by Gareth Morley
Brian Leiter, Why Tolerate Religion? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. 208 pages.
In the late sventeenth century, the Sikh religion was at a crossroads. Indeed, it was not clear whether it could survive. The Muslim Mughal empire, reasonably tolerant at the height of its power under Akbar a century earlier, had decided to suppress the upstart faith. Guru Gobind Singh became the last of the Sikh living gurus at the age of nine when his father, the ninth guru, was executed at the orders of the emperor. In 1699, a few years after winning a major battle against the Mughals, he created the Khalsa order. On joining the Khalsa, all prior social distinctions of caste, race and even gender were to be eliminated. The Khalsa became the basis of the first Sikh state in the eighteenth century.
Today, the Khalsa are the visibly “observant” Sikhs. As in many such orders in various religious traditions, the inner spiritual meaning of the initiation was to be illustrated by exterior signs: the “Five Ks.” The most noticeable is the kesh, the uncut hair that requires Khalsa men to wear beards and their hair in turbans. The most troublesome for modern secular states is the kirpan, a short sword that initiates must keep on their person at all times for self-defence and, when required, for promoting justice.
Hyperventilating on the internet aside, the North Atlantic West does not today face an existential crisis comparable to the Mughal persecution. But it does face a crossroads. For the first time in centuries, issues of religious diversity and the limits of toleration take centre stage in the West. Traditionally Christian populations have become polarized between those who have become thoroughly secular (the majority outside the United States) and a remnant evangelized by Protestant and Catholic revivalists who bear little resemblance to the establishment clerics of the mid-20th century. Where these two groups are both numerous, as in North America, they do not get along well, and their differences have ignited a “culture war,” now into its third decade.
Moreover, since 2001, Western foreign policy has focused on the challenge to Western security and interests posed by militant Islamists. Mass immigration means every religious tradition in the world has significant representation in western Europe and North America. Feminism and sexual liberalism have increasingly become nonnegotiable commitments of the West, but at best, they are in tension with traditional religious commitments, and at worst, they represent the face of evil and decadence to orthodox believers. Religious diversity is perhaps the most unsettling result of mass migration, and certainly the least susceptible to traditional liberal modes of compromise.