Is Religion to be Respected or Only Tolerated?

    By Robert Nola | 2011
    The Antipodean Philosopher

    This paper is an abridged version of a public address given on 14 May 2008 at the University of Auckland and originally entitled ‘Religion is owed no respect’. The published version appeared in: Nola, R. (2011) ‘Is Religion to be Respected or Only Tolerated?’ in G. Oppy & N. Trakakis (eds.) The Antipodean Philosopher: Public Lectures on Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand, Volume 1, Lanham MD, Lexington Books: 145-57.

    Is Religion to be Respected or Only Tolerated?[1]

    Robert Nola, Department of Philosophy, The University of Auckland.

    1. Introduction

    There is a growing, strident demand, made by many religious believers, that their religion be given respect and understanding. Tolerance, if it is mentioned at all, is only given third billing after respect and understanding. Why is respect to be given priority over tolerance? And is it deserved? In this paper I will argue that tolerance is a superior virtue to respect, and that the demand for respect exceeds what is required in a liberal democracy in which tolerance prevails permitting a plurality of views on religions, from belief to disbelief.

    Religious believers are unclear about what they want when they demand respect. Are they asking for deference, honour or esteem for themselves and their religion on the part of those who do not share their beliefs? Are they asking for special privileges for themselves that are not to be given to others, especially non-believers? (Those who have conscientious objections to military service on religious grounds are much more readily granted exemption than atheistic pacifists.)

    The demand for respect might be a round-about-way of demanding that the religious not be the victims of criminal activity, such as personal assault or the desecration of churches, mosques, graves and the like. However there is nothing special about such a demand; both the religious and the non-religious want protection from the law against criminal activity.

    Is the demand for respect a demand that others have positive thoughts, feelings and attitudes towards believers in religion, or that they not criticise religion’s beliefs and practices, or that they not satirize it? Or less strongly, is it the demand that others are to conform outwardly as if they do while inwardly they do not? Such demands are clearly excessive and unreasonable. Finally do religious believers simply wish others to be tolerant towards them? But if this is what their demand for respect comes to, then, as will be argued later, tolerance is quite consistent with lack of respect.

    A stronger claim will be argued here: tolerance is much more important than respect and can go along with lack of respect, and even disrespect. This position is strikingly expressed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the secular Turkish Republic. He said: ‘I have no religion; and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea….’ To wish religion at the bottom of the sea is to show it no respect, or even positive disrespect. Atatürk continues: ‘Let [the people] worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience, provided that it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him act against the liberty of his fellow man”.[2]

    Note the different “objects” of respect here. Having no respect for one kind of “object”, religion, is quite consistent with having respect for a quite different sort of “object”, viz., the rights or liberties of people to indulge in religion – or not as the case may be. Many have made this quite obvious and correct distinction before Atatürk; but for convenience I will call it ‘Atatürk’s thesis’.

    Perhaps respect for their rights and liberties is all that the religious want when they demand respect. But then they express their demand in a confused way. The demand is not respect for religion; rather it is a demand for the respect of a quite different “object” viz., the right or freedom to believe whatever religion. But this is something we all want for what we believe, or disbelieve; it is not special to religious believers.

    The topics to be covered in this paper can now be set out. Section 2 gives one consideration on the basis of which atheists owe religion no respect. In section 3 six different senses of respect are distinguished, along with some fallacious forms of inference involving these senses which are called “respect creep”. In section 4, distinctions are drawn between six different categories of “object” of respect, some of which have already been indicated; it also investigates some of the combinations of the different kinds of respect with the different “objects” of respect. The final section 5 ends with a brief account of how the points made about respect fit with a minimal notion of tolerance.

    2. The Incoherence of Respecting the Non-Existent.

    Normally people who think that God exists accord God some respect. But it is possible that a person believes that God exists but accords him no respect. Perhaps because of a version of the argument from evil, they take God to be responsible for the world’s evils. If it is in God’s power to have lessened or prevented these evils, but he does not, then the theist might abandon their respect for God – while still maintaining that God exists. This is close to the position expressed by Elie Wiesel in his book Night which gives his account of his childhood spent in concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.[3]

    This is not the atheist’s position. In what follows it is not even necessary to assume the central thesis of atheism, viz, that God does not exist; all that is required is that a person believes that God does not exist.

