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Why Tolerate Religion? [Hardcover]

Brian Leiter

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Book Description

Oct. 28 2012

This provocative book addresses one of the most enduring puzzles in political philosophy and constitutional theory--why is religion singled out for preferential treatment in both law and public discourse? Why, for example, can a religious soup kitchen get an exemption from zoning laws in order to expand its facilities to better serve the needy, while a secular soup kitchen with the same goal cannot? Why is a Sikh boy permitted to wear his ceremonial dagger to school while any other boy could be expelled for packing a knife? Why are religious obligations that conflict with the law accorded special toleration while other obligations of conscience are not?

In Why Tolerate Religion?, Brian Leiter argues that the reasons have nothing to do with religion, and that Western democracies are wrong to single out religious liberty for special legal protections. He offers new insights into what makes a claim of conscience distinctively "religious," and draws on a wealth of examples from America, Europe, and elsewhere to highlight the important issues at stake. With philosophical acuity, legal insight, and wry humor, Leiter shows why our reasons for tolerating religion are not specific to religion but apply to all claims of conscience, and why a government committed to liberty of conscience is not required by the principle of toleration to grant exemptions to laws that promote the general welfare.


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Review

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013

"A model of clarity and rigour and at points strikingly original, this is a book that anyone who thinks seriously about religion, ethics and politics will benefit from reading."--John Gray, New Statesman

"A slim volume, deeply conversant with the literature in law and philosophy, and by turns bold, bracing and bruising, Why Tolerate Religion? should command the attention of anyone interested in the place of faith in the public arena."--Glenn C. Altschuler, Jerusalem Post

"Although this is a rather bold and provocative thesis, Leiter's approach is highly nuanced and painstakingly thorough, as he patiently walks readers through each definition, consideration, and possible objection. The overall effect is a very impressively argued case."--Library Journal

"Why Tolerate Religion? is a closely argued and thought-provoking examination of questions that will only become more important in our increasingly multicultural world."--Adam Kirsch, Barnes & Noble Review

"Overall, Leiter's judicious and penetrating volume is an excellent example of how philosophy can be brought to bear on practical issues of the day."--Alex Miller, Morning Star

"Why Tolerate Religion? is a readable book that exposes several tenuous assumptions underlying the predominant justifications for religious exemptions. At the same time, it provides a fresh and intuitive framework for analyzing conscience-based objections to facially neutral laws that should appeal to legal practitioners, jurists, and philosophers alike."--Harvard Law Review

"Students and scholars likely will be citing Leiter's clear and powerful arguments for many years."--Choice

"[E]legant and accessible . . . straightforward and clear. Readers will find the book engaging and thought-provoking; yet Leiter's discussion is nonetheless philosophically sophisticated, incorporating nuanced considerations from legal theory, meta-ethics, and political philosophy. Most importantly, Leiter's book provides a sound basis for pursuing these crucial matters further."--Scott F Aikin, Philosophers' Magazine

"Leiter's book is . . . very readable and it avoids technical jargon as much as possible. It works very well as a challenge to those who are sympathetic to conceding some exemptions from generally applicable laws because of religious beliefs, because the burden of justifying such exemptions is placed squarely on those who propose them."--Desmond M. Clarke, Jurisprudence

"[C]ompelling read . . . makes for a fresh and lively contribution to this ongoing debate."--Journal of Applied Philosophy

"Why Tolerate Religion? has a certain beauty in its brevity, austerity and aspiration to analytical rigor."--Russell Blackford, Free Inquiry

"It is highly recommended to all those interested in the relationship between religion and the state. It will certainly leave its readers with much to ponder."--Jakub Urbaniak, Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae

"Brian Leiter's new book aims to be accessible to scholars outside of philosophy as well as to 'educated laypeople'. In my view, he succeeds in this endeavor. His book is very readable, and avoids unnecessary technicalities. The question Leiter addresses in his book . . . is of interest not only to academic philosophers, but to everyone who is curious about questions concerning the societal function and role of religion, toleration, minority rights, and conscience."--Martin Sticker, Zeitschrift fuer philosophische Literatur

From the Inside Flap

"Think you understand religious toleration? Think again. Brian Leiter's bracing argument moves deftly from the classics of political philosophy to the riddles of modern case law, demolishing old nostrums and sowing fresh insights with each step. Every reader will learn something from this remarkable book, and, beginning now, every serious scholar of religious toleration will have to contend with Leiter's bold claims."--Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton University

"This is a provocative and bracing essay, one that is bound to stimulate much discussion."--Richard Kraut, Northwestern University

