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May Liberalism Be Hostile to Religion? May 16, 2007

Posted by Michael Kuttnauer in Political Philosophy.

“Atheism Cures Religious Terrorism”

— Bumper sticker observed in San Diego, 2007

I think that one attitude suggested by the above bumper sticker is probably this: Reasonable people should oppose religion because it spawns religious terrorism.  If some liberals are tempted to cheer on that view I would proffer a caution against it.  Not because religion is never associated with terror, of course.  On the contrary.  And not because religion is true (we cannot know that), or a necessary condition of morality.  Rather, because liberals must remember what fidelity to the concept of liberalism amounts to.

Liberalism implies the tolerant society and its companion idea, reasonable pluralism.

A tolerant pluralism will have to consider the place of religions.  These meet a need: The nothingness that preceded and will almost certainly follow our brief surfacing in the stream of time demands consolation.  (This remains broadly true even though some people are proudly Promethean on the point.  They heap scorn on that fate that makes ashes of all our hopes.  With Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, false comfort they disdain.)  Further, regret over our losses, our suffering, demands meaning, which must contain two parts: the first is an explanation for why things happen as they do; the second, a telos, a specification of the goal or end toward which everything is tending.  Religion, by giving life meaning in these senses, provides that comfort for our suffering, that explanation for why things happen as they do, and the specification of that final purpose which is the point of all the building up and eventual tearing down.  The sound and fury do not signify nothing.  This contribution of religion does not cease to be salient when religion’s periodic association with terrorism (and other wrongful acts) is noticed.  The society of justice does not have to tolerate any religion that endorses or encourages violence and is unreasonable.  So, pluralism and tolerance imply tolerance of religions, or at least those that will be reasonable.

To summarize: Religion services human need.  Institutions responsive to need will demand a place in modern pluralistic societies.  The just society will require that the tolerable place-holders in the civil society limit their own theological imperatives (their “laws”) to the direction and assuagement of their particular devotees; and agree that the binding law backing public policy in the democracy is to be formulated according to the constitution subsisting and demanding allegiance quite apart from their own bible or church.  The law of religion cannot be the law of the state, and if the religion agrees, it is deemed reasonable and takes its place at the constitutional society’s table.  At that point, liberals have a duty, I would argue, to tolerate religions, at least those that accept pluralism as a fact about the modern world and practice toleration accordingly.  So, if liberalism entails tolerant pluralism, and pluralism leads to tolerance of those religions loyal to the constitution, liberalism must tolerate religion.  If the San Diego bumper sticker suggests otherwise, then, though it may bring a smile to the lips of some who think of themselves as progressive, it may do an inadvertant disservice to the liberal cause. 



1. Thea - May 16, 2007

Question: Why would you assume that the owner of the sticker is liberal?

2. Charlette Lin - May 16, 2007

I think I had to look up the definition of a word in every single one of your sentences, but I think I understood your post.

In my life, I started off as a confused Christian, then an agnostic, and now an atheist. I value open-mindedness and tolerance in every one. However, I find it slightly difficult to tolerate some religions when there are many religious people who refuse to tolerate anyone else.

Generally, I’d say to let people believe in whatever they want to believe as long as they’re not causing harm to others because of their beliefs. I understand that many grow up with religious core beliefs and that it’s painful for them to let go of those comforting beliefs. I dislike it when people try to make other people (especially children) more close-minded though. The fact that millions of kids are growing up being told what to think instead of thinking for themselves… just drives me crazy. I can only hope that people aren’t suffering too much as a result of this.

3. Dwight Furrow - May 17, 2007


I quite agree that a liberal polity must tolerate religion. However, I am a bit concerned with what you mean by “tolerate”. You say that

“The just society will require that the tolerable place-holders in the civil society limit their own theological imperatives (their “laws”) to the direction and assuagement of their particular devotees; and agree that the binding law backing public policy in the democracy is to be formulated according to the constitution subsisting and demanding allegiance quite apart from their own bible or church.”