    Can a person claim both of the following: ‘I respect the fairies; but I do not believe they exist’? No; this seems incoherent. Surely one would respond: ‘if you do not believe that fairies exist, you are behaving quite oddly and incoherently in according them respect, or even disrespect’.

    Similarly, can a person claim both: ‘I respect the god, Zeus [or Baal or Wotan or any God of your choice], but I do not believe that Zeus exists’? This is incoherent in the same way. There is something distinctly odd about exercising all the trappings of respect for a God but at the same time also believing that that God does not exist.

    The atheist lack of respect for God turns on the following thesis: A presupposition of the claim that person A respects (or disrespects) some object X, is that A believes that X exists (where X can be some putative God). And this is logically just the same as: If A does not believe that X exists, then the presupposition fails and it makes no conceptual sense to respect, or disrespect, X. So, one atheist argument for why some owe religion no respect turns on the claim that it makes no conceptual sense to respect, or disrespect, what one also believes does not exist.[4]

    This thesis might be thought to be caught up in what is known within the philosophy of art as the “paradox of emotion and fiction”. The paradox arises when the above thesis is combined with two other seemingly obvious claims, viz., (1) we do have rationally based emotional responses to characters in a fiction, and (2) we know these fictional characters do not exist. Thus in reading or watching Shakespeare’s King Lear a person can have respect for Cordelia but no respect for her sisters Goneril and Regan and very little respect for old Lear. So respect, or lack of it, can be directed towards characters in a fiction which are believed to be non-existent; and there is nothing obviously incoherent about this. But the paradox arises when these two claims are added to the seemingly plausible thesis of the previous paragraph, viz., if one has a reasonably based emotion (such as respect – assuming this is akin to an emotion) towards some X then X is believed to exist.

    There is a considerable literature devoted to sorting out the paradox of emotion and fiction that I do not wish to discuss[5] – largely because I think it can be side-stepped in the case where X is God. In general, talk of God is not supposed to be about a character in a fiction (despite the fact that atheists might think that the Bible is the greatest fiction ever told!). Rather the religious hold that God does exist and that God is not a fictional character. Atheists deny that God exists, but need not go on to say that God is a fictional character. In denying that God exists they can say that he has gone the way of many other alleged existents of other domains. These domains can be other religions (e.g., the gods Wotan, Zeus, and so on), or folk stories (those about Santa Claus or goblins), or sciences (in which it was once postulated that epicycles and deferents exist, that the electro-magnetic ether exists, that phlogiston, and caloric exist – but later it was discovered that they do not exist). What this suggests is that atheists should say that God was an entity postulated within certain frameworks of thought about the world, but these frameworks can be jettisoned along with the entities postulated in them. Looked at in this way, there are cases of non-existents of various defunct frameworks which are not like fictional characters and which are not to be modelled along the lines of the characters in a fiction. Looked at in this light there is not a strict involvement of the above thesis with the “paradox of fiction”. Not every non-existent of whatever domain need be given a philosophical understanding along the same lines as that of fictional characters of plays and novels.

    This completes my argument that God is owed no respect – by at least non-believers. They cannot sensible respect or disrespect what they also believes does not exist. And the grounds for this do not fall foul of the paradox of fiction since God, though believed to be non-existent, is not to be taken as a fictional character.

    3. Six Kinds of Respect – and “Respect Creep”

    Now we move to the question of what is meant by ‘respect’. It turns out to be a slippery and highly ambiguous word. Many distinct uses are listed in most dictionaries, six of which are relevant to our purposes here. It is also important to distinguish the various grammatical objects of the world ‘respect’; this is discussed in the following section.

    Respect1: In this sense a person pays respect to some object X when they attend to X, pay attention to X, have regard to X, give careful consideration to X or take into account some detail or aspect of X. Thus, a person can pay respect to, in the sense of pay attention to, or consider, just one feature of, say, their car, e.g., its colour, or its make, but not pay respect, that is attention, to any other feature of the car, e.g., its fuel efficiency. In this sense a person can pay respect to the law in that they ensure that when they act they are not law-breakers. Again, in this sense an atheist can pay respect to the Bible. Like Hobbes, Hume, Gibbon and many others, they can pay careful attention to what the Bible says in their writings, but remain sceptical of, or disbelieve, its central claims. And in normal intercourse one can, in this sense, respect a person who believes, say, that Christ will return some day; but all this means is that one takes this belief into account when dealing with them (say, to avoid offending them, or to provide criticism of their beliefs). Similarly in the context of a society in which there are people of several different cultures each with their different beliefs, one may pay respect1 to the people of those cultures in the sense of taking into account their beliefs when one interacts with them; but this is consistent with being sceptical of, or even rejecting, their beliefs.

