The Limits of Tolerance

Enlightenment Values and Religious Fanaticism

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Denis Lacorne
C. Jon Delogu
Robin Emlein
Religion, Culture, and Public Life
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , May
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Limits of Tolerance, Denis Lacorne explores the history of tolerance since the Enlightenment to show its shifting limits in an increasingly pluralistic world. The introduction explains how modern tolerance exceeded premodern toleration. Toleration describes the “political act” of putting up with other religions to maintain peace. In contrast, tolerance is the virtue of welcoming acceptance tied to secular values such as freedom of speech and religion. Lacorne criticizes political theorists who picture tolerance merely as Foucauldian governmentality. For political theorists such as Wendy Brown, says Lacorne, tolerance is simply “a smokescreen by Western liberals to reinforce the oppression of ethnic minorities and nontraditional gender groups” (4). While acknowledging how Westerners have used religious tolerance to legitimize hegemony, Lacorne wants to show how religious tolerance can build consensus around secular values.

Although he does not expressly organize the book into parts, Lacorne’s overall argument logically divides into two parts. The first part comprises chapters 1–5. In these chapters, Lacorne gives us a concise history of tolerance and tolerant practices in Western and non-Western societies. In the second part, chapters 6–10, Lacorne looks at contemporary legal issues concerning religious tolerance.

Because he believes that critics of tolerance use a simplified historical narrative that only focuses on the 20th century and western Europe, Lacorne briefly reviews the philosophical underpinnings and practices of tolerance across multiple centuries and continents. For Lacorne, the philosophical underpinnings of modern tolerance are European, and he draws on John Locke and Voltaire as philosophical sources. The book does not include non-Western philosophers, and it would have benefited from the inclusion. There are similar issues with Lacorne’s historical examples of tolerance waxing and waning in the colonial United States, the Ottoman Empire, and the commercial city of Venice. Unlike his philosophical survey, the practical examples include a non-Western context. He uses the Ottoman Empire to further his larger argument that tolerance amounts to more than “a clash of civilizations,” that is, dominating Western culture versus the nondominant non-Western culture (8). However, the Ottoman Empire also serves as an example of regressive tolerant practices. Since Lacorne provided examples of Western advancement and regression in tolerance practices, the book would have benefited from a positive example of a non-Western government advancing in tolerant practices. These inclusions would have strengthened his argument that tolerance transcends the Western and non-Western divide.

In the book’s second part, Lacorne’s argument takes on a decidedly legal overtone. He passionately writes about government censorship, commercial censorship, and self-censorship. In particular, France’s Charlie Hebdo controversy provides an overarching context for thinking about how censorship affects free speech and free exercise of religion. Lacorne raises salient questions about canceling unpopular speech against or about minority religions in a free society. However, he does not critically explore the distinction between government, market, and popular censorship. For example, in the United States, nongovernmental actors and individual citizens have the right to censor speech they deem hateful, profane, or intolerant. It is an important distinction that any legal analyst must deal with upfront. The difference is critical because the government has the legitimate power to deprive persons of their life, liberty, and property. No individual has the legitimate right to this type of coercive power over another person. All forms of tolerance and intolerance rest on legitimate coercive power.

Most of the book’s second part explores and takes issue with what Lacorne calls multicultural tolerance, which seeks to preserve, protect, and accommodate the traditions and rituals of minority groups. Lacorne laments the reluctance of Western secular elites “to admit that religious beliefs cannot really be separated from cultural practices” (6). He believes that multicultural tolerance often masquerades as religious tolerance or accommodations. “In the delicate search for a satisfying balance between what is permitted and what is prohibited in the realm of religious freedom,” maintains Lacorne, “it is best to avoid ‘the mirage of perfect fairness’” or an “absolute truth about good exemptions and bad exemptions” (151). He, therefore, looks at how French and United States courts have struggled to articulate neutrality principles in religious accommodations. The book concludes with Lacorne’s reflection on the requirement of radical openness and open-mindedness in a tolerant secular society. This openness paradoxically requires the friends of tolerance not to tolerate the enemies of tolerance.

Lacorne’s work deals specifically with the limits of religious tolerance in a secular world, but he never explores the liminality between religion and secularity. Lacorne never defines religion but does define religious tolerance. He describes religious tolerance as a “consensual system of religious coexistence between a multiplicity of comprehensive religious doctrines and a secular political order” that only works “if people (and their rulers) can detach themselves from their own religious (or secular) conception of good and agree to cooperate in the public sphere” (8). This definition does not wrestle with the distinctions between religious and secular beliefs. For example, the US Supreme Court has broadly defined religion to include certain forms of secular humanism. In both United States v. Seeger and Welsh v. United States, the Court upheld religious exemptions from involuntary military service based on nontraditional, nontheistic beliefs because the claims addressed what theologian Paul Tillich describes as “ultimate concerns.” Scholars of religion such as Charles Long also broadly define religion as orientation or modes of meaning-making that help people come to terms with their ultimate significance in the world. In his definition of religious tolerance, Lacorne admits that secularism is his ultimate concern and orientation. Using these more expansive definitions of religion, one could argue that the secular order is a religious order. Future works on religious tolerance might explore the tension between secular and other nonsecular “religious” doctrines.

Lacorne’s book provides thought-provoking questions about the terms of tolerance. It does not offer a comprehensive intellectual and political history of tolerance; instead, the book responds to critics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Byron DeAndre Wratee is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Boston College.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Denis Lacorne is senior research fellow with the CERI (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales) at Sciences Po, Paris.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.