"The place of religion in the public arena, and the kind of protection and even respect it should be entitled to from the state, is a topic of significant contemporary interest. Leiter writes about it with wit and good humor. He is even bruising on occasion. But there can be no doubting his capacity as a scholar, his intellectual energy, or his ability to persuade."--Timothy Macklem, King's College London

"Leiter argues that there are no principled, moral reasons for singling out religion as the subject of toleration. He has cut through a dense philosophical and legal literature, focused on a question of great importance, and developed a provocative, sharp, and yet nuanced case. Anyone concerned with this topic will have to read and take seriously the arguments presented in this very well-written and accessible book."--Micah J. Schwartzman, University of Virginia


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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rigorous Jan. 27 2013
By R. Albin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This concise (5 short chapters), very well written, and unusually well argued book is devoted to addressing the major question: "what are the principled reasons why the state should exempt religious claims of conscience from the burden of its laws?" While the focus of this book is on the legal status of religious claims to receive preferential treatment from the state, Leiter's arguments have significant implications for the general deference that religious claims receive in American life (and in that of many other democracies). Leiter starts with the basics; why should religious claims be tolerated? In his first chapter, he grounds "principled toleration" - the tolerance of ideas and some actions that a majority would find objectionable - in both deontological and utilitarian traditions. This is a thoughtful, parallel application of Rawls' Original Position and ensuing arguments, and Mill's utilitarianism. Through both the Rawlsian and Millian analyses, Leiter establishes that religion deserves principled toleration. A key point, however, is that these chains of reasoning indicate that liberty of conscience in general deserves principled toleration, religion here appears only as a sub-species of claims of conscience. After establishing that religious claims deserve principled toleration, subject to important side-constraints, Leiter moves on to the question of whether there is anything distinctive about religion that would demand preferential treatment compared to other claims of liberty of conscience.

This further discussion demands an understanding of what constitutes religion. In his 2nd and very interesting chapter, Leiter suggests a thoughtful definition of religion. Religion has 3 primary characteristics; it makes categorical demands for actions, it is insulated from evidence, and it offers existential consolation. The discussion of these points is particularly interesting. Leiter explicitly discusses one of the major "political religions" of the 20th century, Marxism, as a contrasting phenomenon. Since Marxism made claims to be a scientific theory, it is formally (though not necessarily in practice) susceptible to evidence. Leiter's definition could, however, incorporate some phenomena, such as versions of fascism and racism, not ordinarily thought of as religious in nature. I don't think this is actually a weakness as it points the way for Leiter's concepts to be used as the basis for a larger typology of ideological phenomena.

With a characterization of religion in hand, Leiter turns to examining whether the distinctive features of religion demand preferential legal treatment. In the 3rd chapter, Leiter returns to the basic Rawlsian and Millian arguments to assess the potential privileged status of religious claims. Leiter finds that neither the Rawlsian nor the Millian bases for liberty of conscience demand preferential treatment for religious claims. These claims deserve the same treatment as other claims of conscience. If anything, and based on a thorough Millian analysis, we should be attentive to the categorical nature of religious demands for action and its insulation from evidence, and be cautious about the tendency of religion to breach crucial side-constraints governing exercise of rights. In a related argument in the 4th chapter, Leiter examines arguments that religion deserves something more than toleration, it deserves "respect." I suspect this chapter was included as a response to recent work of his University of Chicago colleague Martha Nussbaum. Leiter decomposes respect into 2 categories, recognition respect and appraisal respect. As he shows, the former is really equivalent to principled toleration and provides no basis for extending religious claims preferential treatment. Appraisal respect, however, attributes distinctively meritorious features to the object of respect and the question that logically follows is whether religion possesses such attributes. Leiter reasonably argues not - the insulation of religion from evidence counts strongly against appraisal respect for religion.

Leiter takes up the issue of how legal systems should treat religious claims of conscience in the 5th and final chapter, another detailed and thoughtful analysis. Given that religious claims can't be distinguished from other claims of conscience, one option is to treat all claims of conscience as we presently treat religious claims. Leiter dismisses this idea on practical and theoretical grounds, carried to logical but hardly implausible ends, it undermines the idea of law itself. Leiter favors a nuanced No Exemptions policy; claims of conscience do not deserve exemption from generally applicable laws with neutral objectives. He has very good discussions of the implications of this approach, including some concrete examples of how it could/should be implemented. Leiter also has a thoughtful discussion of the relationship between religious establishment and principled toleration.

