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Why should religion get special treatment?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  December 21, 2012 05:43 PM

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The United States, like many nations, extends a unique degree of toleration to religious beliefs. Religion gets special consideration in the Constitution; and as a society we tend to think that there’s something particularly valuable or deep-seated about religious beliefs compared to other kinds of beliefs, something that makes them especially worthy of protection.

But is there? Does it make sense, for instance, to distinguish between a vegan who won’t eat meat for his or her own particular reasons, and a Hindu who abstains for religious reasons? Or to think of religious-based objections to homosexuality as deserving of more toleration than what we think of as garden-variety homophobia?

These are the types of questions that University of Chicago philosopher Brian Leiter weighs in his new book “Why Tolerate Religion?”

Leiter begins with the claim that the United States accords “special legal and moral treatment to religion.” He gives the example of two boys, each of whom brings a knife to school: one is a Sikh carrying a ceremonial dagger, the other, a boy from a rural family that has maintained a tradition of knife-carrying for generations. Leiter suggests that authorities are likely to be much more understanding towards the Sikh boy than to the rural boy, who may very well get suspended.

Leiter argues that philosophically there’s no good reason to distinguish between the two boys’ actions. “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,” he writes. In other words, religious beliefs are no different than all manner of beliefs that people hold for all manners of reasons and should not be considered as such before the law.

But following the writings of John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, Leiter does believe strongly in toleration. The best case for religious toleration, he argues, is the case for toleration more generally—that we live better lives and build a better society when we’re willing to let stand practices and views which depart from what we personally hold to be good or true. In this view, religious beliefs don't come in for special treatment - but they're still safeguarded by a general atmosphere of toleration for all the ways that people choose to live.

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