This suggests that religious requirements are to be directed toward members of the faith in their private lives only–on matters of public policy, religious requirements cannot play a role.

But suppose a religious person sees herself as bound to obey a set of overriding obligations imposed on her by God, failure to discharge these obligations is an abomination, and that these obligations require political action. This is not an implausible reading of the foundational texts of all the monotheisms. To ask them to refrain from political action is to require them knowingly and willingly to disobey God.

Is this not hostility toward religion?

How is the tolerant liberal to respond?

4. David Kuttnauer - May 17, 2007

Hello Professor Kuttnauer,

First, I would like to say you have made a large inferential leap when you suggest Atheists are reasonable. Anecdotal evidence I have collected suggests not all are reasonable. Secondly, “we” certainly can know if religion is “true” in some sense of the word. For example, there is solid empirical evidence that the earth is older than 2000 years-old. Therefore, I would make the case that central “facts” of Christian docturine could be shown, at least from a scientific point of view, to be false. Finally, while I certainly agree with your main premise – which I think is that a truely free and tolerant society MUST grant people/groups with radically opposing viewpoints freedom and avenues to express their ideas. However, when part of a religious groups’ operational procedures include walking onto buses with women and children with the intent of murdering them all in the name of their religion – they not only forfeit their rights and freedom, but they irreperably change the way others perceive their religion. If this type of behavior is perpetuated over and over again on innocents, even if only a small percentage of the group is carrying out these horrific acts, the religion as a whole should be held accountable. How and what to do to a complete religion is beyond my “free time” at work, but let’s ask the Atheists what they would do, as they have been declared “reasonable”.

5. Charlette Lin - May 17, 2007

I think the Professor was speaking of how reasonable atheists should act – not that all atheists are reasonable.

Perhaps we could say, “reasonable atheists and reasonable non-atheists should act in the liberal tradition of tolerating points of view they do not agree with.”

6. amy - May 17, 2007

This artical is an excellent reminder to liberals to remember their roots. If we are intolerant of religion we are just like the conservatives we roll our eyes at everytime they loudly condem homosexuality or pre marital sex. we are assuming we have a right to decide whats ok and whats not ok for everyone. and whats worse, maybe even attempt to regulate whats ok for everyone in the end.
And I suppose both sides of intolerance are based in fear. In seeing the world change in a direction we (liberals or conservatives) dont want it to go.
I think a point that could be interestingly discussed more would be a side thought off this line…

“The society of justice does not have to tolerate any religion that endorses or encourages violence and is unreasonable. So, pluralism and tolerance imply tolerance of religions, or at least those that will be reasonable.”

and that is…whos definition of “reasonable” do we follow? I guess I would say reasonable to me would imply beliefs and actions that dont infringe on anyone elses well being or right to their own lifestyle. ie. if you dont hurt or take universal human rights away from anyone else, then that is reasonable.

7. Evan - May 18, 2007

But what about the people who’s lifestyle is to kill people who don’t agree with them? Do they get a ‘right to their own lifestyle’?

They see what they are doing as right. What right do we have to take that away? Won’t preventing them from practicing their cultural traditions lead ultimatly to hostility? And, if we were to prevent them, how would we go about doing it?

Viewing ourselves as the paragon of civility seems to me a dubious endeavor.

Regarding the post, many people seem to think that if religion were to disapear one day, all would be well and violence would be vanquished. Without diving too much into the anthropological ignorance of this line of thinking, perhaps it is best to remember that humans will ALWAYS have belief systems and will always be ready to die for them.

And proselytizing for atheism is still proselytizing. It is infact saying: ‘The western, empirical, scientific tradition is the best, most civilized ontological method to date. Use it.’ (My rebuttal would be: ‘The western, imperial, ethnocentric tradition is the worst, most pernicious ontological method of cultural homocide to date. Lose it.’ [i.e., lose the imperialism. The method is really awesome. I mean, we’ve been to the moon!])

