Brian Leiter – “Should we respect religion?”

In Chapter IV of Why Tolerate Religion? Brian Leiter asks whether/why we should respect religion. The point here is to consider whether religion might merit something more than mere toleration, i.e. putting up with something that you don’t (necessarily) approve of.

At an earlier stage of the book, Leiter has argued that both Kantians and utilitarians have reasons to tolerate religious views and practices that they disapprove of. So far, so good – although Kantian and utilitarian moral theories are controversial, and I’d be looking for a rather different basis for toleration myself (I actually ground it in what I think many people, including many religious people, can see as the point or role of the institution of the state … but let’s skip over that).

Very well, let’s stipulate that there is some moral basis for tolerating religion, particularly in the sense of not bringing organised political power to bear (with fire, swords, police cars, jails, and so on) in an attempt to suppress it, even if we’re talking about a form of religion that we dislike. But Leiter wants to know whether we should be doing more than that, perhaps based on a claim that religion merits respect in some strong sense.

Here he offers what seems to me a useful discussion of respect. He leans on some terminology from Stephen Darwall, distinguishing between recognition respect and appraisal respect. Recognition respect is what I would simply call “respect” – i.e. recognising something’s properties that ought to be taken into account in some way, and moulding your behaviour so that you actually do take them into account in whatever is the appropriate way. Appraisal respect is more like deciding that something is worthy of esteem. (I’ve made a similar distinction many times, without being aware of Darwall’s 1977 article that Leiter refers to. I’m not the only one, as, irrespective of terminology, these different conceptions of respect are frequently discussed in one way or another. In an endnote, Leiter observes that Darwall’s views have changed since the 1977 article, but that need not detain us.)

Let’s all concede that religion has certain properties that we’d better take into account in some way, perhaps by not making it a political issue whether a particular religion ought to be imposed by the power of the state or whether certain religions ought to be suppressed by state power. Thus, we could agree that we ought to give religion recognition respect, which will then make us circumscribe our behaviour in certain ways. These ways might be important if they make the difference between whether or not we live in a society with bloody religious persecutions. All the same, the effect on our behaviour as individuals may be slight. The appropriate level of recognition may not be demanding in how it constrains our behaviour, at least for most of us.

It does not follow that religion per se merits any esteem, or anything similar that might motivate us to treat it with special deference or solicitude. Does religion (again, religion per se, not some particular, especially “nice” religion) merit appraisal respect, i.e. we ought to appraise it as meritorious, worthy of esteem, and so on? I don’t see why, and neither does Leiter. Religion may have its good side, but it also has a dark side. Taken as a whole, it is not obviously something that is worthy of our esteem, or even something that is all to the good.

For Leiter, it follows that there is no requirement, above and beyond his basic argument for toleration, to give religion any special rights. It is in the same boat as other matters of individual conscience, deserving no more (though no less) deference by the state. Although I argue for religious toleration from a different philosophical viewpoint, I think Leiter is clearly right on the basic issue here.

[Pssst my Amazon author’s page, and the link to Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.)

Leave a comment ?


  1. Religion per se deserves neither respect nor disrespect; however, religious practitioners do or do not depending on their behavior. In my more than fifty years as a religious person, I have come to see behavior as the goal of religious practice. The Golden Rule–or ethic of reciprocity–as a central value of every religion and moral code.

    Most of my religious practice has been as a Methodist which led me to the UUs where I keep community with quite a few other lapsed Methodists and Jews and Atheists, even a few pagans where behavior is the key.

  2. By the same argument formal government deserves exactly the same respect, as virtually all the horrors of religion were enacted in league with the power of the state. Government, however, has been capable of extremities of horror (Purges by Stalin and Mao, among others) that were entirely separated from formal religion.

    This brings to mind a point most thinkers, because they are so trapped in the categories of language that they imagine the categories to be real things, miss. What leads to religion is found in the nature of human thinking- the structures of mind and culture- not in some abstraction of a god-image or good-governance-image. The elimination of religion and government both would not rid our thinking of the basis of the evils we conveniently ascribe to them.

  3. I’d like to constrain this topic of religious respect to the relationship of (1) the 21st century citizen, to (2) contemporary monotheism.

    We outsiders largely wish to permit our neighbours to hold to ANY degree of esteem towards; whosoever & whatsoever divine entity (moralizer, biblical fable, etc) that they happen to personally recognise — inclusive of overt disrespect, if they so wish.

    That personal preference however, I suspect, is utterly undermined in any public debate about goodness; primarily because clergymen insist their view is YHWH’s and hence far superior to the naivety sitting in the pews, and corruptness out there in modernity.

  4. I don’t think a religious person deserves any more respect than say a person who is a philosopher. Similarly, a church might be an interesting building from an historical or artistic point of view but should not be treated any differently to the town hall. I generally remove my hat when entering any building so I wouldn’t say doing so in a church is a mark of respect.
    It follows that respect for religion as an institution eg catholic or muslim is also not deserved ….these institutions try to demand it by their shows of huge crowds eg mecca, papal stuff etc but this is akin to a rock concert or political rally or sports event. The construction of extremely imposing, intimidating and powerful buildings like some modern catholic churches are clearly designed to try and demand respect. I am reminded of Hitchens’ comment that the ziggurats built at las vegas and by religions are paid for by the losers!

  5. I would argue that those holding religious beliefs must start at a disadvantage when it comes to according respect. Religious beliefs are founded upon, and sustained by, cultural indoctrination and a wilful disregard of insight into the human condition that the post Enlightenment, modern world has provided. It follows that those who sustain such demonstrably irrational beliefs, and who are generally more than ‘willing’ to impose them on those around them, especially their own children, are certainly not deserving of respect predicated on their declared faith.

