Does Religious Toleration Make Any Sense?

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Does Religious Toleration Make Any Sense?

Thomas Christiano

(in Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy ed. Laurence Thomas (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2006)
The Problem of Religious Toleration

Why should one tolerate other religions, especially when one thinks that they are false? If one thinks that correct religious belief and practice are necessary to gain eternal salvation and that false religious belief and practice will secure only eternal damnation, one has a very strong reason for not tolerating false belief and practice. Indeed, one may well have a duty to others to try to stop them from acting in ways that will guarantee their eternal misery. How can a person with an even modest concern for the well being of others not be moved by this argument?

Of course, one should attempt to steer people to the right path by means of persuasion and argument if possible. But the question of religious toleration that I will discuss in this paper is, if persuasion and argument do not work to save the soul of a person whose beliefs and practices are mistaken, why shouldn’t one resort to force and fraud to do this? Surely the harms done by force and fraud are minuscule compared to the gains achieved if a person converts from a false religion to the correct religion. And surely the respect one owes a person cannot outweigh in importance the infinity of infinity of happiness the person will acquire as a result of conversion and the infinity of infinity of misery a person will have if they fail to acquire the correct religious beliefs.

Religious toleration, as I shall understand it in this paper, is the idea that one ought not forcibly or coercively interfere with another person’s religious beliefs and practices or with the right of that person to associate with others of like mind, even if these beliefs and practices guarantee that this person will suffer an infinite amount of misery. When put in this way, the idea of toleration sounds downright paradoxical. Yet, the idea of religious toleration is the cornerstone in the development of the liberal rights of freedom of conscience and association that are enshrined in laws and constitutions throughout the world. What, if anything, can make sense of the idea of religious toleration in the light of the propositions stated above?

My purpose in this paper is to examine the principal political arguments that have been given in favor of religious toleration and to assess their merits. The basic thesis of this paper is that a sound political argument for religious toleration is not possible except under special conditions, which are not universally present in the modern world. Arguments for religious toleration are possible outside of these special conditions, but they must be arguments from within the particular religious traditions at issue. In what follows I will first lay out the principal concepts of religious toleration and political argument. Then I will elaborate the basic approach to freedom of conscience and discuss three basic arguments for freedom of conscience that have been offered. After the exposition of each argument I will show why I think the argument cannot work in general when seen against the background of the propositions above. Finally, I will discuss the special conditions under which political arguments for freedom of conscience can work and discuss the limitations of the arguments under these special conditions.
What Is the Issue of Religious Toleration?

Religious toleration involves, first and foremost, religious liberty. Religious liberty is the freedom to believe and change one’s beliefs as one sees fit without forcible or coercive interference by others or without being discriminated against by others. It also involves the freedom to practice one’s beliefs as one sees fit at least as long as that practice does not damage the basic interests of other non consenting adults. These two elements of religious liberty are guaranteed by the freedom of conscience.

Religious liberty also involves the freedom to associate with other like minded people and to break off one’s association with people with whom one does not agree. The freedom of association guarantees that one may form religious associations with others who are also willing and one may exit such associations if one sees fit. This freedom of association is primarily a freedom from coercive interference by others and from economic and political discrimination by others.

There are powerful motives, however, that lead people not to want to grant religious freedom to adherents of other faiths. These motives lead to deep conflicts between religions. One conflict that arises is over the proper vehicle of salvation. The main religions of the world all promise that one will attain a transcendent good if one lives in accordance with those religious beliefs or suffer a transcendent evil if one fails to live in accordance with these tenets. The claims each religion makes for itself sets it against all the other religions. It is the basis of the immense amount of effort that goes on in the world today to proselytize on behalf of different religions. Missionaries from many faiths span the globe attempting to win adherents to what they regard to be the one true faith.

But this kind of conflict has also led to a great deal of violence between peoples. Violent conflict occurred in Europe in the 16th through the 19th centuries between adherents of Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity. It persists in some parts of Europe to this day. Violent conflict existed between Buddhists and Hindus in India before Buddhism was essentially eradicated in India. The desire to convert people to Islam is part of the basis of the Muslim conquests of North Africa, Spain, the Middle East and Central and South Asia. And it is part of the motive for the Christian conquests of the Americas and the colonization by Christian states of other parts of the world. And the desire not to lose people to the advancing trends of secularization in the modern world is one of the motives driving terrorism in the modern world. The willingness to convert people to the true faith or to put an end to heresy and apostasy by violent means has been, in short, one of the driving forces in recent human history.

