Illiberal societies identify one religion, or related group of religions, that rule. Liberal societies try to accommodate the multiplicity of mutually exclusive religious doctrines. One approach is an ecumenical accommodation built on a watered down, common denominator, general religion, with a focus on monotheism, or on theism more generally. Some governments establish this ecumenical religion as their civic religion. An assumption of such civic religion is that religious beliefs warrant respect. Some people are influenced to endorse this respect for religion principle by the notions that liberalism requires respecting pluralism and esteeming diversity of beliefs. Other people associate government establishment of ecumenical civic religion with religious toleration and freedom of worship. But is government establishment of ecumenical civic religion really liberal?
Beneath this accommodation there remain unresolved potential sources of conflict. There is the unaltered totality, supremacy, and singular exclusivity that persists in the doctrine of individual religions. Jesus Christ’s declaration is “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Civic religion says that although Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc., are not your way and as a result you are to suffer eternal damnation, or whatever the punishment is that the particular religious doctrine dictates infidels are to suffer, you should respect them. Civic religion says a god exists (or multiple gods exist), and that citizens are, or at least should be, monotheists (or theists), regardless of, and contrary to, the weight of the overall available evidence otherwise. These are illiberal expectations.
Such respect, built on self-censorship, fear of disunity, and an incomplete non-sectarianism, is artificial and superficial. There is no good reason to treat religious beliefs any differently from other beliefs, and nothing other than circular reasoning to argue that a nonbeliever should acknowledge any religious doctrine as anything more than just another set of ideas. No religion, as a system of belief and a practice of living, is automatically deserving of respect just because others opt to commit to it. Ideas, whatever label we affix to them, must earn our respect intellectually, and not be awarded our respect uncritically.
There is good reason to proffer mere toleration for beliefs of all sorts. Until we find our way to that truth that is the one way for all (which will probably be atheism), or that coherently permits multiple ways for all (toss in deism), tolerance is the pragmatic common ground for living in peace. But religions do not always keep to themselves. They may sometimes impinge on their neighbors. When they do, we need to consider religious doctrines as we would any other set of ideas or any other argument or claim about the nature of the world. Just like we need to justify our non-religious claims about the nature of the world in empirical evidence, so too with religious claims, particularly when they try to assert relevance over determining our behaviors, defining our self-identities, or setting government policies.
Over the last several weeks we have witnessed the spectacle of Islamists overseas protesting for the U.S. government to arrest some of our citizens for placing a video on the internet that was dubbed to depict the founder of their religion as a scoundrel and then translated into Arabic. Some of the protests turned violent. Most Islamic governments tend towards illiberalism, some censor the internet, some have blasphemy laws. Most of our citizens don't want our government to censor the internet or enact blasphemy laws. Yet there is still an illiberal, unearned respect for religious claims in our government's established civic religion that goes beyond any need to respect freedom of conscience. Government establishment of a civic religion improperly cedes to religious claims an automatic respect. We are a liberal society relative to other societies, but our establishments of monotheism are illiberal.