Is Religious Freedom Irrational? Reviewing Why Tolerate Religion? By Brian Leiter. (Princeton University Press 2013)

22 Pages Posted: 16 Jan 2014

Date Written: 2014


Is it irrational specially to protect specifically religious conscience and free exercise? Professor Brian Leiter is half right: From a secularist or even anti-religious perspective – the stance Leiter assumes to be the correct one – special solicitude for religious conscience and free exercise makes little or no sense. On Leiter’s understanding of what defines religion – religion consists of intrinsically “irrational” belief systems, “unhinged” from reason, issuing in categorical demands on action – special accommodation is indeed hard to justify. But Leiter's is a surprisingly shallow, philosophically unsophisticated understanding of religious belief. This review essay contends that religious belief, at least in certain forms, is entirely rational and reasonable and that the decision of the framing generation to protect specifically religious conscience and exercise is likewise entirely rational. This difference in philosophical perspectives goes a long way toward explaining the content as well as the premises of American constitutional religious liberty – and why they are hard for postmodern secularists to grasp. Religious freedom only makes full, rational sense on the premise that God exists (or well may); that God’s nature and character is such (or may well be) as to give rise to obligations with respect to human conduct; that the true commands of God, whenever knowable, are, in principle, prior to and superior in obligation to the commands of men; and that human civil society, acknowledging the priority of God’s true commands yet conceding the inability of human institutions to know them perfectly, must accommodate the broadest possible sphere of religious liberty, often including conduct in conflict with society’s usual rules.

Keywords: law and religion, religious freedom, religious liberty, tolerance for religion, religious accommodations, free exercise of religion, religious conscience

Suggested Citation

Paulsen, Michael Stokes, Is Religious Freedom Irrational? Reviewing Why Tolerate Religion? By Brian Leiter. (Princeton University Press 2013) (2014). Michigan Law Review, 2014, Forthcoming, U of St. Thomas (Minnesota) Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-04, Available at SSRN:

Michael Stokes Paulsen (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas School of Law ( email )

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Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
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651-962-4831 (Phone)

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