Reason, law and religious freedom

The following guest post is a lightly-edited version of a paper that first appeared on the website of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics. Stephen Williams, Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological College, Belfast, explores one of the basic theoretical issues in law & religion.


Judgement on the proper place of religious freedom in relation to law is affected by the perception of how religion stands in relation to rationality. Seven consequences of the supposition that religious belief is irrational are briefly set out, and their bearing noted on the question of conscience.


In the contemporary debate on the law and religious freedom, ‘religion’ is often conceived in a way that prejudices the terms of the debate. This article explores the effects on our approach to the question of law and religious freedom of the assumption that religion is irrational, whether this means contrary to reason or incapable of being rationally established.[1] I shall pass over three questions: 1. how religion should be defined, whether in philosophy, theology or law; 2. how desirable a legal definition is, whether at national, European or international level; 3. what status religious liberties should have in relation to other liberties. A fourth question, indirectly related to the third, will be touched on, but not examined: the question of whether religious belief should be a protected characteristic precisely because it is religious, or because it shares relevant characteristics with non-religious moral beliefs or philosophical belief-systems that are equally entitled to protection.

‘Religion’ is here understood in its ordinary-language sense and so excludes atheism. As far as I can tell, the supposition about religious irrationality has consequences in at least seven relevant areas.

Seven consequences of viewing religion as irrational

  1. ‘Neutrality’ in the public domain becomes equated with secularity or secularism. In ordinary language, neutrality in relation to religion ought to mean neutral as between the religious and secular. However, where religion is regarded as irrational, and the secular, lacking religious content, is understood as rational, it is not surprising that the neutral becomes identified with the secular. It is hard to be benignly neutral as between the rational and the irrational.
  1. If the public square is neutral and the neutral is secular, religion is appropriately assigned to the private domain. Frederick Gedicks observed that ‘[l]iberal government…treats religious beliefs neutrally – as subjective value preferences restricted to private life, rather than as objective knowledge proper to public life’.[2] If religious beliefs were regarded as rational, presumably we should be less willing to describe them as subjective value-preferences and more willing to regard them as capable of objective knowledge and, as such, qualified to give guidance in public life.
  1. Religious conscience entertains scruples and generates expressions which may be accommodated in a secular state but are not candidates for the status of providers of the substance of public policy. The word ‘conscience’ connotes a private and subjective phenomenon, whether belonging to the individual or to the group. Possessing this form, its substantive claims have no critical right to challenge the public policy to which it is opposed; it is solely a question of allowing conscience its private sphere. It is consigned to the domain of scruple.
  1. When religious autonomy is granted (whether or not we use ‘autonomy’ to indicate a sphere in which religion is legitimately exercised) this lies in the gift of the state. Rational autonomy does not; the state is at its service. Democracy accommodates the religious, regarded as irrational, but its foundations are rational and the state is the instrument of rational order. (I gloss over the important but independent question of the proper foundation and role of the state.)
  1. Equality begins to gain an advantage over liberty in the event of actual or potential collision. Religious liberty is generally important but particular religious liberties are naturally assigned to the domain of exception and of possibility; they may even be granted in the spirit of concession. Equality, on the other hand, occupies the domain of the normative and the necessary. Thus Eisgruber and Sager: ‘…The secular goal upon which religious liberty rests [is] the equality of persons’; ‘the point of religious liberty’ is ‘equal regard’.[3] Where religion is irrational and equality is a rational principle, the detailed application of this formulation puts equality in a good position to trump liberty in the case of perceived conflict.
  1. Tacit belief in progress is apparently in evidence when it is assumed that to be ‘on the side of history’ is, by definition, a good thing. At any rate, an implicit doctrine or, at least, a limited narrative of progress is required when steps are taken to displace or marginalise religion in public life. These are steps in the progress of rationality. The Enlightenment project is basically intact, albeit developed, refined or tweaked. Any sign that religion is necessary for human flourishing is a sign of rational limits and an unacceptable denial that secular reason is intellectually sufficient for social progress.
  1. The enforcement of morals in the name of reason becomes palatable. In the celebrated debate between Lord Devlin and H. L. A. Hart following the publication of the 1957 Wolfenden Report, which recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Hart is widely supposed to have been on the side of history and of reason in supporting a modified version of Mill’s objection to the role of law in the enforcement of morals.[4] However, if equality, for example, is a rational moral requirement and what stands in its way is irrational, then its enforcement looks simply like an implementation of justice.[5]

