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.