8. Nina Rosenstand - May 19, 2007

Welcome to the Blog! You’ve touched a nerve here. I saw the bumper sticker, too, and gave it some thought. Thea asks why you’d think the owner of the sticker is a liberal; I would ask a sadder question, can we even make the assumption that everyone strives to be reasonable? It is one of the fundamental assumptions we have made in Western society for the past 300 years or so: we are people of good will and reason. But, as Dwight says in one of his publications, What else can we do? How do we argue tolerantly with intolerant people, other than appeal to being mutually reasonable? And that, Evan, may be an answer to your complaint about the “Western, imperial, ethnocentric tradition”: it is the one that teaches about impartiality, good will and reason, even if it doesn’t always live up to it. It may not be perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got.

9. Evan - May 21, 2007

Rationality is a cultural tradition, not an arbiter of them. (This is a quote and I don’t have the book with me so I didn’t use quotation marks so as not to misrepresent Paul Feyerabend, but this was his [approx.] sentence.) Saying: ‘let’s speak on equal terms, as soon as you’re rational’ is far from impartial.

I would also posit that ‘good will’ and ‘reason’ are a mainstay of every cultural tradition. (If they weren’t, I doubt those cultures would be around.)

Is it the best we’ve got? Could you perhaps be a little biased?

10. Thea - May 21, 2007

Maybe I’m not firing on all cylinders, but I still fail to see the problem here. If we’re operating under the definition of a liberal as tolerant of other cultures, then a liberal who expresses intolerance is no longer a liberal, but a conservative.
Whether or not an individual follows an official political rhetoric (for a working sample: liberals must abhor religion) is irrelevant. No, actually, it is relevant. If a person merely follows an official political dogma, they most certainly are not liberal; they are conservative – whether or not they realize that themselves. Right?
That is why we call conservatives conservative…because they fiercely adhere to a specific set of mores and wish to avoid what they view as excessive deviance from said mores? That is where I was going with the question, ‘Why would you assume the owner of the sticker is a liberal?”
Perhaps the issue is that anyone who registers on the US political continuum IS conservative. Here’s an example:
I once attended a Ralph Nader rally in L.A. They parked right next to the Democratic party and the Democratic party members gave the Green party members dirty looks. Down their noses dirty looks. We were horrified at their rudeness. What is a liberal anyway, if not tolerant? Well, lo and behold, who was getting dirty looks within the Green party rally? I was. Apparently, the issue was that I hadn’t ripped the brand labels off my jeans, shoes and backpack. Mortifying. I left early.

Thea: Your experience at the Nader rally is very much to the point. There are people who vote for the Democrat who are tolerant and intolerant. The same is true for Bush voters. And even for Green or Libertarian voters. Tolerance is an ideal, drawn from political theorists (Kant, Mill, and in our times, John Rawls, late of Harvard). The virtue of instantiating tolerance into the actual conduct of a real citizen is a separate matter and party affiliation isn’t always a sure sign of conduct consistent with the ideal, as your Green party example demonstrates. — M.K.

11. tespejon - May 23, 2007

Dear Professor,

I don’t think religion is associated with terror, only that people with evil intentions use religion as their masquerade, which makes the ininformed and also them very unlucky. The term religion has been used abusively by many for thousands of years already. But I think the original intent of the use of this term is good.

I have some questions relative to your discussions.

John Rawls refers to religious doctrines as comprehensive doctrines while the principles of liberalism that he proposes to pave the way for smooth relationship among groups of people advocating conflicting/contrasting doctrines as political liberalism. My questions are:

(1) How should liberalism respond when one of the existing religious group attacks the doctrine of another group; and the other group retaliate by physical harassment and intimidation?

(2) Is toleration among religious groups means avoiding attacks on each others’ doctrine, or avoiding exposing other group’s religious “faults”?

(3) How would you define a religion that encourages violence or is unreasonable?)

Thanks so much Sir.I am new here in wordpress blogging and I hope I can join your community of inquirers regarding Political Philosophy.


12. absar - October 30, 2008


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