    This kind of respect is called recognition respect by Stephen Darwall.[6] In its most general form it is recognition one gives to some X when one gives appropriate weight to X in one’s deliberations involving X. X can be any of a range of objects, such as the law, a person’s feelings or beliefs, the fact that one’s tennis opponent has a mean backhand, or that one’s philosophical opponent has a keen eye for distinctions one is inclined to overlook; and so on. A case can be made for the claim that recognition respect is the fundamental sort of respect that each of us owe to one another. That is, where X is a person, X is owed respect in the sense that for any other person Y engaging in any significant way with X, Y is to take into account the fact that X is a person in Y’s deliberations about what to do. Darwall also distinguishes a different kind of respect, appraisal respect, which applies largely to persons and involves having a strongly positive attitude towards X. I will come to this later; but it is clear that recognition respect is broader and need not always involve positive appraisal respect.

    Respect2: In this use of the term, a person does not interfere with the actions of another person, or they actively (not passively) let that person be to do their thing. Thus a person can respect, in the sense of not interfere with, another person’s betting on horses, or going to their chosen church, even though they think both bets are a waste of time. They do not interfere with the other’s gambling or going to church; they simply let others be to do their thing. Under this heading we can also consider giving respect2 to a person’s liberty or right to believe or act, in that we do not interfere with their so believing or acting. This is a quite fundamental kind of respect that takes a particular kind of “object”, viz., the rights or liberties of a person. This is an important matter that has already arisen with the Atatürk thesis, and it will arise again later. A case could be made for viewing respect2 as a special case of respect1; but it is important to note that in respect2 recognition is given to a quite specific object of respect, viz., a right or a liberty.

    Respect3: In this sense a person is considerate, polite, civil or courteous towards other people. This kind of respect is usually the case with most of our everyday interactions with others. So to those who proffer their religious beliefs one can simply say politely: ‘Thanks, but no thanks!’ But when one finds, say, evangelicals at the door who remain intrusively persistent, and so impolite, then pick your own way to tell them to “push off”. Again a case can be made for claiming that this kind of respect is a special case of respect1, the kind of recognition respect we owe to one another through politeness and civility.

    Respect4: In this sense one person can have admiration for another, or their abilities. Thus one can respect another’s piano-playing in the sense that they admire it. Here it is important to note the different “objects” of respect4; one can respect4 a person’s skill, for example in cracking a safe, but it does not follow that one has respect4 for the person.

    At this point one must be aware of an important phenomenon that Simon Blackburn calls ‘respect creep’.[7] Respect4 generally goes along with respect3; admiration for a person commonly goes along with politeness towards them. But the converse is not generally true; one can have respect3 for a person in the sense of being polite to them but not have respect4 in the sense of admiring them, or what they believe. Thus one may be polite to the religiously bigoted but not admire them or their beliefs. It is fallacious to respect creep from the third kind of respect, politeness, to the fourth, admiration.

    Respect5: In this sense a person has deferential esteem for, or reverence for, or honours or venerates, some X; X is privileged in some quite extreme way. Here there is a move away form recognition respect to appraisal respect in which a strongly positive appraisal is made of X, where X is usually some person but can also be some divinity. For example, Zoroastrians have respect5 for their prophet Zoroaster, and their Zoroastrian God, Ahura Mazdah, in that they revere, esteem, honour and venerate, both. But do any of us pay respect to this prophet or god in the sense of revere either of them? In the case of the Zoroastrian God, apart from a very tiny minority, the rest of us do not accord it any respect (respect5) because we do not believe that it exists; most of us are atheists with respect to Ahura Mazdah.

    What of respect creep? Respect5 for a God or a prophet goes along with respect4, being an admirer, and respect3, being polite about them. But the converse is not true; admiration of, or politeness towards, X can occur without reverence for X. Respect creep from the third or fourth kinds of respect to the fifth is fallacious. This is underlined by the move from a kind of recognition respect, which does not involve any appraisal of X, to appraisal respect, which does involve making a strongly positive appraisal of X.

