After writing my previous post, I read Gillan’s excellent post over at the God and Politics blog, which I do commend to you. At the bottom of the article, he linked through to an article on the Theos Think Tank website, written by a Christian barrister, entitled “Is Secular Law possible?” I would encourage anyone who has an interest (either positive or negative) in religion in the public sphere to read it. It’s not a short article but it will be well worth your time.
It basically argues: (1) secularist law – i.e. law which excludes any religious influence – is impossible, but ‘secular’ law (understood correctly) is possible; (2) secular law is only possible because of Christian foundations in distinguishing between law and morality; (3) secular law is imperative, the idea of limited government logically comes from Christian foundations.
In these days of alleged ‘militant secularism’, I think it’s high time that these kind of issues got out into the open and were actually discussed rather than simply being assumed. What kind of secular society do we want? I don’t think we want a secular society which can be used as a weapon against religion. To whet your appetite for the article, I’d like to quote from the first section on morality, which puts rather more eloquently what I have said here before:
It is almost impossible for us to think ourselves outside of the Judaeo-Christian understandings of who human beings are and how they should relate to one another that we have inherited. We react with shock when we discover that Aristotle, the Philosopher, believed that slavery was natural, that some people were fit to be no more than living tools for others. We are horrified when we understand how caste prejudice affects the Dalits, the Untouchables, whose common humanity is denied. We couch our debates about euthanasia in terms of the suffering of the old, chronically ill and dying, because it is unthinkable for us that they should be exterminated simply because they are now no longer contributing to society or able to fend for themselves.
We react in these ways because our public morality, our universal, reasonable, liberal morality tells us that no reasonable or sane person could think in those terms. And yet, what we believe to be reasonable turns out to have been profoundly influenced by Christianity’s teachings. The architects of our universal, reasonable, liberal morality are John Locke, great Enlightenment philosopher but also a lifelong member of the Anglican church and author of The Reasonableness of Christianity; Immanuel Kant, a child of Pietist parents who attempted to defend religion in the aftermath of David Hume’s scepticism by writingReligion within the Bounds of Reason Alone; and most recently John Rawls, who seriously considered being ordained in the Episcopal Church before turning to a life of writing as a political philosopher.
The issue is not about the strength of the religious convictions of each of these three men. It is that the assumptions these men made – about the equality of all human beings (in the case of Locke), the need to adopt maxims of action which you would accept others applying also (in the case of Kant), and the need for society to be justified by reference to its treatment of its weakest members (in the case of Rawls) – are all assumptions which we accept as reasonable, even as ‘natural’, because they and we are the products of a civilization in which Christianity has had a significant influence.
What this means is that neutral secular law, law as doing nothing more than providing a neutral playing field, is an impossibility. There is no neutral playing field. A public square from which religious influences are excluded is not a neutral public square. It is a public square in which all influences bar the secularist ones have been censored. That is not a public square in which everyone’s voice is heard and everyone’s views are respected, it is a public square in which religious voices are silenced and anti-religious views are imposed. This is not a tolerant society, it is a tyrannous society. [My emphasis]
We seem to face, therefore, a choice between a secularist legal system on the one hand and a Christian legal system on the other. A secularist legal system clearly is a possibility. Indeed, it is an experiment which has been tried in the twentieth century, most obviously in the Soviet Union, but the results were not a good advertisement for ‘secularist law’.
I think this is worth paying serious consideration to. If you systematically eliminate religion from the public square, you don’t stop having to make moral decisions. It just means the moral decisions you make will be made by … well, what exactly?
That’s exactly what worries me about a secular society. If you exclude a Christian moral framework from having any influence on public policy making, you could replace it with pretty much anything you like. We in the UK may think certain moral choices are “obvious” or “natural”, but I wonder whether that is simply because we have lived in a country which has been highly influenced by Christianity. What are we replacing Christianity with? Do we even know? Surely that is a conversation worth having.