    ‘By their works shall you know them’ is a better guide. Since much of the history of religious belief convincingly demonstrates its pernicious characteristics, at the very least the wilful ignorance it systematically imposes on its adherents, to withhold respect associated with the belief is amply justified.

    But believers deserve and retain the respect routinely accorded one’s fellow human in all other aspects of their lives.

    That religious beliefs of some kind remain so widespread, in the face of reason, science and cultural knowledge, is a divertingly interesting and important sociological, or anthropological, fact. But to respect is not the same as (merely) to acknowledge.

  6. I think we respect the (religious or other) views that other people have because of our respect for THEM, not our respect for their beliefs, which we may not share. In return, they respect us, and they respect our beliefs, even if they don’t share them. Mutual respect and courtesy, the basic tools for co-operative existence.

  7. Steve, I don’t necessarily agree. Mutual respect is ok among like minded people but how can one have any respect for a suicide bomber or someone whose families honour justfies killing his daughter. The wearing of burkas by women who are brainwashed into believing that it is the correct thing to do to stop men from acting out their sexual drives…I think deserves sympathy and disrespect. I object to speaking to someone when I can’t see their face as 90% of communication is non verbal and they are deliberately hiding form me so why should I respect them. I have to be inconvenienced in a passport queue while a Burka clad person goes off with the official to bare her face in private! Political correctness that has gone too far is a problem… things that do not deserve respect in a modern democracy should not be granted any. Another example is the repeated attempts to introduce aspects of sharia law into UK law. UK law is miles ahead of sharia law in terms of human rights etc so such attempts to pull the UK back to more primitive legal systems should be treated with contempt, not with respect!

  8. We can and should respect good religion, but not bad religion.

    How can we tell what is good and bad? Well perhaps we have that innate sense, e.g., what is “good” is a sense that has evolved, being associated to what is in the long-term healthy interest of the individual, e.g., eating food that gives you energy and vitamins, but not too much of it, i.e., a common sense of virtue-vice ethics).

    Have religions evolved for the benefit of a group? Some evolutionary psychologists think so. If a specific religion evolves a core set of principles that help the group be selected forward into new generations, perhaps the “God-gene” is a rational expectation over time.

    So can a religion be good in terms of our “long-term-health” on an individual or group basis, and thus be respectful? Sure. I’d say one with positive values like: charity, peace, tolerance, justice, mercy, loving-kindness. Such would qualify for being good, healthy and deserving of respect.

    Do they exist? Yes and No IMO. Many seem to me to talk a good talk over the core positive principles, but also have a propensity to be hijacked by those seeking to use its sociological influence with the masses to control them to their nefarious ends.

    So going forward, for those religions that seek respect, I’d personally ask/oblige them to: look to their common core of positive principles; eschew those that corrupt them for the sake of bad ends; always respect the individual’s conscience to belong to or reject their religious teaching.

    My view is that this can only realistically done within a secular society that has freedom of religion, but nevertheless obliges all bodies (religious ones included) to do no evil (and I do not despair over our ability to understand what is good/bad – because I think we can build a Kantian categorical imperative judgement system, inspired by a common set of virtue ethics.)

  9. As in most things, it is a question of priorities in determining what is good or bad. I think the big things like abuse of women and children, multilation of children and religious brainwashing of children are some top priority issues that I think most civilised people would agree are not ok. Less harsh behaviours like whether a religious holiday is discriminatory or not or whether anglicans allow woman bishops are less of a priority and should not divert attention from the really bad ones!

  10. “…A third domain for tolerance or for talk of it, and a proverbial one, is religion. Here the question of a proper balance of tolerance is peculiarly delicate, because the answer varies abruptly with the point of view. Militant atheism aside, religious tolerance tends to be inversely proportional to religious faith. If someone firmly believes that eternal salvation and damnation hinge on embracing his particular religion, he would be callous indeed to sit tolerantly back and watch others go to hell.
    If on the other hand someone subscribes to no religion, and is appalled by the inhumanity of religious intolerance, then his moral course of action would evidently be to try to stamp out
    religion and, therewith, religious intolerance. This puts him in the paradoxical position of religious intolerance in turn—intolerance of all religion. Such, then, is the militant atheist. Let us just hope that he exercises his intolerance humanely.
    Yet I am not prepared unequivocally to cast my lot with the militant atheist either, however humane his militance. There remains a burning question of the social value of the restraints
    and ideals imposed by some religions, however false to facts those religions be. If this value is as great as I suspect it may be, it poses a melancholy dilemma between promoting scientific enlightenment and promoting wholesome delusion. The remote desideratum remains clear enough: imbue some future generation with moral values independent of religious myth or mysticism. Meanwhile perhaps a delicate balance of religious tolerance is called for after all: a delicate balance between militant atheism on the one hand and all manner of reasonably
    humane religions on the other. For the placing of the point of balance we must look again to the wisest of the sociologists, whichever they may be.”

    (Quine, W. V. Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987. pp. 208-9)

  11. A very impressive philosophical speech indeed! ‘a delicate balance between militant atheism on the one hand and all manner of reasonably humane religions on the other’ ha.. its not a question of atheism or humane religion …I’d say its a matter of simple human right not to be physically abused in the first instance and psychologically abused in the second. The worst of these are a matter of fact … a foreskin removed or the sewing up of a womans vagina without their consent with life long consequences, the showing of terrifying videos to children that threaten them personally … etc. Someone as intelligent as Quine can surely speak out against the widespread abuse that hides within the big religions whether atheist or not and not show such pathetic tolerance and ambivalence in his writing.

  12. An interesting response as to what is seen by the author as circularity in Leiter’s argument…

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