Giant leaps for mankind

Why tolerate religion? Most of our beliefs are unwarranted, even absurd, says John Gray.

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Why Tolerate Religion?
Brian Leiter
Princeton University Press, 192pp, £16.95

Toleration is out of fashion. We tolerate what we judge to be bad or false and, for many, this is a stance that involves a kind of disrespect. It has become part of the ideal of equality to accept that everyone has a right not only to speak but also to be heard, and regarding anyone as not worth listening to seems to go against this ethos.

Yet it is hard to see how we can do without the practice of toleration. It is said that we can reject or condemn mistaken beliefs while respecting those who hold them but the distinction breaks down when the beliefs are not just mistaken but detestable and pernicious. Apologists for Stalinism deserve ridicule and disdain, while Holocaust deniers merit nothing but contempt. If we are ready to tolerate the expression of such views, it is not because their exponents are worthy of respect but for the sake of the greater good of freedom.

Protecting the freedom of people we rightly despise is hard. Since those we tolerate may not reciprocate, it can also be dangerous. However, putting up with disgusting views and the people who express them is a part of what freedom means – one that is as important as any panoply of rights. The contemporary cult of rights has encouraged us to think that freedom and human rights are practically coextensive. Yet no freedom of any importance can be secured by a rights-based legal system alone. America’s grandiose constitutional paraphernalia did not protect the country from the frenzy of McCarthyism, any more than the legal right to choice in abortion has prevented doctors who perform abortions there being threatened with violence and in some cases even murdered. Nor did American legalism prevent the authorisation of torture by the Bush administration. A legal structure that is supposed to secure basic freedoms will count for nothing if it is not supported by a larger culture of liberty in which the practice of toleration is central and fundamental.

By putting toleration at the heart of his inquiry, Brian Leiter has done a service to political thought. Focusing on whether religious practitioners can be given special exemption from generally applicable laws on grounds of conscience, he aims to formulate a universal principle of toleration. “A practice of toleration is one thing,” he writes, “a principled reason for toleration another.” As Leiter sees it, Thomas Hobbes’s view of toleration as a means to peaceful coexistence was “nothing more than pragmatic” and even John Locke – author of A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) – argued only that government was ill-suited to effect changes in belief. Instead Leiter is looking for a “pure” form of toleration, one based on principles having to do with the nature of human knowledge and the good life, and finds versions of this sort of toleration defended in the writings of John Rawls and John Stuart Mill.

It is good to see Leiter invoking Mill – to my mind a much richer, more interesting and relevant thinker than Rawls – but it is questionable whether Mill was a theorist of toleration. Certainly he marshalled some powerful arguments to do with human fallibility and the importance of choice in his defence of liberty. Yet Mill’s view was not that there are diverse moral standpoints, which we are right to tolerate. He believed morality was concerned with preventing harm; anything else was a matter of aesthetics or prudence. Religious moralities were not just irrational; they were not moral at all, so there could be no morally principled reason for tolerating them.

In truth Mill was no more of an advocate of “pure toleration” than Hobbes or Locke and there is a lesson to be learned from this. Toleration can be practised for many reasons, some “pragmatic”, others epistemic or moral. Why should it be the expression of any single principle? A theory of toleration – if such a thing is possible – should be no less complex than the practice itself.

While Leiter’s ideal of pure toleration seems to me of doubtful value, he is right to ask whether religion deserves toleration of any special kind. Why treat religiously based claims of conscience as morally privileged, while denying similar exemptions to others? Vegans may have as profound a conscientious objection to eating meat as some religious practitioners do to eating meat that comes from animals that have not been slaughtered in a particular way. How such conflicts can be settled is far from clear but Leiter believes there is no reason for giving religions any special standing in the matter: “Toleration may be a virtue, both in individuals and in states, but its selective application to the conscience only of religious believers is not morally defensible.”

This is not an argument about the establishment of religion. Rightly – and among contemporary philosophers unusually – Leiter understands that toleration can be practised in a variety of regimes. There are many kinds of religious establishment and many kinds of secularism. The pluralistic religious establishment that is emerging in the UK is one thing and Iranian theocracy quite another, while the American separation of church and state has little in common with French laïcité and still less with the state control of religion that used to exist in Atatürkist Turkey. One of the vir - tues of Leiter’s study is that it recognises these differences.

