State and religion

Posted: March 26, 2011 in Religious toleration

Topic: Even a state that is sure that it already has the true religious belief should be tolerant of other religions because the state is fallible, and because the state cannot in any case succeed in coercing people to accept the true religion. Discuss.

Personal Anecdote

I can still remember having a small row over a few religious issues with my most favorite aunt1 who is a staunch Christian. She has converted her religion (Buddhism) to Christianity since she left Cambodia2 during Pol Pot genocidal regime for Australia. For some religious reasons, she always wants her relatives to be a staunch Christian like her too. Then, she always spreads stories of how Jesus Christ has bettered her life in terms of mental and physical peace, health, wealth and financial stability to her relatives. Her stories have moved a few of them to convert their religion to Christianity. One day, she tried convincing all of my family members to accept Christianity as the only and “right” religion too. My family members3, especially my elder brother and I, were challenging her grounds of belief or reasoning in Christianity. First she started with visibility in seeing God. She said it was ridiculous to worship a stone/cement-made statue of Buddha while Cambodian people never see him – their god – in a real life.  Then, I asked her if she had seen Jesus Christ a day with her own eye in her lifetime. Avoiding the question, she started telling how her wishes or prayers to Jesus Christ came true. We were then asking her if it was just a coincidence that her smartness, education and hardworking – instead of depending on her God’s responses – brought her the desired outcomes. Next, she moved to salvation and redemption. She told us a story about a man who was believed by people to have passed away and ended up literally in hell in some way. Miraculously, the man came to life after a few days finding himself wandering in hell. The man then started spreading what he eye-witnessed during the entire period he was in hell. He claimed to have seen Dalai Lama, who is a Buddhist leader and believed to be the latest reincarnation to enlighten others, being physically punished. The man then stressed that he had a conversation with Dalai Lama about how this Buddhist leader deserved the punishment. Throughout the conversation with Dalai Lama, this man claimed that even though Dalai Lama is a good person who commits many good deeds, he was treated badly after life because Dalai Lama chose a wrong god. As a result of not following Jesus Christ, Dalai Lama could not be saved. To our surprise, my family then challenged my aunt with a question whether Jesus Christ is selfish in this sense. Because my aunt now believed that my family was in a strong and different position in keeping our religion in place, she decided to end the conversation and switched to another topic of the day.


Definition of Religious Toleration

At an individual’s level, I believe that I would never have had a row with my most adorable aunt if we had the same religious belief and that we must take religious toleration and individual liberty in choosing our own religion carefully and seriously. I do not believe in ethnocentrism in the sense that one’s own religion is superior to all others and is the standard by which all other religions should be measured.

The words: ‘tolerate’, ‘toleration’, and ‘tolerance’ come from the Latin terms tolerare and tolerantia, which imply enduring, suffering, bearing, and forbearance (Fiala, 2004). Andrew Fiala comes up with a general definition of toleration that when an agent tolerates something:

(1) He judges it negatively. The negative judgment; including emotions, dispositions, tastes, and reasoned evaluations; can be anything from disapproval to disgust;

(2) He holds power to negate the entity in question, so toleration here is defined as an expression of choosing not to negate or destroy a person or thing in question; and

(3) He intentionally avoids negation. The agent deliberately chooses to refrain from exercising his power to negate those things he views negatively (Fiala, 2004).

Based on a definition from an online dictionary4, religious toleration refers to the condition to allow people to worship based on the practices of any religion they choose on their own. In addition, John Locke5 stresses that the toleration requires an individual’s effort in putting up with those whom he thinks are wrong with their religious choices and practices. Taking it further in his course handbook, professor Ten Chin Liew6 emphasizes that the right to be wrong is the basis to promote religious toleration as long as the wrongdoings committed by an individual, organization or nation do not harm others. So at a national level, in a nation where a state religion has been declared as a true religion, religious toleration can be specifically defined as the government’s permission of religious liberty, practice and worship of other sects though these religious sects may disagree with (some) principles of the state religion. In other words, since religious toleration is a privilege granted by the government, the government itself is not supposed to discriminate or persecute any individual who has different faiths besides the state religion.


Discussion on Religious Toleration in a Nation with a State Religion


The relationship between state and religion plays a very important role in religious, cultural and political arenas in most societies. This strong connection between the two makes possible political parties, topples governments, and centers in public debate on constitution, civil right and other crucial aspects of citizens ‘life.

As mentioned above, in a nation where a state religion has been declared a true religion, the government plays the most important role in promoting religious toleration and freedom. In a letter7 to Alexandra Campbell8, John Locke emphasized that “religious toleration demands religious freedom.” On this note, he implied that “those who cry toleration the loudest cannot be trusted with the control of religious freedom” (Piney, 2011).