Obviously, economic and political motives have often been the main reasons for these violent activities though they were covered with a veneer of altruism. Still it cannot be believed that altruism never played a role in these conflicts and the fact that altruistic motives were so often given as the principal reasons says something important about the extent to which people thought that these might be good reasons for violence. In short, the key importance of disagreements on the proper vehicle for salvation has led to the suspension of religious liberty throughout history. In this paper I will focus on the conflicts that arise between religions as a consequence of each of their claims to being the sole vehicles to salvation.1

Political Argument and Transcendent Interests

Religious conflict in Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries is often thought of as the reason for the rise of the idea of religious toleration in liberal thought. The violence and war set off by religious disagreements is said to have led to stalemate and exhaustion and the preferred solution to the conflict was religious toleration. This conflict and its solution is also often thought of as one of the main reasons for the rise of liberal constitutional thought in modern Europe and America. Whether these historical claims are true or not is not the subject of this paper. What is perplexing about this is that while liberalism has undergone a long and highly sophisticated development, the idea of religious toleration that is thought to be at its root is not very well understood, or so I shall argue.

Here I want to lay out the problem of religious toleration as I see it. The central difficulty is that in the case of religious beliefs, at least as they have been traditionally understood by the world’s major religions, the interests and obligations at stake in religious belief are of a fundamentally different character than other secular interests. The interests at stake in religious belief are transcendent interests. They are universal interests, had by all human beings. They are interests that transcend in importance all of the interests that we normally experience in the ordinary world. They always necessarily outweigh in importance all other interests and as a consequence they cannot be traded off with any other interests. As Pascal puts it, the interest in salvation implies an infinity of infinity of happiness and the loss of salvation involves an infinity of infinity of misery.2 All the interests that we normally enjoy in the secular world we live in are insignificant in comparison with these transcendent interests.

Political arguments, in contrast, are arguments for institutional and legal structures that use premises that invoke interests that can be fully enjoyed and more or less enjoyed in a normal human life and that can be traded off with one another. What Locke called the civil interests such as health, life, liberty and property are included in this. But the definition allows more than this. It includes pleasure and aesthetic values as well as scientific interests. These are all interests which can be traded off with one another. Indeed it is the possibility of trade off that makes politics possible. What this definition does not include are the types of interests that are usually thought of as the interests in salvation and in eternal life in heaven or hell. Also it does not include the interest in nirvana at least as it is understood by many Buddhist sects.3

The political arguments people have offered for religious liberty are no exception to this definition. The freedoms of conscience and association are thought to rest on fundamental interests that individuals have in being accorded respect by other people and in living their lives as they see fit and in learning from their mistakes.

So the basic problem with giving a political argument for religious toleration is that the interests that ground a political argument for religious toleration are always and necessarily outweighed by the transcendent interests invoked in religious belief and practice. So, political argument is necessarily impotent in the face of these kinds of beliefs, except in a set of cases to be described below. In any case, this is the burden of the arguments I will elaborate below.

The Political Arguments for Religious Toleration

What I want to do here is first lay out a basic argument for freedom of conscience and freedom of association and then, against the background of this basic argument, consider three main traditional arguments for religious toleration.

The foundation of my argument is first, that the interests of the members of society ought to be advanced by the institutions of the society and second, that those interests ought to be advanced equally by those institutions. The purpose of society is the advancement of the well being of citizens. The well being of each citizen is worthy of equal concern because each citizen is equal in worth to every other citizen. As I will argue, each citizen has profound interests in having his religious freedom protected. And I will provide a political argument, based on these ideas, to the effect that the suppression of the religious freedom of some citizens is a fundamental violation of the principle that each citizen is worthy of equal concern. We will then explore whether this argument can survive the challenge posed by the transcendent character of religious belief.

The arguments I discuss will not be limited to this egalitarian welfarist view. I will also discuss other arguments that appeal to the value of autonomy, the idea that we must be skeptical about religious belief and the various arguments grounded in the thought that religious persecution is self defeating. All of these arguments will be presented and tested against the challenge posed by religious belief.