    Respect6: Respect5 involves an appraisal, an evaluation made by an individual or a group. Some person or group may, as a matter of fact, value or revere the Zoroastrian God, just as another individual or group may, as a matter of fact, value and revere the Christian God. Importantly, respect5 is not a normative matter in the sense of being binding on others. What respect6 adds to respect5 is such a normative dimension which goes beyond the individual character of respect5 in that it is deemed to be universally binding on all others – something all others ought to do.

    Respect6 does this in two ways typical of the demands associated with the sacred. First, those who respect5 (revere) X, demand that all others also ought to revere X (because X is deemed sacred). Or, secondly, the demand may be slightly weaker: those who revere X demand that others not criticise, insult or denigrate X, or others at least conform outwardly to the demands of reverence. (Think of all the times atheists have been stuck at a table at which grace is being said). The demand can also extend to prohibitions against lampooning, or poking fun at or satirizing X in any way (for example the Danish cartoons). Here the demand for reverence by others comes into conflict with, and attempts to restrict, free speech in ways which the other kinds of respect do not. Those who have faith in some revered deity may well demand that they not be offended by those who do not revere, or even reject, that deity. However it is illegitimate to limit free speech because of the perceived offence.[8]

    Upon what grounds can those respectfully reverent towards X demand the same reverence of others? Logically there are none. Here the demands do not concern the kinds of recognition respect involved in paying attention to (respect1), or letting be (respect2), or being polite (respect3). These one can independently grant readily enough in most circumstances. Rather, one is obliged to admire (respect4) or revere (respect5) what others admire or revere, or at least outwardly conform. That is, there is a move from forms of recognition respect which involve no appraisal of X to forms of respect which do involve a positive appraisal of X.

    What is deeply problematic about respect6 is the fallacious manner in which respect5, reverence and esteem, is extended beyond the individual and is turned into a norm applicable to all. The fallacy arises in the following way. Suppose the following personal judgement is made, ‘I respect X’, or some equivalent expressive of one’s position such as ‘X is worthy of respect’. Such avowals entail nothing about what others ought to respect (and this applies not only to an inference to respect6 from respect5, but also the other kinds of respect as well). It remains entirely open whether anyone else makes, or does not make, the same judgement in their own case. The demand that others respect what the religious respect is without any force and is not binding on others in any way. This spells out one way to take the thesis of this paper; even if some individual gives respect to religion, religion is owed no respect by anyone else.

    Commonly in the case of religion, such a demand is illegitimately founded upon the sacredness with which religions are imbued and their associated taboos. It is also an extreme case of illegitimate respect creep in which an inference might be made from the third, fourth and fifth kinds of respect to the unacceptable respect6, which is a demand for universal reverence. Such respect creep can also be pernicious; those who revere some X demand that everyone else also revere X on pain of some kind of sanction, punishment or threat of intimidation or actual intimidation.

    The phenomenon of respect creep is well described by Salman Rushdie:[9]

    ‘respect’ is one of those ideas no one is against … everybody wants some of that. … But what we used to mean by respect … a mixture of good-hearted consideration and serious attention [respect1] … has little to do with the new ideological usage of the word…. Religious extremists, these days, demand respect for their attitudes with growing stridency. Very few people would object to the idea that people’s rights to religious belief must be respected [respect2]…. But now we are asked to agree that to dissent from those beliefs – to hold that they are suspect, or antiquated or wrong, that in fact that they are arguable – is incompatible with the idea of respect [respect6]. When criticism is placed off limits as ‘disrespectful’ and therefore offensive, something strange is happening to the concept of ‘respect’.

    Ominously Rushdie goes on to describe an example of respect creep which culminates in the universal demand for reverential respect: ‘in recent times both the American National Endowment for the Arts and the very British BBC have announced that they will use this new version of ‘respect’ as a touchstone for their funding decisions’. Those who do not display this ‘new’ kind of respect are to be penalised in getting no funding.

    Considering the different kinds of respect, believers might pay religion respect in all six senses. But atheists need not pay the “object” religion respect in any of the six senses (bearing in mind that respect2 takes a different “object” in the examples cited). This will also include not even paying attention (respect1) to philosophy of religion or the history of religious doctrines – a stance adopted by both Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

    4. Categories of “Object” of Respect

    Not only are there different kinds of respect, but (as has already been noted) there are also different categories of “objects” of respect that also add to the confusion over the use of the word ‘respect’. By ‘object’ is meant the logical or grammatical sense of ‘object’ and not the physical or material sense. This can be grasped by considering the incomplete sentences ‘Person A respects …’ or ‘A does not respect …’ and noting the different ways in which the blank can be meaningfully filled by different categories of “object”.