Responding to the claims of irrationality

What shall we say in response? Because of the diversity of religions, it is impossible to state the relation of reason to ‘religion’ in general. Moreover, the concept of reason requires as much scrutiny as does the concept of religion. Whatever judgement we make on postmodernism, whether on its cultural influence or its intellectual merits, the public rhetoric of equality, liberty and rights is in salient respects strikingly free of its influence. Rational norms are assumed, whether this is for better or for worse.

Christian thinkers, like secular thinkers, will respond to the language or supposition of rational norms in different ways. However, those amongst them who concur in the conviction that there are rational norms will believe that their faith sustains a rational morality, along one or more of the following lines (though they may also reject one or more of these lines). Firstly, Christian moral tenets are demonstrably rational. Secondly, the foundational theological claims of Christianity are rational and this provides an indirect, though firm, support for those tenets. Thirdly, the vantage-point of faith allows what is rational to come into focus, faith functioning as spectacles so that the eyes of reason see properly and see well.

Correspondingly, the Christian may hold that a non-religious secular moral perspective is rationally weak, whether (a) in substance, (b) with respect to foundation or (c) in explanatory power. Now the question of the legal balance of competing rights, where religion is involved, begins to look very different from the way it looks from within a typically secularist framework. Indeed it also looks different if we settle just for the claim that the state, on the basis of either an explicit or a working principle, must regard secular and religious perspectives as equally rational.

In pondering and making proposals on the relation of law to religious freedom, should we, then, seek to press for the recognition that, at least in the case of Christianity, we are dealing with rational proposals? The philosophical and theological debate over reason and faith, rationality and Christianity, demands greater attention than it can be given here if we are to answer this question properly. But what we can at least say is that we, as Christians, do need to show in what sense we regard Christianity as rational, whether we have in mind its religious foundations or its moral tenets.

Religion in the public square

If, for purposes of discussion, we allow Christianity to do proxy for religion ad hoc, a question naturally arises as to the proper use and fruitfulness of the concept of religion in the public square. Take the case of Ashers Bakery, which has received international attention: a Belfast-based Christian firm which refused to ice a cake with a message which promoted gay marriage, because its owners objected to gay marriage on biblical grounds, was found guilty of wrongful discrimination in the provision of goods and services. (As I write, a process of appeal is under way.) I am not a lawyer and do not here comment either on the legal strength of the judgment or on legal aspects of the case. There are social circumstances attending this sequence of events which are peculiar to Northern Ireland, having to do with the religious and political legacy of ‘the Troubles’, the Good Friday Agreement and the changed political landscape against the background of frequently negative cultural perceptions of religion in the province today. Still, reference to the case is more widely relevant.

In both the popular arena and (in a more technical way) on the judicial scene, the competing demands were couched in terms of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and the rights of religious conscience. Leaving aside the legal framework within whose constraints the case was prosecuted, we note that the question of sexual orientation was actually irrelevant. No service was refused on grounds of sexual orientation and the supplementary facts that (a) some homosexually active gay people are opposed to gay marriage and (b) some people who support gay marriage also support Ashers’ right to act as it did have frequently been marginalised in public discussion in Northern Ireland. However, our concern is with religion. Paul Givan, a member of the Stormont Legislative Assembly, drew up a Private Members’ Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill which was the subject of consultation. In light of the case then being brought against Ashers via the Equality Commission, its aim was to redress perceived legislative imbalance so that the rights of conscience of religious believers were not unjustly outweighed by the right of people not to be discriminated against.

