims that part of his cultural identity as gang member is to carry a dagger – clearly we wouldn’t want to exempt him.

  6. Nope – the rule of law is surely just that; it must be blind in applying to all ‘without fear or favour’ or else everybody can claim to be exempt on some grounds or another. If the State (i.e. the USA, UK, whatever) allows exceptions on ‘religious’ grounds, the next thing you know is that the State will allow religiously ‘justified’ child abuse, such as highly structured, long-term and overt indoctrination or even gross physical insults such as genital mutilation.

    Oh, apparently, most already do. Hmmm. So certain male babies foreskins can be sliced off (with a religiously defined ceremonial ‘dagger’), but a religiously sanctioned dagger (no threat of mutilation intended, I believe) can’t even be carried.

    Quite a mess we’ve got ourselves into in supposedly enlightened western democracies.

  7. I think DrCaffeine is right…we have got ourselves into a mess by trying to retain too many vestiges of the past and simultaneously applying modern political thinking. There are contradictions that are blatantly obvious and that need to be resolved if ‘civilised’ democracy is to evolve into a more sophisticated system. There are basic behaviours that unintentionally break down the individual freedoms that sophisticated democracy requires …mutilation of any human that is not adult without consent of that human is totally unacceptable, as is abuse of women and children on any grounds whatsoever etc. If we could start with these and then completely remove discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, race, gender, religion, class etc which are basic to democracy. The anglican refusal to let women become bishops should not even arise in the first place and the anglicans should not even have considered raising it as an issue…it should just be known to be inconsistent with modern democracy. Faith schools are blatantly discriminatory ….bishops in the Lords etc should simply be ended. Jehovah’s witnesses that think that they can prevent their children or family from having life saving blood transfusions …shouldn’t even think they have the right to suggest it!

    Perhaps its the culture of political correctness that has gone haywire. Political correctness should mean total intolerance of the behaviours outlined above for the sake of improving the democracy. This is as opposed to putting up with the behaviours because it might offend some people who don’t fully understand what is required for an advanced democracy and are thus allowed to continually undermine it.
    There is a little progress…the honour killings that have had a blind eye turned to them have at last surfaced in the UK courts, a black man as US president, gay marraiges allowed in US etc. It is too slow though, and it is time a manifesto or similar is widely published to provide a vision of what a near perfect democracy would require.
    A BIG PICTURE is needed so that the parts making it up become obvious and do not each have to be negotiated step by step!

  8. Rick Baker “Democracy is a relatively new idea and democratically run societies seems to function better with constitutionally guaranteed ‘modern’ human rights and freedoms but with secular government. Secular government ensures that no particular religion dominates in decisions that effect everyone.Unfortunately the same doesn’t seem to hold for other cultural/customary, less obviously religious, practices. I’d suggest that for an ‘ideal’ democracy to function smoothly, all parties to the drafting of the democratic constitution should agree to abandon all cultural and customary practices that affect any other people in any way while they are being practiced”.
    ……. A BIG PICTURE is needed so that the parts making it up become obvious and do not each have to be negotiated step by step!”

    The 17th century philosopher Spinoza saw deadly religious conflict in his adopted Dutch homeland, and formulated four principles for religious practice which he believed were universal, and correct practice in a democracy. They are found in his political works, but derived from his basic principles in Ethics Books 2 and 3. The Ethics 2 principle is that all true beliefs and concepts must be “common notions”, universal in all human minds and accessible though reason. No belief which is particular to one creed and incompatible with others can be described as a common notion. The Ethics 3 principle is that most human ideas are distorted by emotion, superstition, local history and cultural opinions; that these work powerfully against reason. Sectarian beliefs, being wholly driven by such “inadequate” ideas, are bound to result in disharmony.

    1. Principle of privacy. Being divisive, alienating and likely to invite religious hatred, all sectarian dress, rituals and rites of worship must be kept from the public eye. Rites, rituals and other outer symbols of sectarian belief are not “things which make any contribution to blessedness or any intrinsic sanctity .. or virtue”. They are never “to be esteemed of such importance as to justify a breach of the public peace and quiet”.

    2. Public figures and “guardians and interpreters of the state religion” must not abuse their power and influence by advancing their own beliefs “It is vitally important to prevent patricians in particular from splitting up into sects and favouring different religious groups, but also from becoming prey to a superstition and seeking to deprive their subjects of the freedom to voice their beliefs.”

    3. Places of worship must not be so large or distinctive as to incur hatred or breaches of the peace. “Although everyone should be given freedom to voice his beliefs, large congregations should be forbidden, and so, while dissenters should be allowed to build as many churches as they wish, these churches must be small, of fixed dimensions, and situated some distance apart. … “No churches whatsoever are to be built at the cities’ expense.” Spinoza (born of orthodox Jews) observes that the Jews of Amsterdam had been more or less tolerated while their synagogue operated behind an anonymous house façade front: in 1675, while Spinoza was writing his Political Treatise, a newly-opened vast and lavishly equipped “temple” became a new flashpoint.

