Should we respect religious beliefs? Or merely tolerate them?(Pt2)

In Part 2 of his latest two-part discussion, Sami Steinbock addresses a key tension at the intersection of the liberal secular and the religious spheres.

In this concluding part of my discussion, I want to look at the “active” response of respect, rather than the “passive” response of tolerance, in the accommodation of religious belief.

It would be ludicrous to claim that all religious beliefs deserve automatic respect; some religious beliefs are seen as inherently racist, evil or immoral. Religious beliefs may be able to earn respect, but it would surely be an abdication of a person’s moral and intellectual responsibility to automatically reward all religious beliefs with equal respect.

It is certainly true that not all religious beliefs can be grouped under the same umbrella. However, there can be some difficulty in

A Multi-faith service
A Multi-faith service

categorising different religious beliefs. Often scholars attempt to separate the monotheistic faiths which have been existing for centuries from religious beliefs such as that of the Jedi, which many consider to have been a mark of protest in the census.

Satanism and Scientology is also often dismissed, but can it be right for someone to decide what is or is not a valid religious belief and what is not? Much in the same way that it is seen as unfair to discriminate in the favour of a Sikh in regard to wearing a helmet when riding a motorcyde but not others who may also have reasons they consider valid, perhaps.

Freedom for religious beliefs should include: freedom of conscience; freedom of expression; autonomy; and moral integrity, amongst many other things. There is a variety of religious beliefs, and they can stand for different ideals. It is therefore not particularly easy to give a simple answer as to whether religious beliefs as a whole should be respected or tolerated. There is a problem, though, with respecting a religious belief when it is inherently exclusivist, as is the case with nearly all traditional religions.

Pentecostal church in a disused SE London cinema
Pentecostal church in a disused SE London cinema

A religious exclusivist is someone who is of the opinion that his or her religious belief is superior; that his religion is the only one offering the ‘truth’. This is relevant because, by thinking of their religion as ‘superior’, adherents will settle only for respect for themselves, yet exhibit only tolerance towards another’s beliefs. According to Baldwin and Thune, in order for an exclusivist’s beliefs to remain rational, they need to have ‘epistemically significant reasons’: meaning that they must have some sort of argument or evidence that supports the claim that their religion is either directly or indirectly superior. This is often known as the ‘Necessity of Reasons’. There is therefore a lack of respect between different religious beliefs.

But – if religious beliefs are by nature exclusivist, how is it possible to hold a different religious belief in higher esteem than another? If religions, and the religious beliefs that come with them, fail to respect one another, it is surely not right to ask for respect for oneself as an adherent of a specific religion. Given that a religious belief is in itself inherently exclusivist, belief-holders expect respect as a minimum for their belief, rather than tolerance: however, and possibly hypocritically, they will often be willing only to tolerate others.

If someone were to believe that what he or she was doing was right, and that no-one else was fulfilling this path, then there would also be a potential problem of elitism. If widely held, that religion would think of itself as superior to everyone and anything else. It surely cannot be fair automatically to give a religious belief “active” respect when all it is willing to offer to others is “passive” tolerance.

Whereas tolerance can be seen as a very minimalist perspective, it is something that those who practised Judaism in the past two thousand years across Europe could only dream of, through  Crusades, Inquisition, Pogroms and Holocaust. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was tolerance rather than respect that Jews, for example, received from established governments and the church. The rule in the Church was based on the Augustinian ”witness doctrine”. As seen, in this case there was neither tolerance nor respect but instead persecution, and there is a fine line between tolerance and persecution. Now, in the 21st century, religious wars still go on, and this is seen regularly in Northern and Central Africa.

“Passive” tolerance, then, cannot, arguably, possibly be enough when, as has been the case, it leads to persecution. When ‘merely’ tolerating, it is fair to ask: at what point does the tolerated become intolerable? However, in many cases it is hard to know when this point becomes justified, Multiculturalism has provided a partial answer in tolerating the so-called intolerable, but with religious beliefs that are of themselves intolerant, there should surely be a line drawn so that that intolerance be not even ‘merely tolerated’. Many would say that religious belief of this intensity should be tolerated only to the extent that the belief is not imposed upon other people: but it is then incumbent on us also to ask: in which religion is it the case that religious beliefs are not imposed on others, especially children?


Tolerance is seen as ideal, but there are places within the world, such as in China or Egypt. where there is still persecution today on the grounds merely of religious beliefs, irrespective of their manifestation or non-manifestation. Therefore, neither tolerance nor respect, arguably, should be accorded to fanaticism within religious beliefs.

Hoffman contends that the risk of legitimising fanaticism is a problem inseparable from giving universal respect or tolerance to all religious beliefs. This risk is best explained with reference to the remarks of Salman Rushdie, about people “using God to justify the unjustifiable’. Today, people who claim that (their) God is on their side divide the world; they may use this claim of righteousness to perpetrate acts of destructive nature. They may believe in this ‘truth’, regardless of how immoral it is to claim to be morally obligated by the ‘truths’ of these religious beliefs. Not only is it hard to respect acts that can be carried out as a result of religiously-justified fanaticism, but it is also important that it is not tolerated. Even though this affects only a small number religious sects within different religions, and only a minority are so affected as to be fanatic, it is important that in any conclusion, be it in favour of “active” respect or “passive” toleration, fanaticism should as far as possible be erased or defeated intellectually.

There are also universal and not religion-specific values deserving of respect, and it is even within some religious beliefs that these values originated. Even where they did not so originate, if a religion adheres these universal values despite their not being a theological tenet of that specific faith, respect should surely be afforded to them, but only when such religious beliefs do not pontificate negative values such as genocide or infanticide.

It is illiberal to discriminate in favour of a religious belief, as is seen in the case with the Sikh wanting to ride a motorcycle, but at the same time this is not a reason not to discriminate at all. Rather, it is a reason to “discriminate” non-illiberally by allowing everyone to have a choice in whether they wish to seek benefit from the ruling. After taking the potential dangers of fanaticim and exclusivism into account, I have to conclude that automatic, unthinking respect for any religious belief is not instantaneously justifiable. Rather, respect should only be accorded when universal values are accepted and respected by the religious belief in question, and, as long as universal values are not breached by religious beliefs, the religious beliefs themselves should be afforded respect.


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