Thursday, March 11, 2021

The New Religious Intolerance by Nussbaum- A Book Review

The New Religious Intolerance     

Overcoming the Politics of
Fear in an Anxious Age


Reviewed by

Philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum provides real world examples to illustrate the role of fear in sociopolitical actions. She identifies fear as “more narcissistic than other emotions.”

People who are different from us can evoke anxiety, which can become exaggerated into a call for action to reduce or eliminate the influence of the other group. In the examples, Nussbaum shows how people fail to consistently apply principles of respect for the religious values of people who are members of a minority religion in a pluralistic society. One example is the resistance toward a Muslim plan to build a cultural center in lower Manhattan. Another example is the concern of some Europeans with the facial coverings of Muslim women.

What I find particularly refreshing is her ability to clarify the role of human emotions in moral philosophy. So many arguments are derived from emotional responses as evident in the moral foundations research led by the work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues (see The Righteous Mind for example).

Whether the moral decision is at an individual or group level, Nussbaum’s comment on fear and narcissism is on point. Fear causes us to focus on self-preservation, which can be extreme when the level of fear is heightened. In fact, some nations color-code fear levels in response to real or perceived threats. Such activities can lead to bans that discriminate against those who are different including religious others.


A few quotes

     At this time we badly need an approach inspired by ethical philosophy in the spirit of Socrates, an approach that combines three ingredients: Political 
• principles expressing equal respect for all citizens, and an understanding of what these principles entail for today’s confrontations with religious difference. (These principles already inhere in the political traditions of both Europe and, especially, the United States.)
• Rigorous critical thinking that ferrets out and criticizes inconsistencies, particularly those that take the form of making an exception for oneself, noting the “mote” in someone else’s eye while failing to note the large plank in one’s own eye.
• A systematic cultivation of the “inner eyes,” the imaginative capacity that makes it possible for us to see how the world looks from the point of view of a person different in religion or ethnicity. 
     These ethical virtues are always helpful in a complicated
world. (Nussbaum, 2012, pp. 2-3)

     Strong experimental evidence, in fact, suggests that vivid imagining leads, other things equal, to helping behavior. For many years Daniel Batson of the University of Kansas has conducted a long series of rigorous experiments testing this proposition. (Nussbaum, 2012, p. 145)

     Unpopular minorities face demands on their behavior that majorities do not typically face. They have to watch themselves and hesitate, asking whether they are doing everything in their power so as not to give offense. For majorities, by contrast, the world is made in their image, so to speak: the general shape of public culture expresses their sense of life, and they can relax, secure in the belief that their normal ways of behaving will not give offense: they define what “normal” is. (Nussbaum, 2012, pp. 220-221)

     "Those are the analogies; where are disanalogies?" (Nussbaum, 2012, p. 227)

     The history of Catholic condemnation of Jews as Christ-killers is long and ugly, and there is absolutely no doubt that it played a significant role in the Holocaust, whether or not it played as large a role as some historians have believed. (Nussbaum, 2012, p. 228)

     We have said, however, that consistency is not everything we need. We also need correct and informed moral perceptions, in order to make sure that our arguments are not self-serving. And we’ve also suggested that these attitudes of curiosity, empathy, and friendship help to sustain commitments to good principles that might fray in times of stress. (Nussbaum, 2012, pp. 230-231)

     Empathy is just one ingredient in a moral argument. Putting yourself in the place of another does not tell you whether they are right or fair: only linking their view of the world to an overall ethical argument will do that. Empathy, however, does do something important, showing us the human reality of other people whom we might have seen as disgusting or subhuman, or as mere aliens and
threats. (Nussbaum, 2012, p. 231)

     People who think only of the victims are likely to be unbalanced in their sympathies, failing to see how the world looks through the eyes of stigmatized minorities. (Nussbaum, 2012, p. 232)

     The idea that political principles should not plump for one religion over others and should show equal respect to the liberty of all did a lot better in the American colonies and, ultimately, in the new nation, which forged basically adequate principles for dealing with today’s problems of religious diversity and suspicion. The reality, however, has always been less glorious than the principles, as Roman Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses—and of course Native Americans—all fared ill in concrete searches for equality. Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, largely kept at bay by immigration policy, were not even seriously considered until very recently.  (Nussbaum, 2012, p. 243)


About the Author

Martha C. Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, appointed in the Law School and the Philosophy Department. Among her many awards are the 2018 Berggruen Prize, the 2017 Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the 2016 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy.


Nussbaum, M.C. (2012). The new religious intolerance: overcoming the politics of fear in an anxious age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.

Cite this review

Sutton, G.W. (2021, March 11). The new religious intolerance by Nussbaum. Sutton Reviews

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