    So far we have spoken broadly of respecting religion, but the term ‘religion’ can cover many different categories of “object”. To be more explicit here are six of them (and more could be considered, e.g., religious institutions)

    1. Divinities: God, the gods, spirits, angels, etc.
    2. Persons: prophets, saints, monks, Popes, priests, Imams, etc.
    3. Ordinary objects: holy books, icons, totems, sacred places & buildings (e.g., Lourdes), etc.
    4. Actions: performing the Eucharist, praying, specific rituals such as genuflexion, etc
    5. Person’s rights and liberties to act, believe, disbelieve, poke fun, etc.
    6. Acts of believing and the contents of belief.

    The first four categories obviously yield possible “objects” of respect, lack of respect or disrespect. Consider God in the first category. The American satirist H. L. Mencken wrote a satirical piece called ‘Memorial Service’[10] which is a roll call of over 170 past gods that were revered by millions of people, but now no one reveres them at all: Zeus, Jupiter, Thor, Wotan, Baal, Mithra, the Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazdah, (well, a few of the reverent are left), Huitzilopochtli (a Mexican God to whom thousands of the reverent were sacrificed), and so on. Even the religious who currently revere some god revere none of these other gods. So do we owe respect to any of these gods? None of us do – unless one argues for a syncretism in which all gods are one and the same! Atheists have good grounds for respecting none of them; it is incoherent to respect divinities which one believes are non-existent.

    In the third category ordinary physical objects can become “objects” of reverential respect such as a Buddha tooth, the tree under which Buddha became enlightened, a hair of the beard of Mahomet, the Holy Grail (either real or supposed), the Turin Shroud, and so on.

    The fifth category is important and concerns rights and liberties of people as “objects” of respect. The kind of respect involved here is hardly the reverence of respect5 (though some misleadingly put it this way). Rather it is akin to the more secularized respect1, in which each of us is to pay careful attention to the rights and liberties of others in our dealings with them; or it is respect2 in which each of us is to refrain from interfering in the (lawful) activities of others. Atatürk’s thesis illustrates these points. He has no respect for one kind of “object” religion, but he has respect for another kind of “object” viz., the right or liberty of people to believe in religion, or not as the case may be.

    The sixth category raises some important issues. The term ‘belief’ is ambiguous; philosophers distinguish between the content of a belief and a person’s act (or state) of believing that content. To illustrate the difference, suppose a person A believes that Christ will return one day. The proposition that Christ will return one day is the belief content; in contrast the person’s act (or mental state) is A’s believing that Christ will return one day. A question now arises: Which is a possible “object” of respect, the content or the act, both of these or neither?

    The claim that will be advanced here is that it is incoherent, or meaningless, to respect belief contents. In contrast, since a person’s act of believing is an act of theirs, the mental act can be a possible object of respect or lack of respect. And these are different from a further possible object of respect or disrespect, the person who performs that act of believing.

    To illustrate the difference, consider an uncontroversial example of a belief content: that 2+2=4. Can person A coherently respect that 2+2=4? In the case of respect1, all this means is that A pays attention to the (correct) belief that 2+2=4 when A does mathematics, or performs addition. This is coherent; but other kinds of respect generate incoherence. People cannot sensibly let be, or interfere with, the belief content that 2+2=4, or admire it or revere it. Some mathematical nerd might revere or admire that 2+2=4; but this means that they are a pathological case.

    Similarly the proposition that Christ will return some day, might be accorded respect1, in that one has to pay attention to it when dealing with Christians. But as with the content that 2+2=4, it is incoherent to admire or revere the propositional content that Christ will return some day. This point can be extended to all the belief contents expressed in holy books or religious doctrines. Other than respect1, it is incoherent to accord respect to such belief contents. One might possibly respect, or show no respect, to different “objects” such as the person the proposition is about, viz., Christ, or the Bible which tells us that he will return; but none of these “objects” of possible respect are belief contents.