    4. “Faith” might be publicly defended by the state, but it must be nameless – “a simple universal faith”. “Worship of God and obedience to him consists solely in justice and charity (or love) towards one’s neighbour”. No sectarian label could hope to dispel “the hate the Turks have against the Jews and the Christians, the Jews against the Turks and the Christians, and the Christians against the Jews and the Turks etc.” Namelessness would pose no problem in The Netherlands, where the word for religion was and still is godsdienst – service to god. Spinoza approved this. “This principle, I think, removes all possibility of controversy..” So, “While “I am not, by right of nature … a champion of religion, each man, wherever he may be, can worship God with true piety .. as a private individual”.

    These proposals swiftly outlaw any visible inflamatory gesture – and this will include the wearing of a cross as jewellery. They do not, however, appear to cover rituals which take place behind closed doors. But in fact Dutch law did intrude here by, for example, banning music in churches, and classifying wailing in synagogues as a breach of the peace. Any private sectarian practice which involves state investigation or police work falls under this law.

    Spinoza’s thesis is not complete, but it offers enough of a ‘big picture’ to make banning the daggers of both boys a reasonable proposition.

    A very interesting topic and comment thread, but taking it to a logical conclusion in the 21st century could be harder than in the 17th century. Who is now going to be brave enough to suggest banning burkas, side-locks, clerical collars and Sikh turbans?

  9. It seems like an imperfect contrast. I’ve heard of Canadian Sikhs who are willing to wear ceremonial daggers that have been soldered to their hilt. And in such cases, it assume that it would be widely agreed that the practice of carrying a dagger around is just fine.

    Since religions are primarily concerned with the meaningfulness of the ceremony, it is not implausible for us to imagine a religious workaround that would meet the reasonable expectations of a fair secular society. In contrast, the sheer strangeness of the rural boy’s tradition inclines me to think that he would be unwilling to solder his knife in a similar way, which is the grounds upon which many reasonable secularists would be disinclined to indulge his idiosyncrasy. But if it turns out that he too were willing to solder the knife, then — oh, why not? Soldered daggers for all!

  10. Margaret Gullan-Whur’s response is helpful. It serves to demonstrate my point that Enlightenment knowledge (and thinking – i.e. philosophical advances, wherein Spinoza provides an exemplar) is placed under threat when religious belief and practice is accorded any special privilege under the law.

    In practise, the stickiest legal point for an enlightened society is the matter of the indoctrination of the child. It is a tough stance – one that no present-day politician dares take – to deny parents their ‘right’ to subject their offspring to 16 years or more of indoctrination into their own religious minutiae. Many would contend that, without that explicit support, religious faith would crumble in a couple of generations.

    It is endlessly fascinating to watch western society twist on the dilemma of ‘protecting’ children above all else, whilst simultaneously indulging the explicit befuddlement that prevents their development into the free-thinking and reasoning adults to which secular society claims to aspire. “Is this a dagger I see before me?'” indeed it is, Lady MacBeth!

  11. The indoctrination of children is such an extreme form of psychological abuse that only those who think it is normal (ie who have been brainwashed themselves) think it is ok. The catholic hellfire and brimstone videos that are played to children are horrific not to mention the damage of perpetual feelings of guilt that are placed in young minds. The genital multilation of young muslim girls is diabolical with life long effect. The endless requests for food aid to feed hungry children goes on but I have never seen an advert asking for funds to try and prevent mutilation of children. There should be total intolerance of this and sanctions should be applied to countries that allow it to raise awareness and reduce it. Sanctions should not only be for disagreements on political issues!

  12. @DrCaffeine @Rich Baker

    The issue of the indoctrination of young children is as serious as you suggest. The Jesuits knew this when they claimed, ‘Give me the child until it is seven and I will show you the man.’

    However, speaking as one who was intensely religiously indocrinated throughout childhood, and has watched the mindsets of other children change or harden as they grow up, I do feel it is only the hard of thinking who follow meekly in their parents’ tracks as adults.

    The separate issue of child mutilation in the name of religion is distressing, but it is a concern of child-protecting governments when discovered. As seems to have been generally agreed in this comment thread, the dagger is also the legitimate concern of a state which does not allow the carrying of weapons.

    Both female circumcision and the carrying of a ritual dagger (unsoldered) are pernicious in the first degree, and also in many countries illegal. But in my view, as in Spinoza’s, less pernicious religious symbols such as turbans and crosses are also inflammatory, and equally likely to lead to sectarian friction, even bloodshed.

