January 2007

Problem is, what is the distinction between a belief held by someone because of their religion and a belief with the same effect held by someone with no religion?. I strongly believe that one person should not murder another, but not because I have a religion that says I must believe that. The next bod might believe exactly the same but because his god tells him so (or so he believes) I think we all of us, in this imperfect society, would prefer to see legislation against murder. Some people would claim though that their religious belief in the matter was validated by the law, – or that the law was validated by religion. So the legislation is claimed by all as part of their morality, and you can’t stop that.

I know that it’s a simplistic example, and I can see other possibilities that might be frightening when religious nuts run countries

My point about the good judge was that he used the law to uphold the separation of religion and state in the USA, and to prevent creationists having creation taught as a science in science classes at the instigation of members of a school board whose agenda was clearly religious and who perjured themselves about it

My personal position that I have yet to see evidence of a god/creator (although I have an open mind) does not extend to tolerance of those who are willing to lie to get themselves in a position to teach children some highly dubious stuff for purely religious motives. OK when they are old enough to be properly critical, but not before, and not with State help.

All the best

I hope you don’t mind an enormous response to your note. These are excellent points and very worth discussion!

Let me begin (as I often do in this type of conversation) with my two rules for acceptable philosophy. For a philosophy to be viable, I think we can agree that it must 1) not contradict itself, and 2) not condemn those who reason similarly. It’s that second rule – that you can’t condemn people for thinking the way you do – that is largely behind my feelings on religion and the law.

As you point out, people can use either reason or religion to come up with a legal rule. If people who think both ways come up with the same rule (in your example, the rule is to not do murder) then effectively it doesn’t matter where the rule came from. You are right that some people will think that this means they are legislating their religion, and I agree that is a problem. However, I think that people – even religious people – should be against legislating religion, if only for selfish reasons.

Let me go into a little more detail on that. By my second rule, I cannot say someone is wrong for thinking the way that I do. If I think that my religious principles should be enacted into law, then I can’t condemn someone with a different religious philosophy for thinking that their principles should be enacted into law. So if I live in a democracy, I’m saying that the religion of the majority should dictate the rule of law.

There are some Christians who, believing the United States a Christian nation, might say that this would be fine. What they forget is that even Christians do not all agree on what is morally allowed. There is disagreement on birth control, evolution, baptism, medical issues, and even on how many chapters are in the Bible. They don’t even agree on who should be considered a Christian. And if your group is still in the majority, are you confident that it will always be so? What if immigration brings with it a Catholic majority? What if changes in thought bring lead to an anti-religion majority? And even if you are confident that this country’s makeup won’t change, do you agree that the majority’s religion should rule in every country? Even if you move there? Even if they want to make practicing your particular beliefs illegal?

It is for all these reasons that I think that the influence of religious philosophy should be solely over how a religious person behaves. Rules of law should be created in a more objective manner. In many cases, these religious and objective rules would be the same, indicating that there needs to be no religious justification for passing them.

As an exercise, let’s take a look at the ten commandments and see which ones should be enacted into law. I’ll use the Protestant version of the commandments, as they are probably the most familiar.

1) “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Legislating this commandment would mean flat-out legislating religion. People who think that “all religions worship the same god” aside, there is just no way to legislatively define god with enough vigor to make this commandment both meaningful and enforceable as law.

2) “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.” The second commandment is very open to interpretation. Should the law say that no images of real things be made? Does this include paintings? Photographs? And if we agree that the commandment just means that no idols should be made, then do statues of saints count as idols in that they are not images of god? Does a statue of Jesus that doesn’t look like you think Jesus should look count as an idol? What about people who “worship” money? There is just too much room for abuse and arbitrary enforcement here.

3) “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” Limits on free speech are always dangerous. Should saying, “That piece of fish was good enough for Jehovah” be actionable? Is speaking against god or misrepresenting him misusing his name? What about cussing in the name of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph? Or cussing in the name of non-Christian gods? If we just want to outlaw cussing without going overboard, then why only outlaw cussing that mentions god? A more general no-foul-language law is probably what people would prefer (even though I’d argue that it’s probably a bad idea), so there’s no need to invoke religion.

4) “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.” There have been attempts to legislate this law, but they are, of necessity, full of exceptions. You don’t want to tell firefighters, for example, that there is a day they can’t work. What Sabbath do we enact into law? Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are all used by one religion or another. And how do we define work? Driving a car? Mowing the lawn? Building a model ship? Taking a shower? Enacting a strict no-working law, even with exceptions for emergency services, could also put the country at an economic disadvantage. Again, best to keep the government out of deciding these issues.

5) “Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” This is a nice rule for personal behavior in an ideal world, but it would probably be horribly abused as law. First of all, what does “honor” mean? Obey? Agree with? Just not talk back to? Second, who counts as your father and mother? Your birth parents? Adoptive parents? Estranged parents? Deadbeat dad? And finally, what if your parents do not deserve respect? How long should a child have to remain respectful to an abusive family? Is calling Social Services or reporting abuse to a teacher disrespecting your parents? No, far too many dangers in a law like this.

6) “Thou shalt not kill.” This is the first of the commandments that pretty much everyone thinks should also be a law. But because even non-religious people think it should be a law, the commandment is not necessary to justify it. There is also the problem that the commandment as stated doesn’t define “kill” very well. Does this just mean murder, or does it include killing in self defense? What about capital punishment? Or killing animals for food?

7) “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” There is not enough agreement on what constitutes adultery for people to agree that this should be a law. Is all sex outside of marriage adultery? Is it adultery if someone divorces and remarries? Are married couples who “swing” adulterers?

8) “Thou shalt not steal.” This is one of two commandments that work best as a law. There are still some grey areas concerning what is stealing, but they tend to be problematic for legal as opposed to religious reasons.

9) “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Taken as a prohibition against making false accusations, this is the second commandment that generally works well as a law.

10) “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” This is legally completely impossible to enforce and could cause intense social problems if enacted into law. It’s possible that, under a law such as this, watching a commercial could be a crime.

That was fun, and I hope that it highlights some of the reasons that government needs to stay out of the religion business.

If this means that certain subjects in public school science classes conflict with some religious beliefs, that’s okay so long as the reason those subjects are being taught has nothing to do with religion. True, this is inconvenient or upsetting to some religious people, but they should be able to explain the truth as they see it to their children, as well as explain how their criteria for truth differs from that of people with conflicting beliefs.

When we come right down to it, not basing law on religion helps guarantee the freedom to practice religion because it helps ensure that nobody else’s religion (or non-religion) will take priority over your own.

I am very tolerant of religion, but I agree with you that there should be little tolerance for those who try and use law to force their religious beliefs on others.

Posted on January 30, 2007 at 11:25 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: 2Q

Leave a Reply