Brian Leiter’s Why Tolerate Religion? has been out now for some weeks, and I am just getting around to reading it. One of the advantages of the book is that it does not presume a lot of prior acquaintance with the philosophical and legal traditions which underlie the concept of tolerance, and tolerance of religion in particular. Basing himself largely on the deontological views of John Rawls, and the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, Leiter attempts to find an answer to the question: Why religion in particular? As he puts it later in the book
the question is whether there is any special reason to tolerate beliefs whose distinctive character is defined by the categoricity of its demands conjoined with its insulation from evidence. [60-61]
– which is how Leiter distinguishes religion from other possible types of communal belief systems. In the course of arguing his case Leiter concludes, I think, since I have not yet reached the end of the book — I am writing this because, as I was reading, something occurred to me that I think is a damaging lacuna in Leiter’s argument — that not only religion, but any kind of conscientious world-view, should be tolerated (with certain side-constraints).
As I have been reading along, as I said, I have been noticing something missing, namely, the origin of the idea of religious tolerance in the religious wars of 16th and 17th century Europe. It came to seem absurd, in time, that Europeans should go on killing each other in order to restore the unity of the Western Christian Church (the Eastern Church had separated from its Western sibling in 1054), which was then in the process of irrevocably breaking down. Hobbes’ idea of a war of all against all is conceived of against the backdrop of these internecine struggles which had claimed so many European lives, and it is this which prompted his vision of human life in its natural state (which he thought was being revealed in the wars of religion) as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and its resolution in the formation of Leviathan, a power which summed up, in itself, the whole power of a people, in terms of each one taken individually.
This is how Hobbes conceives of this power:
The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries to one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort, as that by their own industry, and by the fruits of the earth, they may nourish themselves and live contentedly; is, to confer all their power upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will: which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and every one to own, and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so beareth their person, shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern common peace and safety; and therein to submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgments, to his judgment. This is more than consent, or concord; it is a real unity of them all, in one and the same person, made by covenant, of every man with every man, in such manner, as if every man should say to every man, I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. [Leviathan, Part 2, Chapter 17, p. 112 in the Oakeshott edition]
This is, of course, an early exemplification of the contractarian position of social justice and morality, which went through many transformations until it was taken up and thoroughly recast by John Rawls in his Theory of Justice.
I do not want to consider Hobbes further at this point, for Hobbes’ contractarian position is (for my present purposes, anyway) an indication of the kinds of perils against which the idea of religious toleration was intended to protect civil society. And this is the point that, I think, Brian Leiter does not sufficiently appreciate. It is not so much that religious tolerance aims at protecting the seed bed of new knowledge, for free speech is a much more appropriate measure for this purpose. Nor was religious tolerance, in its origin, a matter of the preservation of liberty, or to protect experiments in living. Religious tolerance was, in the first instance, instituted to protect civil society from the arrogance and intolerance of religious difference.
Religions, as I have often said, do not respect boundaries. We can see this clearly in the behaviour of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and its challenge to government over issues of conscience which should not be protected by the principle of religious tolerance. For what the USCCB is doing is deliberately to insinuate itself into the very structure of Leviathan itself, where the conscientious convictions of the Catholic Church would speak with the voice of the one who is to be the bearer of the voices of all citizens of the commonwealth. By doing so, it would in fact upset the very delicate balance which is achieved by the principle of religious toleration, and would impose conscientious prescriptions on everyone which everyone cannot and will not share.
The point is that religion is always a danger to social peace and civil order. While it can stand up boldly and resist tyranny, and indeed, within living memory, has stood up and resisted, with great determination, the terror and oppression of tyranny and criminal injustice; it can achieve this precisely because it does not play well with others, and, in power, can be as unjust and tyrannical as the regimes it deposes. As Leiter points out, religion is characterised by the way in which it places value on beliefs which are both insulated from the evidence, and held with categorical tenacity. Such rigid and uncompromising rigour are of obvious value in opposing tyranny which stands opposed to the values in question, but it is not something which can provide the basis for governance of those who do not hold those values or approve their instantiation in law. Much as Winston Churchill was a great wartime Prime Minister, but whose romantic imperialism was not suited to the peace; religion makes an ardent opponent of those who challenge its religious values, but can be as tyrannical in their expression as the tyrants in whose defeat they will willingly lose their lives. Religious tolerance, in its origin, was not about “putting up with” religion; it was about domesticating religion, and making it subservient to civil order and enriching the possibilities of the public conversation of how it is best to live, and how we choose to be governed.