I have been struggling with Brian Leiter’s idea of religious toleration, and the quest for a reason for religious toleration in particular. I was finding it hard to put a finger on what seemed to me wrong about it. What is so important about religious toleration, in particular? Indeed, are there not situations in which we ought not to be tolerant of religion and religious practice? Leiter worries about the French idea of laïcité, which essentially refers to the preservation of a secular public sphere, or, as Leiter says:
to preserve the public sphere as a secular one in which persons interact as equal citizens without regard to sectarian identities, religious or ethnic. [Why Tolerate Religion? 104]
Thus, in support of the ideal of laïcité, the French government has banned the wearing of the burqa, hijab and other religiously identifying dress in public. However, says Leiter, given the French antipathy towards Muslims,
… it is tempting to think of this law as a surreptitious assault on the basic protections of religious toleration. [104-5]
This seems to me simply to be wrong. Even if there were the antipathy mentioned, why would removing identifying marks of the religious in public space increase it? Indeed, if people are not wearing identifying marks, it is arguably harder to express antipathy towards someone because of their religious affiliation. If it is racial antipathy, that is, of course, another thing. But there is no reason why people should not feel threatened by a religion which, in its expression elsewhere, and even locally, does not seem compatible with political values that are as precious to the French as the value of laïcité.
Here is where I felt the need to go back and consider the origins of the modern idea of toleration, and how this relates to religious belief. I began by reading John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (which is accessible in full here). It is a long time since I had read it, and I was surprised to find how deeply theological it was. Basically, Locke speaks of religious toleration in a theological context, first of all as an aspect of Christianity itself, and then, by separating individual interest into this-worldly and other-worldly considerations. Thus, he begins by speaking about Christian intolerance as contrary to the values of Christianity itself:
For whatsoever some people boast of the antiquity of places and names, or of the pomp of their outward worship; others, of the reformation of their discipline; all, of the orthodoxy of their faith — for everyone is orthodox to himself — these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the Church of Christ.
In other words, Christianity itself mandates tolerance, and anything else is simply a play for power and influence. Then he points out that (again according to Christianity) there is only value in belief when it is freely adopted, and not under compulsion. Therefore, the use of fire and sword to force people to profess belief is of little value in achieving people’s salvation. Besides, as he points out from time to time, each believer is orthodox to himself, and it is pointless to try to determine by force what doctrines or beliefs are to be considered orthodox. Well, just so long as people adopt their own orthodoxy, whatever that is. For the one category of people who cannot be tolerated in the commonwealth are atheists. As Locke says so bluntly:
Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.
A view expressed, not that long ago, by the elder President Bush, who, remarkably, seemed to be of the same opinion. The assumption lying behind this is that there is a particular reason for tolerating religion, and those who deny religion obviously do not come within the scope of that reason.
The foundational distinction that Locke makes is between this-worldly affairs, such as concerns for property, comfort, riches, public peace, commerce, etc., and after-worldly affairs, the concern for the salvation of souls. The civil authority is restricted to this-worldly affairs, and the various churches and religions (for Locke considers different denominations to be, effectively, different religions), are the business of the various churches, sects and other assemblies to which people belong for the salvation of their souls. The civil authority is the only one to be entrusted with coercive power, and churches and religions are voluntary associations for which members (and hierarchies of power which are mandated within the association) are responsible. To become a member of a religion or denominational group within a religion is to accept the rules of that association, and to agree to subject oneself to them. Therefore, if an individual is expelled from their assembly of choice for disobedience to those rules, the terms are entirely a matter to be settled by the association in accordance with its laws. But beyond that, without the member’s consent, the association cannot go in administering coercive power. The basic purpose of toleration in Locke’s conception of it, it seems, is the domestication of religious assemblies, so that they do not disturb the peace and smooth running of civil order.
However, Locke’s is not the only Enlightenment voice that needs to be heard, and hearing the more radical voice will, I think, even call Leiter’s position into question. For Leiter assumes, not that religion alone is worthy of toleration, which should be given, he believes, to any philosophical world view, religious or not, but that it is world-views that deserve toleration more than (what we might call) unsystematic opinions or beliefs. And this is where Spinoza comes in. I have not read Spinoza deeply, so will depend on Jonathan Israel’s view of Spinoza’s idea of toleration as expressed in his hugely impressive (as well as huge) tome, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (thanks to Charles Freeman for the reference). According to Israel, different streams of Enlightenment thought can be distinguished. There is the Moderate Enlightenment, to which Locke belongs, and then there is the Radical Enlightenment, to which Spinoza (and others, of course. in both cases) belongs. We have looked briefly at Locke’s idea of toleration.
Spinoza’s idea of toleration is almost entirely different, and is based on very different concerns. Indeed, it is premised upon the danger of religious institutions and their accumulations of power. Here is how Israel puts it:
In Spinoza [contrasted with Locke], freedom of worship, far from constituting the core of toleration, is very much a secondary question, a topic which he discusses only briefly and peripherally. For in Spinoza toleration has primarily to do with individual freedom, not a coexistence of Churches, and still less the freedom of ecclesiastical structures to increase their followings, expand their resources, and build up their educational establishments. 
Indeed, Spinoza thought that it would be within the purview of the civil power to limit the size of churches, precisely to prevent them from accumulating an overplus of power in relation to the civil authority which could be used to undermine individual freedoms. He proposes a state religion, which would essentially consist in a philosophical creed designed to provide law with the aura of majesty and authority. Spinoza’s main concern was individual freedom, and so he deprecated concentrations of power which could diminish freedom of individual thought and expression. He was particularly suspicious of ecclesiastical concentrations of power in the hands of clerical castes who had what people considered to be divinely sanctioned and thus “a higher form of authority than the sovereign.” For this power, as Spinoza knew, would be used, by the churches, to enforce
… subservience to ecclesiastical authority and theological tenets, since the rival political factions are bound to encourage churchmen on either side to extend their influence over the common people so as to mobilize them against each other, and thereby ‘deprive their subjects of freedom to express their beliefs’. 
This, clearly, is a much more radical notion of toleration. Indeed, in the present political situation in the United States we have a fine example of what can happen when religious institutions are permitted to arrogate so much power to themselves that they can in fact challenge the state on issues that should be decided in favour of the rights and freedom of individuals. Spinoza was right to worry about such accumulations of power in the hands of religious leaders, whose symbolical authority and power tends to be more highly respected and deferred to than governmental authority. Thus religious institutions are able, as they are effectively doing in many places in the world today, to subvert individual rights and freedoms, and to plead freedom of conscience and tolerance of religion as the values which enable them to do so. I will be interested to see as I continue Leiter’s book, whether he deals adequately with Spinoza’s concerns.