Sorting out Religion with Brian Leiter

Russell Blackford

Why Tolerate Religion?, by Brian Leiter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0-691-15361-2) 187 pp. Hardcover, $24.95.

Brian Leiter’s new book on secular­ism and religious freedom, Why Tol­erate Religion?, has received much attention. It is a useful contribution to the discussion of an important group of issues, and it was appropriately the topic of a full-day symposium held by the Center for Inquiry in late April 2013.

The book is especially interesting to me because I’ve published my own book on a similar topic (Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), and I’ve spent many hours thinking and writing about religious toleration, religious freedom, and the rationale for secular government. Many difficult questions lurk here: for example, do we have good reasons to tolerate (in the sense of “put up with”) religious views that we consider false or even somewhat harmful? What if a generally applicable law with a straightforward secular rationale, such as deterring certain harmful actions, has unwanted side effects for a particular group of religious practitioners? Should they receive an exemption from the law? If we do give religious believers these exemptions, what about people with claims of conscience that are not specifically religious, such as nonreligious vegans or conscientious objectors to our nations’ wars?

There are many other questions, but those relating to exemptions seem most important to Leiter, or at least they are the main focus of Why Tolerate Religion? Leiter does not, for example, spend much time on questions to do with state imposition of religious morality, though his short answer to those seems to be simply that we ought to apply the Millian harm principle or something much like it.

In the end, many of Leiter’s conclusions are similar to mine in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, though there are differences of detail. For one, Leiter takes a softer line against established churches such as the Church of England, although his approach to exemptions from generally applicable laws may actually be a bit tougher than mine. Ultimately, he thinks there are good grounds for basic tolerance of diverse religions, i.e., not attempting to suppress them or to impose a particular religion by force. He is mildly hostile to exemptions on religious grounds from non-persecutory laws of general applicability, and he thinks that in principle any exemptions that are justified for adherents to religious positions should apply to adherents of nonreligious positions whose consciences are similarly affected.

I was very interested in Leiter’s analysis of the concept and definition of religion—obviously this is something to get as clear as possible if we are going to have meaningful discussions of how far religion should be tolerated or encouraged. It would be helpful to those involved in the debates to know whether we are talking about the same thing at all when we use words such as religion. Leiter identifies four characteristics, although he thinks most of the work can be done by concentrating on the first two, while the third really adds little (so I’ll place it in brackets). For Leiter, then, the characteristics of a religion, or the general phenomenon of religion, are as follows:

    1. Categorical commands.
    2. Claims that are radically, or de jure rather than merely de facto, insu­lated from evidence.
    3. (A metaphysics of ultimate reality.)
    4. Existential consolation.

As he recognizes, all of these have potential problems. For example, a moral system may make categorical demands on us to act in certain ways, and it may be insulated from any relevant evidence. Thus it can meet two of the criteria. At the same time, many philosophical systems that we would not normally consider religions offer something in the way of existential consolation as Leiter defines this. That is, they attempt to “render intelligible and tolerable the basic existential facts about human life such as suffering and death.” Epicureanism, for example, dealt with the presence of suffering and death by offering such reassurances as that death is merely nothingness and is not to be feared. Though Epicureanism was relentlessly naturalistic and this-worldly (even the gods were explained in naturalistic terms), it was a therapeutic philosophy. Modern-day analytic philosophers may shy away somewhat from any therapeutic or reassuring role, but it is traditional to philosophical practice and has by no means vanished entirely.

Leiter is well aware of these problems, and, indeed, he observes that there are nonreligious ways to seek existential consolation (“ranging from philosophy to behavioral and cognitive therapy to pharmacology”). However, they do not meet his other criteria. Although he does not discuss Epicureanism, he could make the point that it was open to evidence and that its ethical component did not take the form of categorical demands. Instead, Epicurean thinkers offered practical advice, especially about how to seek aponia and ataraxia—the absence of pain and psychological distress. Epicurean ethics was all about finding the most effective approach to living a flourishing life on this earth, not about categorical, binding rules.

Conversely, a moral system such as Kant’s may make categorical demands on our conduct, but it takes more than just a moral system to offer existential consolation.

For Leiter, then, it is the combination of elements that marks out the presence of religion. It seems that the most important element for his purpose is radical or de jure insulation from evidence. He looks for such a radical insulation because he is well aware that many kinds of nonreligious beliefs can be held dogmatically, and those who so hold them are often resistant to any argument or evidence that should get them to change their minds. For example, I might engage in all sorts of ad hoc rationalizations so as not to accept the fact that a political leader whom I admire is incompetent, hypocritical, and corrupt.

Religion is different because there are aspects that rule out the applicability of evidence almost in principle. In large part, the problem is that certain claims transcend the empirical order that we encounter through our senses. But isn’t this more or less what is meant when we say that religions possess an “otherworldly” or “supernatural” element? I’m not sure why Leiter avoids these words throughout Why Tolerate Religion?, but perhaps he thinks they have problems of their own, not least a certain vagueness. In the end, however, he appeals to similar ideas in order to underpin the idea of de jure insulation from evidence. Religions can avoid evidential falsification largely because they make claims that (purportedly) transcend the empirical realm.


