Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life - Part 08

A member of the studio audience has asked that I comment on the Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life, a product of the World Atheist Conference: God and Politics.

Today: Proposition 8:

We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.

I do not see how "one law for all" is even possible, let alone whether it has ever been practiced.

There are laws that prohibit people from performing certain actions unless they have a particular license or certification. Military veterans are entitled to considerations and privileges that others do not have. Of course, the laws treat children different from adults in terms not only of types of punishment but even the types of actions that are considered illegal.

Of course, we could loosen our definition of "one law for all" so that it captures all of these types of exceptions. We could say that "one law for all" is not violated by laws that state, "if you are a licensed physician, then you may prescribe drugs."

However, when we loosen up the definition of "one law for all" to this extent, then there would be no violation of this principle to have a law that states that, "If you choose to be a Muslim, then you shall be subject to the courts of the Muslim religion on all matters of concern to that faith."

Having said this, these exceptions and qualifications written into the law in the cases I described are not to be put there for random or arbitrary reason. There special powers and immunities granted because it serves a social purpose - because it makes sense to treat these situations differently. We grant licensed doctors the power to prescribe drugs because they have (allegedly) demonstrated a level of knowledge and concern necessary to do so competently and in ways that serve the public interest.

There is no such argument to be made in defense of religious courts.

The establishment of religious courts consists of nothing less than giving the leaders of a church the ability to summon state violence against the members of this church.

This is the fundamental nature of both criminal and civil courts. In each case they render a verdict backed by people with guns such that if those who come before the court do not obey the judge, then they will be made to suffer at the hands of people with guns.

I want to stress this point because I think it falls squarely under the category of, "I hope they do not notice this part." The fundamental characteristic of a religious court is to give religious leaders - those who take it upon themselves to interpret religious text - to summon state violence against church members who do not follow their interpretations.

We can well understand why the leaders of churches would wish to be able to call upon those with guns to enforce their decisions on the members of the church. However, there is little reason to understand what public service this would provide for the rest of us.

Church leaders already have the option of playing the role of voluntary arbitrator to those who are having a dispute. People already have a right to ask a religious leader, "What should I do?" and then decide whether or not to accept the suggestion. No religous court is necessary to exercise this particular freedom.

If church leaders actually do wish to summon state violence against those members who do not behave as the leaders think they should behave, there are already mechanisms available to accomplish that. They can have their church members enter into a contract whereby, in exchange for the privileged of obtaining certain church services, the member agrees to abide by a certain set of rules.

Then, the church leaders would have the power to summon its members before the court on the charge of breach of contract.

And members would have the same power to do the same thing to the church leaders.

This latter part is probably the part of the equation that the church leaders would be uncomfortable with. It also explains why the church leaders would like to run the court and appoint the judges, rather than appeal to a civil court that is outside of the jurisdiction of the church. When comparing the option of appearing as equals before and independent and impartial tribunal, and appearing before a tribunal that is under one's direct authority, there is little reason to marvel at the fact that there are church leaders asking for the second option.

Another problem with the contract option, at least from the point of view of religious leaders wanting the power to summon state violence against members who misbehave, is that it can only be applied to competent members who willingly sign such a contract.

First, the church leaders might have difficulty finding many people willing to sign such a contract.

Second, many of those who do sign will almost certainly seek to negotiate terms that are in their interests, and that impose duties and costs on the church leaders.

Third, contracts come with escape clauses whose only condition is that the person wanting to escape cover the reasonable costs of the other parties to the contract.

It is far better, at least from the point of view of the church leaders, to impose a contract on its members where the leaders get to dictate the terms and appoint the judges that interpret the contract.

As a tax-paying member of the general public, my answer is, "No, you may not have the power to call upon the state-run instruments of violence that I help pay for to use against those members of your congregation that you judge to be misbehaving according to your interpretations of scripture. Whatever relationship you have with your church members, it is one you must try to maintain without the aid of the instruments of state violence."

Previous Episodes:

Proposition 1: We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.

Proposition 2: We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.

Proposition 3: We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.

Proposition 4: We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.

Proposition 5: We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.

Proposition 6: We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.

Proposition 7: We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce [6]. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.

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