The argument for religious toleration proceeds by enumerating the interests protected by such freedoms and some background facts that help us understand the implications of failure to protect those interests. Furthermore, it must be grounded in the equal importance of the interests of each person. These are the background facts I appeal to in the defense of liberal rights. First, people are diverse and changeable with regard to matters relevant to their interests. What tends to promote the good of one person may not promote the good of others because people have different talents, experiences, background education and different susceptibilities to happiness and unhappiness. Second, people disagree pervasively about the truth in matters concerning religion, morality and politics. We must recognize that we are all fallible in our own capacities to achieve the truth. Third, people have cognitive biases towards their own interests when they elaborate conceptions of religion, politics and morality. The beliefs that an individual has reflect her interests in various ways because they reflect the social milieu in which she lives and the experiences she has had in life.

The liberal freedoms essential to religious freedom advance certain fundamental interests. Let us discuss the freedom of conscience first. Each person’s interest in learning the truth in religious matters is advanced in a variety of ways. Each learns best by trial and error. But in order to start the process of learning by trial and error one must be able to formulate without fear those beliefs that are most congenial to one. It is important that a person be able to reflect on his own beliefs and have his beliefs responded to by others without fear of interference. If a person’s beliefs are never given consideration as a result of being banned, then that person’s opportunity to learn from that consideration is closed off.

It is also important for the person to have access to a wide variety of other beliefs against which he can challenge his own views and from which he can learn. Again trial and error in the development of one’s beliefs require that one have access to many different beliefs and many different challenges to one’s own beliefs. The banning of beliefs can therefore be harmful to a person’s ability to learn from trial and error even if the person does not agree with them.

Furthermore, reflection on beliefs and on the alternatives to those beliefs develops one’s capacity to reflect and evaluate beliefs and the development of that capacity helps one learn and acquire better and more defensible beliefs. Each person develops her capacity by learning from her mistakes and this cannot happen if the state tries to take over the process of learning for her own good. Furthermore the development of the capacities of thinking for herself and taking an active role in defining her life can only occur as a consequence of that person having to take responsibility for her own actions and beliefs. So banning beliefs or imposing beliefs threatens to stunt the development of this capacity and thus threatens to stunt each person’s ability to learn and think for her self.

While the banning of certain beliefs may harm those whose beliefs are banned more than anyone else, the implication of the arguments above is that restrictions on freedom of thought harm everyone by cutting off opportunities for reflection and learning. Normally everyone learns better in an environment where there is freedom of thought than one in which some thoughts are forbidden.

The background fact of cognitive bias noted above implies that if one group succeeds in having its beliefs imposed on others, the beliefs those others are required to believe will reflect the interests of those who are imposing them and not their own interests, at least in the normal case. Each person has an interest in being able to believe what he thinks is true in order to correct for the cognitive biases of others.

Furthermore, freedom of religious belief enables each person to have the sense of being at home in the world in the sense that the religious beliefs are his way of making the world intelligible to him and are a way of enabling him to acquire an orientation in the world. And since each person is different and requires different ways to achieve these interests, each must have freedom. To live in a world where one is not permitted to believe what one is inclined to believe is to live in a world that is likely to become opaque and inaccessible to one or indeed hostile to one. Indeed, it often implies that the persons who are required to express adherence to beliefs they think false will fail to have any beliefs at all in the long run. They will not be able to think through the ideas they are inclined to believe in and they will not find any reason to think through the beliefs they are required to believe. The implication is often a state of non belief and a consequent lack of orientation in the world.

Notice that for one group of persons to forbid the adherence to and expression of the beliefs of another group of persons is a way of setting back that second group of persons’ interests and at the same time a way of giving the advantage to the group of persons whose beliefs are sanctioned by the state. This is because the interests in being at home in the world and in correcting for cognitive bias will be set back for one group and advanced for the other group. And even the interest in truth will be more set back for those whose beliefs are banned than for those whose beliefs are officially permitted. This is a clear violation of the equality of the importance of the interests of each person. Indeed, the violation of equality is so clear and public in this context that the oppressed group has good reason to think that its interests are not given equal consideration with those of the dominant group. But this would imply a setback to another fundamental interest of persons. It would involve a setback to the interest in having one’s equal moral status recognized and affirmed. To be treated as an inferior in this way would be a disastrous loss of status within the community. Hence, prohibition of a particular religious belief is a public violation of equality and thus is ruled out by justice.