While religious toleration at a national level is defined as a state’s permission of religious liberty and freedom, John Locke develops an appealing theory in regards to the fallibility of a state; he argues that the state and its agents “are not better placed” to determine what a true religion is than are conventional individuals “who are better motivated to seek their own salvation” (C.L. Ten)9. On this note, the ordinary citizens are more cautious about choosing a true religion than a state is because they take it as their personal matter of how or whether (or not) to be saved while a state has many other interests than just a matter of salvation. One of the state’s main interests in choosing a religion could be related to politics in the sense that a state chooses a particular religion not always because that chosen religion is a true one but rather because it best fits in the nation’s political scheme. A great Indian philosopher and leader Mahatma Gandhi once claimed that Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.10In this sense, since religion has strong correlation with politics and affects governance and management in all fields and sectors in a nation, it is a hard job for a state to choose a one-fit-all religion for its citizens. Therefore, a state is supposed to choose one religion and preserve it as a state religion and at the same time to allow, accept and tolerate other religions its citizens believe in. In addition, John Locke who is himself a committed Christian strongly demands for religious toleration Ibid. and sees a church as “a free and voluntary society” in which all the volunteers are entitled to the right to enter once the rules of the society are in line with their beliefs and the right to exit once the two variables clash. On this note, John Locke stressed that neither the society nor the volunteers have any power, force or coercion over one another (Piney, 2011). In other words, a state is free to choose a state religion to best fit the nation’s control, governance and management methods while the citizens are entitled to choose any religion(s) other than the state religion to serve their own interests and beliefs. John Locke believes that a church is a public place where the general and common volunteers can use to worship their God and that the value of worship comes from the faith that inspires it. In this regard, John Locke proves that the faith and the inspiration are internal matters of an individual and therefore are entirely out of the jurisdiction of another individual – whom he referred to the civil magistrate (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy , 2001). Mahatma Gandhi who is a staunch believer in non-violence claimed that “Non-violence requires a double faith, faith in God and also faith in man.” To illustrate, Gandhi is totally against the use of power, force and coercion from any individual or institution to promote peace in a given context. He stressed on the two kinds of faith if the pursuit of non-violence is a top priority in any given state. In short, John Locke is completely in line with Gandhi in the sense that toleration promotes peace and stability.

Based on Lockean toleration theory, all states and all religions are apparently the same in respect that the more religious groups, the better prevention of civil unrest. The logic is that those believers the religious groups are attached to their religion’s beliefs, values and principles and are therefore supposed to abide by their respective apostles to live in peace and harmony with others of different religions (Cuizon, 2009). To keep the discussion rolling, John Locke believed that in order for Christian religious societies to promote religious freedom, the societies are supposed to “make no rules beyond direct commands of the Bible”. He proposed that those societies not to restrict people’s options but to widen more social participation while in attempt to cut down any possible threats of intolerance growth (Piney, 2011).

According to Chapter IV of The Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual by John Stuart Mill who is in attempt to study where the authority of society begins, how much of human life should be assigned to individuality and how much to society; when public chooses to interfere with purely personal conduct, it interferes in the wrong settings (Mill, 1859). He claimed that the society’s interference to overrule an individual’s judgment and purposes is carried out and reasoned on general presumptions which he believed could be altogether wrong, and even if right, should not specifically be applied to individual cases Ibid. Mill proposed that interference with liberty is dangerous and that there should be justification once there is a violation of liberty Ibid. Mill further elaborates his argument by giving an example of Sabbatarian legislation11 to illustrate illegitimate interference of individual’s liberty. Moreover, in case a given state is committed to forcing or coercing its citizen to accept state religion as their true religion, this kind of state’s compulsion will only lead to hypocrisy while it is religiously believed that souls will not be saved by means of those coercion attempts.