Why Tolerate Religion? is packed with such insights. It is instructive to find Leiter suggesting: “French laïcité (at least as made concrete in legislation like the ban on ostentatious religious symbols in schools) is, in fact, a case of impermissible intolerance of religion.” It is extremely refreshing to find him adding to his discussion of epistemology and religion “a Nietzschean postscript”, in which he makes a point that is commonly neglected by philosophers of an analytical bent: “I have adopted throughout,” he writes, “what seems to me the clearly correct Nietzschean posture – namely, that the falsity of beliefs and/or their lack of epistemic warrant are not necessarily objections to those beliefs; indeed, false or unwarranted beliefs are almost certainly, as Nietzsche so often says, necessary conditions of life itself, and so of considerable value, and certainly enough value to warrant toleration.” 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.

That is not to say Leiter’s argument is watertight. The claim that religion deserves no special exemptions from generally applicable rules may be right but not because there is anything particularly irrational or otherwise lacking in religious belief. After all, what counts as a religious belief? Aware of the difficulty of defining religion, Leiter devotes a section of the book to the question. His discussion is more sophisticated than many on the subject but he still draws a categorical distinction between religious and other beliefs that is difficult, if not impossible to sustain. Among the distinctive features of religious beliefs, he maintains, is their insulation from evidence. Religious believers may cite what they consider to be evidence in support of their beliefs; they tend not to revise these beliefs in the light of new evidence, still less to cite evidence against them. Instead, their beliefs are part of what Leiter describes as a “distinctively religious state of mind . . . that of faith”.

The trouble is that it is not only avowed believers who display this state of mind. How often do political ideologues admit that experience has shown their cherished projects to be flawed? No amount of evidence will persuade the average western bien pensant that Soviet repression started with Lenin or the ardent neoliberal that the unregulated free market is prone to devastating collapse. Invariably, they will tell you that communism and the free market “have not really been tried”. If only the fledgling Soviet Union had not been surrounded by wicked imperialists or neoliberal governments accountable to wavering electorates, the sacred project could have been realised and all would have been well. This must be one of the stupidest ideas ever but for that very reason it is perennially popular.

The tendency to insulate belief from evidence is related to another feature that Leiter thinks is distinctive of religion – “the contribution of religious belief to existential consolation”. Religious belief, he seems to be saying, is not just rationally unwarranted; it is insulated from evidence because it gives consolation and thereby confers meaning on the lives of believers. Once again, however, it is not only the traditionally religious who cling to their beliefs for the sake of the consolation they provide. In our time, secular believers have done the same and on a larger scale.

Think of the claims about Saddam Hussein’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that were used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Undoubtedly there were geo - political factors (mainly to do with oil) behind the disinformation that preceded the war. But if proper standards for the evaluation of evidence were abandoned for what has been aptly described as “faith-based intelligence”, it was also because overthrowing Saddam was for Tony Blair and the Bush White House a way of furthering an irresistible movement towards democracy and human rights and thereby being “on the right side of history”.

The idea that toppling the tyrant would produce anything resembling liberal democracy was never plausible and quickly shown to be mistaken. That has not prevented the same failed experiment being repeated in Libya (and soon, perhaps, it will be repeated yet again in Syria). For those who believe in western intervention, it provides a sense that they still matter in the world; without the conviction that they are in the vanguard of history, their lives would be drained of significance.

Again, nothing infuriates the current crop of evangelical atheists more than the suggestion that militant unbelief has many of the attributes of religion. Yet, in asserting that the rejection of theism could produce a better world, they are denying the clear evidence of history, which shows the pursuit of uniformity in world-view to be itself a cause of conflict. Whether held by the religious or by enemies of religion, the idea that universal conversion to (or from) any belief system could vastly improve the human lot is an act of faith. Illustrating Nietzsche’s observations about the tonic properties of false beliefs, these atheists are seeking existential consolation just as much as religious believers.

If religion does not deserve a special kind of toleration, it is because there is nothing special about religion. Clinging to beliefs against evidence is a universal human tendency. The practice of toleration – and it is the practice, cobbled up over generations and applied in ethics and politics as much as religion, that is important – is based on this fact. Toleration means accepting that most of our beliefs are always going to be unwarranted and many of them absurd. At bottom, that is why – in a time when so many people are anxious to believe they are more rational than human beings have ever been – toleration is so unfashionable.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His book “The Immortalization Commission: the Strange Quest to Cheat Death” is published in paperback (Penguin, £9.99)