It is better, I think, if we are trying to identify the characteristics of religion(s), to stick with ideas of the supernatural, otherworldly, transcendent, and so on, even if these are not entirely satisfactory. They leave some vagueness, but it does not seem from Leiter’s discussion that “de jure insulation from evidence” is any better. The fact of the matter is that law and public policy need to accept a certain amount of vagueness in categorizing social phenomena. For example, the common law is riddled with such concepts as what is “reasonable” or what would or might be done by a “reasonable person.” This leaves it to judges and juries to draw lines as to what is or is not “reasonable” in particular cases. By contrast, we usually don’t have too much trouble in sorting out whether certain truth claims are, intuitively, naturalistic or supernatural ones. There will, admittedly, be grey areas and hard cases. Still, for the purposes of law and public policy, it seems as if we might as well use more familiar concepts, rather than expecting judges, tribunals, administrative agencies, and the like to settle the philosophical question of whether some system of beliefs is or is not “de jure insulated from evidence.”

If we make this move, Leiter’s concept of religion ends up looking not that different from, say, Charles Taylor’s. In his monumental A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), Taylor emphasizes an otherworldly order of things (which more or less corresponds to Leiter’s second and perhaps third points), as well as standards of conduct that are demanded by the religious system (corresponding to Leiter’s first). Taylor has considerably more to say, however. Perhaps he would agree with the idea of existential consolation, but not in a way that would let in a philosophical system such as Epicureanism. Instead, he speaks of a higher good that transcends life in this world, a sense of human life as having a dimension that, again, transcends the ordinary world, and the existence of transcendent and transformative powers that can assist us to gain access to the higher good.

Thus, Taylor offers a concept of religion that appears richer than Leiter’s while also being more familiar and more practical for the purposes of bodies such as courts. Once Leiter’s intentions are explained, his understanding of religion may not really be so different, but it is better, I think, to let familiar concepts such as the supernatural do the political and legal work than try to rely on concepts such as radical insulation from evidence. At the same time, we can observe that supernatural claims are, in practice, often insulated from evidence because of the excuse-making attitudes of their adherents rather than because no conceivable evidence could render them more or less plausible. Much of the problem is not so much a radical insulation from any and all evidence from history and science as a de facto insulation arising from the dogmatic attitudes and endless post-hoc ingenuity of religious believers.

At the end of the day, I expect that Leiter’s conception of religion and a conception such as Taylor’s can largely be translated into each other’s terminology and be found to be quite similar in substance. Better still, either of these can probably be translated into the sort of language used in the courts. If we are all using similar—though, alas, probably not identical—conceptions of religion, then we at least have a fair chance of reaching agreement on how religion ought to be treated by the law.

As to that, Leiter and I reach our (rather similar) conclusions via different routes. Indeed, he is unhappy with some of the approaches and arguments that I tend to find most compelling, such as arguments about whether the state can be trusted to decide the existence or otherwise of supernatural beings or to work out what might be required for spiritual salvation.

Instead, Leiter seems to want policy reasons to be grounded in fundamental moral principles. I admit to some puzzlement here: he freely acknowledges being a moral skeptic, so he presumably does not accept utilitarianism or Kantian moral reasoning (for example) as objectively binding on us. Why would such a person not simply look for guiding political principles that are likely, based on historical experience, to achieve outcomes that he supports and expects will be shared by many of his readers? For example, a moral skeptic might support a Hobbesian goal such as civil peace, while disagreeing with Hobbes himself on the empirical question of how it can be achieved (notoriously, Hobbes thought it necessary to suppress the outward expression of all religions except one, namely whichever one might be chosen by the political ruler). The goal of civil peace is, I expect, widely shared. If it is likely to be achieved by constitutional entrenchment of religious freedom we (i.e., those of us who share the goal) have a reason to agree to entrench such a provision in our countries’ constitutions.

In fact, Leiter does not argue in this way. He approaches the questions with relatively little discussion of case law, historical experience, or the pragmatic concerns that motivated authors such as Hobbes. Instead, he relies heavily on resources from modern analytic philosophy and mainstream normative ethics. On my first reading of the book, I tended to see this as a weakness: important resources are neglected or given short shrift. On a second reading, I find it fascinating to see how far Leiter can get without those resources. Why Tolerate Religion? has a certain beauty in its brevity, austerity, and aspiration to analytical rigor.

There is still much work to do to sort out the best policies for religious freedom and toleration. Since the seventeenth century, the era of Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza, the roles of religion and the state have developed significantly, and this needs to be reflected in our policies. Still, there are historical lessons to be learned, and they undoubtedly have a bearing on our thinking. There is much to consider about the place for religion in our laws and policies, under modern conditions.


Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

Why Tolerate Religion?, by Brian Leiter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0-691-15361-2) 187 pp. Hardcover, $24.95. Brian Leiter’s new book on secular­ism and religious freedom, Why Tol­erate Religion?, has received much attention. It is a useful contribution to the discussion of an important group of issues, and it was appropriately the topic of a …

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