    What about moral rules or commands which are not simply propositional contents, for example, the Commandment of God that we are to have no other Gods but him? We can have recognition respect for commandments in the sense of always following them. That is, we can respect them in the sense of respect1; we pay careful attention to them in conducting our lives. Perhaps we might even admire or revere such commandments as we think that they are a great thing. Others, of course, can sensibly not show any respect for, or even disrespect, such commandments; they do not follow them and may even condemn them. So there is a coherence to respecting, not respecting or even disrespecting, moral precepts or commandments that do not apply to just propositional contents.

    Matters differ when it comes to acts (or states)[11] of belief of a person. Consider the mental act, A believes that Christ will return some day. One might respect1 A’s particular act of belief in that one pays attention to it and gives it consideration when one comes to deal with A (for example, one knows that A is a bit touchy about this belief). Also one might respect2 A’s act of belief in letting A hold their belief; alternatively one might disrespect it in attempting to rid A of this state of belief. This becomes important when according respect to another “object” viz., A’s right or liberty to act in certain ways, because the acts one is free to perform include acts of believing. Further, it is possible to respect4 (admire) or respect5 (revere) A’s activity of so believing (believers do admire the strength of their acts of belief in religious matters). But equally as well these can be “objects” of disrespect – and even dismay especially in the case of the acts of believing performed by dogmatists. But at least it makes sense to respect, accord no respect or disrespect, the mental acts of persons, in contrast to the belief contents of those acts.

    The above turns upon the important and subtle difference between acts and contents of belief as “objects” of respect. The ambiguity of the word ‘belief’ disguises this difference which in turn leads to a host of confusions. On the whole, it is meaningless to respect belief contents; but acts of believing or disbelieving (not to be confused with the persons who believe) can be coherently accorded respect or disrespect.

    This last point can be extended to cover many other kinds of mental acts such as protecting one’s beliefs from criticism, or refusing to evaluate them, or engaging in a critical evaluation. Consider fundamentalist religious believers. They might protect the proposition that Christ will return some day from critical examination, or resist examining it. But note that protecting that claim from criticism, or resisting criticism, is not a propositional object: it is an activity (directed upon a belief content). And this activity is something that is a possible “object” of respect (in the sense of letting it be), or of disrespect (in that others attempt to overcome the resistance of believers to criticism). The same applies to religious doctrines and the propositional contents of holy books, as distinct from the books themselves as objects. As argued, strictly it does not make sense to respect such contents. But enabling or resisting criticism of the contents are quite different “objects” which are open to respect or disrespect.

    5. Tolerance – but No Respect

    The above points provide the basis for a minimal account of tolerance that need only involve respect2, that of respect of rights and liberties. The notion of tolerance is a complex matter; so only a sketch of a quite minimal notion of tolerance will be given which highlights three broad components. The minimal account of tolerance requires (1) that there be something to which one objects, but (2) one puts up with the objectionable. Putting the matter somewhat paradoxically, toleration involves tolerating what one finds intolerable. The trick to tolerance is (3) how to achieve the right balance in tolerating the intolerable by setting the right limits to tolerance. Tolerance lies somewhere between total permissiveness and total repression; the problem is to find where it ought to lie.

    Consider the first “objection” component of tolerance. This can be illustrated in the case of Atatürk’s wishing all religion at the bottom of the sea. Supposing that Atatürk’s lack of respect for religion is well grounded, then these grounds can also provide good reasons for objecting to religion. Here the “objection” component cannot be watered down to something like indifference. One cannot sensibly tolerate that to which one is indifferent. If one is indifferent, or has no objection, then the matter of toleration cannot arise. One might have had to exercise tolerance in the past towards some X to which one objected, say, married gay couples; but if one no longer objects to married gay couples, the question of tolerating them can no longer arise. Having a well-founded objection to some X, like good grounds for lack of respect, is an essential component of tolerance. This is important because sometimes the phrase ‘you are tolerant’ in ordinary usage just means one is permissive and has no objection; but this is to lose some of the distinctive features of the concept of tolerance in political and social contexts.[12]

    The second aspect of tolerance requires one “to put up with” that to which one objects. One has to put up with the objectionable if one is powerless to do otherwise. But being powerless is not a component of tolerance as normally understood. One has to be in a position to act against and suppress the objectionable either because one already has sufficient power to so act; or if not so, one can politically act to obtain such power in a reasonable time. (One might form a lobby group or even a political party to legitimately obtain the means of suppression, e.g., to prevent various kinds of abortion.) What the second aspect of tolerance requires is that one refrains either from exercising successfully one’s powers of suppression or acting to obtain powers of suppression. Here the acceptance component is a matter of not interfering with or (actively, not passively) letting something be, when one could interfere (or readily obtain the means to do so). Putting this in terms of respect with its appropriate “object”, one gives respect2 to the liberties and rights of others to believe and act as they choose without interference, even where one has objections to their beliefs or actions. So respect in the sense of respect2 is an important component of toleration. But no other kind of respect is involved.