In the Amendment Bill, there was deliberate reference to conscientious objection to military service, in order to show that the bill does not amount to special pleading. Further, many who have sided with Ashers have also and pointedly defended the right of an atheistic printing firm to refuse to print literature promoting the cause of religion or of a printing firm owned by gay people to refuse to print literature proclaiming that homosexuality is an evil. Where these arguments, along with the right of conscientious objection to military service, are invoked, it is clear that the rights of religious conscience are being viewed not as sui generis, but as species of a general right to withhold goods and services in the public square on what we may broadly or more strictly term moral grounds. However, because Ashers indicated that its objection was grounded on biblical teaching, this obscured the possibility of viewing the issue in a ‘non-religious’ light.[6] If the generic notion of religion did not already effect this occlusion, the fact that the Bible was cited as the source of religious and moral conviction meant that the perceived gulf between religion and reason encompassed the whole issue.

Comparing the judiciary with the legislature and the executive, John Rawls observed: ‘…Because the justices have to explain and justify their decisions as based on their understanding of the constitution and relevant statutes and precedents…the court’s special role makes it the exemplar of public reason’.[7] When religious belief is viewed as either opposed or standing in radical contrast to public reason, judgement – whether in the legal sense of adjudication or the informal sense of assessment – is warped.[8] A pertinent example is Baroness Hale’s address on ‘Religion and Sexual Orientation: The Clash of Equality Rights’.[9] This is an example of particular interest in Northern Ireland because, in this lecture, she responded critically to remarks by John Larkin, the Northern Ireland Attorney General, on the case of Preddy v Bull, where the owners of a private hotel were found guilty of discrimination when they refused to provide a room for a homosexual couple. Larkin had himself criticized Baroness Hale’s judgment on that occasion.

Baroness Hale’s lecture is a revelation of what legal deliberation looks like when it is directly shaped by secular assumptions about the relation of reason to religion. ‘Religious faith is necessarily subjective’; religion is ‘a belief system which goes beyond that which can be perceived by the senses or ascertained by the application of science’. Hale is quoting Lord Justice Laws and Lord Toulson, and proof is hardly required for the proposition that these three are no exceptions in the way in which they view religion.[10] ‘Necessarily subjective’ is apparently understood as ‘necessarily not objective’; going beyond the senses or science is apparently understood as going beyond evidence so that belief is depleted of rational content.


In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of ‘every great philosophy’ so far that its ‘moral (or immoral) intentions…constitute the actual living seed from which the entire plant has grown…one always does well (and wisely) to first ask oneself, in explaining how the most far-fetched metaphysical claims of a philosopher came about: at what morality is it (or is he -) aimed?’[11] He had earlier written: ‘What decides against Christianity now is our taste, not our reasons.’[12] That was in 1882. If we aspire to plot aright the relation of religion to reason in the hope that this will be of public aid, we must keep both sayings in mind, at least where the Western scene is concerned. However fruitless it seems, we must surely keep up a persistent quarrel with the assumption that religion and reason are enemies, at least where Christianity is in question. ‘Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things’, said the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, ‘while I was still searching but not finding, I found one upright man among a thousand’ (7:27-28, NIV, slightly modified). It is worth undertaking this for the sake of one man or one woman in a thousand, undertaking it in the hope that we ourselves should be numbered amongst those who are receptive to the right, the good and the true.

Stephen Williams


[1] For present purposes, I am collapsing notions of ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’, ‘reasonableness’ and the ‘rational’ which, in other contexts, require studious distinction.

[2] Quoted in Rex Ahdar and Ian Leigh, Religious Freedom in the Liberal State, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2013), 68.

[3] Quoted in Adhar and Leigh, Religious Freedom, 78, from their article, ‘Unthinking Religious Freedom’ (reference supplied in Adhar and Leigh, ad loc).

[4] Lord Devlin’s 1959 Maccabean Lecture, which sparked off the debate, later appeared in Patrick Devlin, The Enforcement of Morals.

(Oxford University Press, 1965). Hart replied to the original lecture in Law, Liberty and Morality (Oxford University Press, 1963).

