Is religious conscience special? And what kinds of claims (if any) does conscience warrant? These are two of the many questions Brian Leiter raises in his provocative book Why Tolerate Religion? (Princeton University Press, $24.95, 192 pp.).
Note that in principle one could answer the first question in the negative””by denying the distinctiveness of religion””while endorsing broad claims for conscience as such. Imagine a two-by-two table: In the upper left quadrant is an expansive notion of conscience coupled with a broad conception of conscientious claims; in the bottom right is conscience restricted to religion with few or no claims to which the law must yield. The two remaining quadrants are broad/narrow and narrow/broad, respectively.
In the middle decades of the twentieth century, the prevailing view combined a narrow conception of conscience (restricted to religion) with a capacious understanding of conscientious claims as warranting, in suitable circumstances, exemption from generally valid public laws. This view then came under pressure, from two directions….