This sketch of the interests in freedom of conscience can be extended fairly easily to freedom of religious association. One has interests in freedom of association because one has interests in being at home in one’s world. Free association advances this interest by enabling one to play a large role in molding the world around one according to one’s own needs by deciding what associations to be a member of and even which associations to create. Furthermore, one’s interest in being at home in the world is advanced by one’s being surrounded and affirmed by like minded persons. And it is important to the advancement of that interest that I have the ability to exit religious associations with which I no longer agree.

To the extent that learning the truth in matters of religion arises in part from one’s interactions with others, it is important for one to be able to choose the associations one is a member of and to be able to change them when they are no longer satisfactory. Finally, being a member of a particular association enables one to correct for the cognitive biases present in the society at large. It is a way in which I can acquire the confidence to pursue my beliefs and practices and my reflections on these.

Since people are very different and disagree on so many different issues it is important that there be no restriction on the kinds of associations that can arise. The suppression of religious associations, like the suppression of religious belief, must be experienced by many as a publicly clear setback to their interests and a clear advancement of the interests of those who are suppressing the association. As a consequence it must be seen by all as a publicly clear violation of the equality of the persons in the suppressed group. Once again, the suppression of religious association must be seen by the members as implying that their interests are not as important as those of the other members of society. Hence it involves a setback to the interest in having one’s equal moral status recognized and affirmed.

The argument I have given implies that, one, each person has interests in having the power to decide what to believe in matters of religion, what those beliefs require him to do in life and who to associate with in the exercise of his religious beliefs and obligations. Two, each person’s interest in deciding these matters without interference or fear of discrimination has a preeminent importance. If a person is forced to adopt a different set of religious views or conception of her obligations or if undue burdens are imposed on her as a result of her religious beliefs and practices, she is clearly being treated as an inferior. And, three, each person has a right grounded in equality not to have her religious freedom suppressed for the sake of the interests of other members of the community.

The Harm Principle

One principal implication of the above arguments is the harm principle. This principle states that one may not interfere with another’s behavior without that person’s consent except for the purpose of preventing harm to others. This principle implies that paternalistic and moralistic interferences are forbidden except if one has the person’s consent or if the person is under the age of consent.

Paternalistic interference with another’s activity is interference intended for his good but against his will. Contemporary legal examples of paternalistic interference are legal prohibitions on the use of recreational drugs. In the past, legislation outlawing alcohol altogether or forbidding certain kinds of sexual behavior between consenting adults has had paternalistic motives. In all these cases, the actual or proposed legislation attaches penalties to activities the state regards as dangerous to the agent. It aims to stop people from doing things they want to do that are dangerous to them. In other cases of paternalistic interference, the state attempts to force people to do things for their own good that they do not want to do. The state does this, for example, by means of laws requiring persons to wear seat belts while driving their cars.

Moralistic interference with another’s activity is interference against his will that is intended to prevent his acting immorally. Traditional examples are prohibition of homosexual behavior among consenting adults on the grounds that homosexuality is wrong. Legal prohibition of prostitution is another example.

Though modern liberal democratic states do engage in some paternalistic and moralistic interference in their citizens’ behavior, they tend to respect the harm principle reasonably stringently when it comes to questions of freedom of conscience and freedom of association. Here the idea is that people may believe what they think merits belief and associate with whomever they wish as long as they harm no non consenting adults.

The grounds for these freedoms from paternalistic interference with the beliefs and associative behavior of persons are given in the arguments above but let us briefly extend these arguments to make their connection with anti paternalistic considerations clearer. Each person has a right to control her own beliefs and associations with others and the state has no authority to interfere with these for that person’s own good. This idea is based on the reasons above and on the reasons that each person is normally more concerned with her own welfare than the state is and each person is distinct from others in many different ways and so she has very different interests from others. So, each person is normally a better judge of his or her own interests than the state is and has an interest in having the right to be the judge of his of her own interests. And a person is more likely to regulate her beliefs and association in ways that are properly connected to her interests. For the state to interfere in an adult’s process of belief formation and reflection for that adult’s own good would be for it to dabble in things that it does not have a good understanding of. John Stuart Mill argued that these facts and interests provide a powerful ground for rejecting paternalistic interference in a person’s action. 4

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