Related Issues on Religious Toleration

As mentioned above, a state chooses a religion not always for religious reasons; therefore, its citizens are more motivated to discover the truth – what a true religion is. This journey to seek the truth is substantially dependent on tolerance at both individual and state level. In regard to this bumpy journey, Socrates links tolerance to ignorance and other virtues such as sophrosyne (self-control) and modesty. These virtues are the fundamental constituents to establish a moral community in an attempt to seek philosophical truth (Fiala, 2004). Socrates implies that the community’s attempt to seek the truth can be successful throughout an open minded debate if the three main virtues; ignorance, self-control and modesty; are to be well thought of and well taken cared of in respect to promotions of tolerance in all forms ranging from verbal to non-verbal expressions among those debate participants. In this respect, Socrates and Locke believe that when individuals come together in a market-place of ideas, the philosophical truth is most likely to emerge. However, in his lecture12, professor Ten Chin Liew cautioned that the market has to have proper regulations and devices to detect any inappropriate or irrelevant ideas in order to generate the possibility of the emergence of the truth.  In addition to an attempt to seek the truth, Socrates sees tolerance as a crucial part of “his epistemological faith in the autonomy of reason” and comes to a conclusion that the truth can be found throughout disciplined, modest, and tolerant manners (Fiala, 2004). This finding of Socrates was then supported by John Milton’s Areopagitica which further clarifies that the degree of state’s tolerance plays a crucial role in discovering the truth. To elaborate, if a state has a certain level of tolerance towards a public get-together – so called a free market – to share ideas and perspectives on defining the truth and how to discover it, Milton justifies that the truth is going to defend itself in that kind of market of ideas Ibid. In line with the above arguments, John Stuart Mill’s statement is to demand freedom of public thought during the debate or dialogue in the market since he sees an individual as a fallible being who by himself cannot discover the truth Ibid. On the same line, Locke believes that one – either individual or state – cannot coerce another human being to have faith as he sees faith or belief an internal reason rather than an external one to choose a true religion. However, Locke’s argument was attacked by Jeremy Waldron who questioned the Locke’s assumption that faith or belief cannot be forced. Jeremy further acknowledged that coercion leads to hypocrisy since it does not bring out genuine belief which might not be the interest of a given intolerant state Ibid.  Apparently a relativist or skeptic state can accept and tolerate those citizens who hold different perceptions about a true religion, yet an American philosopher Richard Rorty once claimed that “If we are skeptical about knowledge, then we have no way of knowing that toleration is good.” Ibid. In the meantime, toleration has an absurd barrier in which people find it hard to confront behaviors or practices that they disapprove or hate but they have to paradoxically tolerate Ibid. As illustrated above, religion has a close tie with politics so religious toleration entails political toleration which requires that a political referee acts in conforming to a principle of impartiality and bias Ibid. In this respect, in an attempt to promote religious toleration through a lens of political perspective, the referee has to guarantee social justice which can be measured on an impartiality basis to make sure that every individual – though of different points of view about a true religion – is being treated, respected and taken cared of equally.


In conclusion, as Mill’s study shows that when a state interferes individual’s liberty, it interferes at the wrong time and place. Moreover, while choosing a state religion involves other factors than just purely for religious reasons, state’s coercions to force people accept the state religion will only lead to hypocrisy and souls will not be saved at the end of the day. Therefore, at a personal level, my aunt and I had better respect one another’s decision to choose our own true religion and tolerate different religious practices as parts of our religious boundary and liberty. At a state level, a state is supposed to preserve a state religion to best fit in the state’s governance and management scheme, to allow its citizens to pursue their journey to discover what a true religion is for them and at the same time to guarantee social justice, equality and impartiality by accepting, respecting and tolerating those citizens who hold different views about the subject matter.



1She is my father’s youngest sister. I love her most since she is the most reasonable and respected aunt I have, and she and I have many things in common in terms of justice, fairness, and other personal interests – except for religion.

2Majority of Cambodian people are Buddhist; the state religion is Buddhism.

3My family consists of six members: both of my parents and four children (three sons and one daughter), and I am the second son.

4 Online English Dictionary with multilingual search:

5The British philosopher who was well known for his liberal theory of state, his striking advocacy of religious toleration, his great empirical study on epistemology and his theory of identity (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy , 2001).

6 He is currently a philosophy professor at Lee Kuan Yew of Public Policy in Singapore. His fundamental interests are involved in moral, political and legal philosophy, especially those issues related to toleration and liberty.

7The letter can be found at

8He was well known for his “The Sermon on the Law” in which he meant to reject the Old Testament as to have oppressive authority over the Christian church.

9extracted from the article on Religious Toleration and Beyond in the course pack for Ethics and Public Officials course at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

10 Reuters reports that recently Dalai Lama 15th, a great, well known religion leader, has planned to resign from his political function as Tibet political leader in respect to seek autonomy from China (Madhukar, 2011).  The Gandhi’s quote can be found at

11The Sabbatarian legislation, also known as blue laws in the United States, requires an individual to have abstinence on one day in the week and all Sabbaths are to be strictly observed during abstinence practice.

12Lecture on Religious Toleration to a Public Policy course on January 20, 2011 at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Singapore.





Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy . (2001, April 17). Retrieved March 05, 2011

Piney. (2011, March 03). Retrieved March 10, 2011, from

Cuizon, G. (2009, March 03). Retrieved March 09, 2011, from

Fiala, A. (2004, September 17). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 09, 2011, from

Handbook for PP5214 Ethics and Public Officials Semester Two 2010/2011

Madhukar, A. (2011, March 10). Reuters. Retrieved March 11, 2011, from

Mill, J. S. (1859). Retrieved March 09, 2011, from


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