Should we respect religious beliefs? Or merely tolerate them?

In Part 1 of his latest two-part discussion, Sami Steinbock addresses a key tension at the intersection of the liberal secular and the religious spheres

Globalisation is creating an ever more intertwined and multicultural society; states are no longer as exclusive to one religion as they used to be. For example, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism are all seen in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, according to the 2001 census, 390,127 people identified themselves as a member of the ‘Jedi’ religion. The number of religions and religious beliefs has increased within nations, including those which had not previously been considered mainstream.

Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral

There are religions and religious beliefs that have inter-conflicting views, not only antipathetic to the state itself but also to other religious beliefs. Huntington goes further, explaining in his seminal thesis “The Clash Of Civilisations” that future conflict will be based on cultural beliefs and mostly religious issues. The question that emerges, therefore, is whether we must still hold respect for all religious beliefs, or if toleration in itself is enough. It is not so simple to split different religions, as within each religion there are many different sects or streams that hold different beliefs and act in different ways. Within Islam, for example, there are Sunni, Shia, Alawi and Sufi factions as well as others: even within the Sunni branch, there is Wahabbism, amongst others. There is a clear differentiation between these sects: thus describing broad and general religious groupings risks oversimplifying this complex issue.

Pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca
Pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca

There are two key models when dealing with religion in society: the liberal model and the secular model. The liberal model is most commonly associated with multiculturalism, and has been described as the ‘salad bowl’, in which there is an acceptance of religious beliefs within the public state and a general conduct of respect. Alternatively, the secular model, which is often referred to as secularism, tends to integrate people and tolerate beliefs albeit to a more limited extent. This is only the case if religious beliefs are unidentifiable within the public sphere and mainly acted on privately.

A differentiation needs to be made between toleration and respect. I define respect as an active support of values seen as positive; while tolerance, being merely allowing certain beliefs to operate unhindered until their manifestation crosses a certain threshold, is being passive.

To tolerate a religious belief is to allow it to exist: the act of toleration is passive. It means that the presence and practice of the religion and its beliefs are ‘put up with’. The act is allowed without prohibition or rather any sort of hindrance. If a religious belief is tolerated it is simply endured, permitted to happen without any sort of repugnance. Tolerance of religious beliefs means that the practice is allowed, until a certain point. In France, for example, they tolerate the burka as a religious belief: however, this is the case in the private sphere only. In public, though, the point to which toleration will be practised is deemed to be crossed, and thereby it is forbidden. There is a certain threshold in which the religious belief is allowed to operate: anywhere before that threshold is fine, but once it crosses the threshold, the situation is re-evaluated and it is decided whether to no longer tolerate it. Toleration can be defined as somewhere between unrestrained opposition and wholehearted acceptance of the belief in itself.

Synagogue, Berlin
Synagogue, Berlin

To respect a religious belief is in my view rather different. When you respect something, it is held at a higher esteem; there is a certain regard shown towards it, in the sense that it is not intruded upon or interfered with. By this, there is a not passive but active understanding of the belief, in that it is thought to be good. An example of respect for religious beliefs is seen in the UK where it is against the law to ride a motorcycle without a helmet and it is forbidden for a practising Sikh to cut their hair and to ever not wear a turban. If the UK were to merely tolerate this religious belief, it would be understood that it a Sikh is, therefore, not allowed to ride a motorcycle. However, in the UK a law has been made to positively discriminate in the favour of practising Sikhs so that they are not required to wear a helmet due to the restraints of their turban. There is, however, a potential problem with this positive discrimination in favour of Sikhs due to their beliefs, because someone could theoretically claim that wearing a helmet is offensive to their platonic category of style: why, they might ask, should this be different to a Sikh who believes his God does not want him to wear a helmet? Positive discrimination should not simply be in favour of one sect, but rather a law made to benefit them due to their beliefs and at the same time anyone else who chooses to benefit from this.

A question to ask is whether tolerance, the minimum offered in this question, by definition requires respect, the maximum. The answer to my mind is simple, and the best example is in politics, rather than religion. It is not a requirement that the BNP receive respect when their candidate stands for election in the UK, but it is important that they are tolerated. Equally, toleration of religious beliefs is required within the UK, however difficult it may be at times. With that said, it is still possible to have no respect for it in the slightest. Often in a science class the way Creationism is dismissed is seen as a lack of tolerance for the religious belief, when in reality it is merely a lack of respect. There is certainly an argument as a minimum for a tolerance of difference but at the same time to ensure fanaticism is eradicated. Leiter states that there is no need to tolerate religions at all, but that is because he specifically does not exclude fanaticism and effectively places all religious beliefs under one umbrella. He also states that there is no need to tolerate religious beliefs over anything else, but he misses J S Mill’s point that everything should, at the minimum, be tolerated, so long as it does not exercise power over anyone or anything else.

In Part II, I’ll go on to look at the “active” response of respect, rather than the “passive” response of tolerance, in the accommodation of religious belief.


  1. Being wrong and/or stupid is not, in itself, a crime (hey, it happens to the best of us). In general its best to let people make their own mistakes.

    Telling somebody else that you think they are wrong and/or stupid is rarely helpful and may cause serious offense.

    If “respecting” somebody elses religion requires bowing to a “God” that is not your own (even metaphorically) then you are obliged by your own religion NOT to do so. Never compromise your own principles. Otherwise, why bother having principles at all?

    It is perhaps best avoiding situations where such conflict may arise.

    When another persons wrongness or stupidity becomes a danger to human life (especially your own, or those of your family, friends and other loved ones) then you are OBLIGED to act and do what is necessary.

    Hurt feelings are, at this point, no longer relevant.


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