Religious conviction enjoys a privileged status in our society. This is perhaps most apparent in legal contexts, where religious conviction is often given special consideration. To be more precise, religious conscience is recognized as a legitimate basis for exemption from standing laws, whereas claims of conscience deriving from non-religious commitments generally are not. Why is this? Is there something special about religiously-based claims of conscience? Is there something special about religion such that it gives rise to claims of conscience that deserve special consideration? If so, what?
In his new book, Why Tolerate Religion? (Princeton University Press, 2013) Brian Leiter offers subtle analyses of toleration, conscience, and respect. He argues that religion is indeed to be tolerated, because liberty of conscience is a central moral and political ideal. However, he holds that there’s nothing special about religion that gives special moral or legal weight to the demands it places on the consciences of believers. Contending that all claims of conscience—religious and non-religious—deserve toleration, Leiter argues that legal exemption may be granted on the basis of a claim of conscience—religious or otherwise—only when doing so does not place additional burdens on the non-exempt.