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Brian Leiter

A recent issue of THE FEDERAL LAWYER contained a review of a book on religion and the state, Brian Leiter's WHY TOLERATE RELIGION?

Okay, the title is rather provocative. But that's how one sells books nowadays. ANyway, I confess that everything I know of the book comes from the review, all the following quotations are second hand. Shame on me.

The heart of the book:

"[I]t is not obvious why the state should subordinate its other morally important objectives -- safety, health, well-being, equal treatment before the law -- to claims of religious conscience."

Related (but distinct) claim is that "religious claims of conscience have no greater entitlement to exemptions than other nonreligious claims of conscience."

It is appropriate, Leiter thinks, for a government "to say, the law is the law, and there will be no exemptions for claims of conscience, religious or otherwise."

But Leiter approves of this no-exemptions stance only with a caveat. "A law must genuinely have neutral objectives," it must not be animated at any level by bias against a religion. France's prohibition of head covering is an example that, in Leiter's view anyway, fails this test.


  1. Leiter has a blog that I enjoy:

  2. A case can be made that religious claims of conscience should have LESS entitlement to exemptions than nonreligious claims of conscience. This is because they tend to be less rational.

    Consider the "conscientious objector" exemption to the military draft, which was granted solely to those who objected to all wars on the basis of their religious belief (although the U.S. Supreme Court held that a religious belief included a belief that "occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God").

    The prerequisite for an exemption that one object to ALL wars (also a U.S. Supreme Court holding) meant that during the Vietnam war, for example, draft boards would deny applications for conscientious objector status to young men who would not have refused to fight Hitler. Yet a willingness to fight Hitler combined with an unwillingness to fight in Vietnam (because it was a U.S. war of aggression) was more rational than an unwillingness to fight all wars.

  3. I appreciate that my above comment assumes that rational beliefs are superior to irrational ones. That is something that one cannot prove. Furthermore, to "prove" it means to prove it rationally, which would beg the question by assuming the superiority of rationality in the attempt to prove the superiority of rationality.

    I also appreciate that one might make rational arguments for opposing all wars. How successful they would be I can't say, but, even if successful, they would not have gotten one conscientious objector status.


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