Overall, Leiter's sustained argument is very successful. He is likely to receive criticism primarily from those who reject the foundations of his argument - his Rawlsian and Millian bases, and in particular, his categorization of religion as invulnerable to evidence. Religious believers, feeling themselves in possession of unique truths, will certainly reject this conclusion. While Leiter is focused on legal issues, his arguments have larger implications. If religion doesn't deserve preferential legal status with respect to exemptions from generally applicable laws, than what of the other aspects of the deference it receives in American life? Why should churches automatically receive tax-exempt status? Why should religious belief (or to be more accurate, profession of religious belief) be equated with moral seriousness?
27 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Provacative and Timely Jan. 21 2013
By Jay Young - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Tihs past summer, I felt irritation and dismay at the Catholic Bishops' bandying the term "religious liberty" in an effort to block religiously-affiliated insitutions from including contraception in their employee-earned health insurance benefits, regardless of whether the employees subscribed to the Church's dictates or not. I, and many secularists, surmised this as not religious liberty that they were fighting for, but preservation of power and privilege. Brian Leiter's new book, Why Tolerate Religion, helped me to put it all in perspective.

I heard of the book from the New Books in Philosophy podcast. I found it intriguing, so I decided to check it out from the academic libary and give it a read. The author explains in about 130 pages what I have been struggling to find answers to in one weighty tome after another. The answer to the eponymous question of the book is that we ought to tolerate religion for the same reasons that we tolerate non-religion- all citizens have a right to express their claims of conscience. Leiter goes into Rawlsian original position and Millian Utilitarian arguments for claims of conscience in a just society, which I will not reproduce here. Further, the State has a right to promote a vision of the good which will likely come into the conflict with the claims of some citizens, and if there are not good reasons for accepting non-religious claims of conscience to that vision of the good (i.e., David Duke claims black people are criminals, so I don't want to serve them in my restaurant), then there are not good reasons for accepting religious claims (i.e., I don't want to serve gay people because it goes against my religious beliefs). Leiter goes into various consequences of claims of conscience, such as whether it is burden-shifting (for example, refusing to pay taxes will shift the burden for doing so onto others), and whether it makes a difference whether a claim of conscience that is burden-shifting or conflicts with a State's vision should be granted more leeway because it is specifically religious. Spoiler alert- his answer is no. I find his case tightly argued, and sure to generate controversy.

What I especially enjoyed about "Why Tolerate Religion" is that Leiter goes into characteristics of religion in a concise way before he goes into the issue of whether religion qua religion deserves special consideration. Essentially, religion involves three main characteristics- Categorical demands (there are things that your religion requires you to do), Insulation from Standards of Evidence (belief based on divine authority in scripture or in a group of people, not based on the same standards of evidence present in other spheres of life), and Existential Consolation (comfort taken in religious claims, such as a supreme being is looking out for us, we will be re-united with our loved ones after death, etc). He examines reasons for taking these elements as reason to give special consideration to religious as opposed to non-religious claims of conscience and finds them wanting.

Since religious liberty, or the misapplication thereof, seems to be the religious right's new mantra, it is imperative to be informed about exactly that entails. "Why Tolerate Religion" is a good step to help citizens be so informed; here's hoping it is widely read and discussed.
0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Challenge: Why Tolerate Religion? March 13 2014
By Howard R. Seccombe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Scholarly and stimulating treatment of the topic. I mean to publish a lengthy review as soon as possible. It was helpful to me in commenting on proposed objectives of a new body dedicated to human rights and secularism.
0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The deepest impression got by me by reading the book ... Sept. 17 2014
By Xing - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The deepest impression got by me by reading the book Why Tolerate Religion? by Professor Brian Leiter is that Professor Leither explained the nature of religion. According to him, religion does not need scientific corroboration and religion is sacrosanct. His argument is convincing. However, we may look at religion from another perspective. In my opinion, behind religion there is a process of linguistic communication of long distance. This process of linguistic communication is the one of the linguistic communication performed by Bible writers or God with religious believers. This is a process of linguistic communication of long distance. Thus religious greed remains unchanged over time. The life of religion is perpetuity. Religion is the epistemology of perpetuity. Thus religion is to be indifferent and callous to scientific cause. That science is in progress threatens religious creed. As a result religion does not need scientific corroboration. We can differentiate religious thought from secular thought by judging if this thought involves a process of linguistic communication of long distance. If a thought involves a process of linguistic communication of long distance, this thought may be religious thought. If it does not, it may not be religious thought. I mean that secular thought changes over time while religious thought remains unchanged over time. If a thought changes over time, it may involve a process of linguistic communication of short distance. If a thought does not change over time, it may involve a process of linguistic communication of long distance.

Commentator: Xing Yu, the author of the book Language and State: An Inquiry into the Progress of Civilization
1 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting June 23 2013
By Yanis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I think this book gives some worth noticing thoughts which would be good to consider both religious as well as secular conviction adherents.

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