Tag Archives: Brian Leiter

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.)

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.

[Pssst … my Amazon author page.]