    The third component of minimal toleration is the more philosophically contentious; it attempts to spell out the reasons for which one might restrain oneself, to strike the right kind of balance in tolerating the intolerable and to set limits to toleration. Here only two approaches to this issue will be briefly mentioned, and the second endorsed.

    The first could be called the co-existence conception of tolerance (a somewhat “Hobbesian” view). As a (perhaps not entirely accurate) historical illustration, consider the various religious parties who battled it out for various lengths of time now encapsulated in the title of one of their more devastating wars – The Thirty Year War (1618-1648). This war had complex causes starting, maintaining and ending it, religion being only part of the story; but it can be used to provide an illustration of how the co-existence kind of tolerance could come about. Suppose the war did not end because the contending parties recognized some “higher moral principle” to be culled out of the Christian tradition to which the various parties all belonged that led them to stop fighting. This would be the ideological explanation that religious believers would like us to accept. Rather the contending parties recognized, as any game theorist would, that the degree of destruction wrought by the war indicated that it was time to call it quits (e.g., the German population had been reduced by over a quarter). It was time to recognize that it was in their mutual interest to put up with, that is tolerate, one another. This can, of course, lead to a rather unstable situation in which one religious group realizes that it is no longer in their interests to be tolerant. But if the power relations between the contending parties were roughly equal, this could lead to sufficient stability over time; then it might be possible for trust to develop and so tolerance to prevail.

    (Image via Tim Brinton / NewsArt.com)
    (Image via Tim Brinton / NewsArt.com)

    This co-existence conception of tolerance turns on the recognition by roughly equal contending powers that mutual toleration is in all their interests and is the best of all possible outcomes, even given the strong objections that each has to the other. But such a kind of tolerance would not apply where the contending parties were not of equal strength and one party was much stronger than the other and in a position to overwhelm them. So if toleration prevails other grounds need to be sought for it.

    There is a quite different alternative account of tolerance that might be called the reciprocal recognition of autonomy conception of tolerance (a somewhat “Kantian” view). One way of achieving the balance is that each person in a society recognizes the autonomy of others in their beliefs and actions. Each might have quite different sets of beliefs and each might have quite different conceptions of what constitutes the good life leading, perhaps, to quite different practices and actions. But what is required is that each recognizes the autonomy of others concerning their beliefs and actions even when this involves matters to which one has objections. In particular, religious believers are autonomous agents when it comes to the beliefs they hold, even though there are others, such as Atatürk, who have no respect for religion and wish it at the bottom of the sea. And conversely, one is an autonomous agent in having no respect for religion; but autonomy of this sort is to be recognized by religious believers even though they may have objections to one’s stance. Tolerance is a two-way street because of the reciprocal recognition of autonomy which lies at its heart.

    Tolerance applies not just to beliefs but to actions based on these beliefs as well. One can object to the actions of others yet be required to tolerate them within a democracy. We can suppose that all our actions fall within the framework of some conception of law, the laws being ultimately decided by democratic processes. These processes can, of course, be quite contentious as are revealed by the considerable differences over abortion, civil marriages, euthanasia, the right to leave a religion (in some countries), and so on. What is important here is that, whatever the outcome of the democratic process, tolerance will be required in the case where one still objects to that outcome. There is a reciprocal recognition of each as an autonomous agent within a democratic process that yields an outcome to which some of the parties can still harbour objections. In this context the issue of free speech becomes significant. In order for the democratic process to work properly free speech is a necessary requirement – and this includes the speech that might be deemed disrespectful by some parties to the debate. In order for autonomous agents to be fully autonomous, free speech must prevail – and tolerance as well when the outcome of the democratic process is still something to which one objects.