  13. @ Margaret Gulian-Whur

    I’m in tune with much of this. However, your remark “I do feel it is only the hard of thinking who follow meekly in their parents’ tracks as adults” doesn’t really do the phenomenon or power of childhood indoctrination justice. That 99% of adults retain the religious (and other cultural) baggage of their parents – true wherever the chid was born and raised – is a trivial observation. OK, perhaps it is only 93.735% in more ‘enlightened’ societies. But the point remains that – along the lines of the famous graffito that ‘life is a sexually transmitted disease’ -so too is religion! This reflects, sadly, the undeniable power of indoctrination when applied throughout childhood.

    Beyond indoctrination sensu stricto, religions are peculiarly adept at blocking the active thinking that we would all hope could lead to enlightenment. But, whilst we can accuse theologians and the higher ranking ‘divines’ of many insults to our intellect, these are evidently ‘thinking’ people. Beyond that, even in the USA (as we quizically observe from this side of the pond) a near-stranglehold is achieved by the ‘religiously-keen’ in the public arena because they are talking to a reliably-indoctrinated public. They can stifle freedom of thought in their own parish and merely intimidate the others into silence. And as ever, it is not a broadly ‘religious perspective’ that is promulgated by the propagandists, it is always ‘my brand of religion’.

    Here, a relevant quote from Hermann Bondi (letter to Nature vol 365 October 1993): [Sir Hermann Bondi (1 Nov 1919 – 10 Sep 2005) Austrian-British mathematician and cosmologist who – with Fred Hoyle and Thomas Gold – formulated the steady-state theory of the universe (1948)]

    “In any discussion of religion, the following argument seems to me to be incontrovertible. There are many religions in the world, several of them (including almost all branches of Christianity and Islam) claiming to be valid for all people and all times. Each has adherents of the highest integrity and intellect. These faiths contradict each other, and so at most only one of them can be right. Accordingly, a huge number of believers must be wrong. Thus it is plain that the human mind is singularly liable to be mistaken on religious issues, whatever the depth of conviction, intelligence and conviction of the faithful. The past as well as the present can leave no doubt that the variety of religions is a calamitously divisive force in human affairs. The less this factor is brought in, the better for all. This is especially incumbent on those working in a universal and global enterprise as science is.”

    Most of us on this thread would think Bondi’s thinking unimpeachable. But the argument continues to fall on wilfully-deaf ears. So, the ceremonial dagger is one legitimate concern of the State, and beyond that, so too the other religious symbols (as you mention, Margaret) plus any and all their trappings that plead for special treatment before the law.

  14. @DrCaffeine

    I apologise for any suggestion of flippancy in my remark that “only the hard of thinking follow meekly in their parents’ tracks.” I am sure that many people who hold the same religious beliefs as their parents have thought things through. Some have returned to the faith after a long period of doubt. However, I do think that the nature of faith is to believe without bothering about proof or reason. For some intellectuals in any sect this constitutes a wilful return to what Spinoza calls “the asylum of ignorance”. For Christians this attitude is sometimes connected (I am told) to Jesus’s statement that “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein”.

    That said, many intellectuals with religious convictions offer compelling arguments on purely humanitarian issues without their faith getting a mention.

    How many religious people do actually question their faith? Many prefer to shrug off doubt; or retain the religious form without the religious content. Don Cupitt’s 1984 book ‘The Sea of Faith’ was an erudite attempt to free religion from outworn supernatural beliefs and dogma. It was reviled by religious believers. So was John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’. The refusal to part with the trappings and rituals of a sectarian belief does sometimes seem to eclipse any need for a spiritual path or a guiding ethic, and if passed down and absorbed early in life will be hard to shift. The American situation you describe has to be a result of this.

    Your Hermann Bondi quote says it all. One of the images that made me reject religion as a teenager was the prayerful conviction of all sides engaged in an act of warfare that they alone, in line with their particular religious beliefs, were fighting a just war in God’s name.

  15. An aspect of the indoctrination of children and then subsequently adults is the massive and dramatic size of so many cathedrals and churches…how could one possibly question something that justifies the construction of such intimidating structures….the sheer size makes one feel insignificant. And, because entrance is often free, such buildings are included in tourist routes, thereby increasing indoctrination. Visitors are encouraged to behave in traditonal ways when entering…whispering and being respectful……
    Another interesting example of the assumption that religion demands respect is the way so many sportsmen (and women of course) look to heaven and make some symbolic gesture when they score a goal or win something…as if to give credit to the almighty. They tend to go down in my estimation when they do that as it actually shows weakness…when they fail they don’t take responsibility for it in their minds.
    In third world countries, I think missionaries and churches do their followers a huge disservice by endlesslessly proclaiming that hardship is gods will. The consequence is that people are persuaded to tolerate circumstances, for which, if they took personal responsibilty, they would endeavour to change instead of accepting them. The worse the circumstances, the more god fearing they become….I’d say its another form of abuse and political manipulation on a big scale and does not deserve any respect.

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