Why Tolerate Conscience?



In Why Tolerate Religion?, Brian Leiter argues against the special legal status of religion, claiming that religion should not be the only ground for exemptions to the law and that this form of protection should be, in principle, available for the claims of secular conscience as well. However, in the last chapter of his book, he objects to a universal regime of exemptions for both religious and secular claims of conscience, highlighting the practical and moral flaws associated with it. We believe that Leiter identifies a genuine and important contemporary legal and philosophical problem. We find much to admire in his reasoning. However, we raise questions about two claims that are crucial for his argument. The first claim is that it is not religion as such, but conscience that deserves toleration and respect. The second claim is that respect for religion and conscience demands ‘principled toleration’ but does not entail stronger policies of legal exemptions. Against the first claim, we argue that Leiter does not successfully distinguish religious belief from secular conscience and morality; and he does not explain why secular conscience (which shares many of religious conscience’s epistemic features) deserves respect. Against the second claim, we argue that the most promising theories of legal exemptions are not classical theories of liberal toleration.


Legal exemptions Freedom of religion Freedom of conscience Toleration Brian Leiter 



This research was pursued at UCL’s Religion and Political Theory Centre (RAPTc). Cécile Laborde would like to acknowledge support of European Research Council (ERC) Grant 283867, ‘Is Religion Special?’. François Boucher would like to acknowledge support of the Fonds Québécois de Recherche Société et Culture (FQRSC).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University College LondonLondonUK

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