    In the context of a reciprocal recognition of autonomy conception of tolerance, a secularized notion of respect, respect2, can be invoked. Tolerance involves only respect2 with its special “object”, that of the respect given through the recognition of the autonomy of others, in particular their rights and liberties. It does not involve other kinds of respect, and may even involve absence of these kinds of respect or positive disrespect. This applies in the case of religion; religion is owed no special respect. As has been argued, respect for religion is a different “object” from the “objects” that properly apply in the case of respect2, viz., respect for the rights and liberties of believers and non-believers alike. Importantly for a tolerant society, respect creep to respect6 with its demand for universal respectful reverence for religion simply has no place.

    Within a liberal society in which there is tolerance of this kind, there is scope for each to have objections to the positions of others. There is no scope for suppression of any sort, and no scope for restrictions on freedom of speech that would impose restrictions on stating one’s objections. In particular there is no scope for the universal demand of respect for religion (respect6).

    This concludes my case for three claims:

    (1) Religion is owed no respect – particularly in the sense that there is any universally binding requirement of respect upon all (respect6). Whether the “object” religion is to be respected in any other sense is also not a universally binding matter.

    (2) Tolerance is a superior political ideal to that of respect. (It is one ideal of liberal democracies that is often not an ideal in other forms of society).

    (3) Tolerance is quite consistent with according religion no respect, and even overt disrespect.


    [1] This paper is an abridged version of a public address given on 14 May 2008 at the University of Auckland and originally entitled ‘Religion is owed no respect’. The address was under the auspices of the Philosophy Department of the University of Auckland and the Philosophy Department of Monash University as part of their Australasian Philosophy Project. I would like to thank Alan Musgrave and Ray Bradley for comments on earlier drafts that led to the improvement of the paper.

    [2] Andrew Mango, Atatürk, (Woodstock NY, Overlook Press, 2002), p. 463.

    [3] Elie Wiesel Night (London Penguin, 1981). Relevant passages can be found on pages 44-45 (e.g., ‘Why should I bless His name?’), 78-80 (e.g., ‘I was the accuser, God the accused.’) and 88-89 (e.g., ‘How can I believe, how can anyone believe, in the merciful God?’)

    [4] It should be noted that from ‘A does not respect X’ it does not follow that ‘A disrespects X’. There remains the option that A neither respects not disrespects X and A is neutral.

    [5] For a good statement of the paradox and a range of responses to it, see Robert J, Yanal, Paradoxes of Emotion and Fiction (University Park PA., The Pennsylvania University Press, 1999).

    [6] Stephen Darwall (1977), ‘Two Kinds of Respect’, Ethics, 88 (#1) 36-49.

    [7] Simon Blackburn, ‘Religion and Respect’ in Louise Anthony (ed.), Philosophers Without Gods (Oxford, Oxford University Press 2007), pp. 179-193.

    [8] The case for this cannot be argued here; but see Ronald Dworkin ‘The Right to Ridicule’ New York Review of Books, Volume 53 #5, March 23, 2006.

    [9] Salman Rushdie, Step Across this Line (London, Vintage, 2003), pp. 145-6.

    [10] This is collected in Christopher Hitchens (ed.) The Portable Atheist, (Philadelphia PA, Da Capo Press, 2007), pp. 143-46.

    [11] The term ‘act’ in the context here of mental acts is intended to be generic. In some cases a better term might be ‘state’, as in the case of a person’s long term mental state of believing. The term ‘act’ as applied to believings tends to indicate that they are episodic while the term ‘state’ does not. In what follows the common usage of philosophical tradition is adopted; the more generic sense of ‘act’ is what is intended, and this can be taken to include longer lasting metal states.

    [12] Acceptance of diversity within society is not necessarily an indication of tolerance since there is no explicit objection to aspects of that diversity. A person who tolerates needs to have an objection to some belief or activity; in this respect the tolerator (despite their refraining) may have a less liberal disposition than a person who is more broadly accepting. In ordinary language the tem ‘tolerant’ is often applied to someone who is accepting and has no objection to some belief or activity. The minimal account of tolerance expounded here is not to be confused with this ordinary and loose sense of the term ‘tolerant’.

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Robert Nola is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Auckland and the author of Rescuing Reason.

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    1 COMMENT

    1. All claims must be supported!

      Claims about products and services, by law must be proven; Why do we give religions a free pass to lie?

      No respect should ever be given to fables which are claimed to be true…..

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