[5] Discussing the Devlin-Hart debate almost fifty years ago, Basil Mitchell, having remarked ‘that there appears to be no necessary connexion between the claim that the law may be used to enforce morality and moral conservatism’, adds that it ‘is conceivable…that circumstances might arise in which radicals were in favour of enforcing an “enlightened” morality’, Law, Morality, and Religion in a Secular Society (Oxford University Press, 1970), 46.

[6] No judgement is involved here one way or the other on the approach adopted by Ashers. Further, what I say is said without prejudice to the persuasiveness or otherwise of Roger Trigg’s argument that claims to the universality of religions are ‘fatally undermined’ if religious freedom is ‘regarded, not as any special kind of freedom, let alone the root of all freedoms, but as an instance of a particular kind of democratic right’ (Equality, Freedom and Religion [Oxford University Press, 2012], 55). Trigg holds that, if religious freedom is just a ‘species of freedom of conscience… [t]his underestimates the importance of religion in helping to form answers of [sic] the most fundamental questions about the place of humans in the world’ (152).

[7] John Rawls, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1996), 216. Here, I both generalise on the basis of what Rawls said about the US Supreme Court and treat public reason in a broader, less strict sense than does Rawls himself.

[8] In the good old days, ‘judgment’ meant legal adjudication, ‘judgement’ meant general assessment.

[9] Lady Hale, “Religion and Sexual Orientation: The Clash of Equality Rights” Lecture, Comparative and Administrative Law Conference, Yale Law School, March 2014.

[10] Roger Trigg has discussed Lord Justice Laws’ views in Equality, Freedom and Religion, 142-45. For a glaring example of ignorance about philosophical thinking in religion, see the treatment of Intelligent Design by Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence G. Sager, Religious Freedom and the Constitution (Harvard University Press, 2007), 185-96; cf., 281. It is strikingly at odds with the general tenor of discussion in this volume. My remark neither entails agreement with Intelligent Design nor demurral from the authors’ proposal for Equal Liberty.

[11] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil/On the Genealogy of Morality, tr., Adrian Del Carro (Stanford University Press, 2014), 9.

[12] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, tr., Josefine Nauckhoff (Cambridge University Press, 2001), 123.


Cite this article as: Stephen Williams, “Reason, law and religious freedom” in Law & Religion UK, 2? January 2016,

13 thoughts on “Reason, law and religious freedom

  1. A very thoughtful and reflective post. I could not agree more as Catholics have been marginalised and ridiculed for their beliefs against a backdrop of left wing ideology that mocks our morality, family and sexuality (as between a Man and a Woman). I do care (very much) what happens in our old age and ‘after life’ (heredity), I do care that the country is run by people claiming to be ‘reasonable and fair’ and yet despise Catholics ‘reasonable requests’ in the public sphere at every opportunity. These are the same people who protest that Church Parking is somehow ‘offensive’, that Sunday Church is ‘discriminatory’ against those that ‘don’t, the praise of a Muslim identity in preference to a Catholic identity. The refusal to acknowledge the value of Catholic Schools and Colleges, Churches and their ‘morality’ (i.e. BBC Saville style morality) over the moral chaos of believing in nothing but but either (1) the Bank of England, or (2) further EU integration which will undermine Catholic identity and religious beliefs as being based on any ‘WISDOM’ the West had. This pillar of the West is being demolished and replaced with uncertainty, fear and loathing of an increasingly totalitarian state (here as in the EU generally applies). If you believe in nothing, there is no morality to support and hence we see the Courts increasingly at odds with what was once reasonable, fair and just. There is state persecution and it is not just Catholics but the very fabric of what was a cohesive nation state that had a reputation of being reasonable, fair and just. That has been replaced with unreasonable, unfair and corrupted.

      • Of course the UK is nowhere near that level of totalitarianism. But it’s also far less tolerant, and there is far less state tolerance of, let alone support for, dissent, free speech or privacy than there used to be. The direction of travel is clear.

  2. Pingback: Reason, law and religious freedom – Law and Religion | Fulcrum Anglican

  3. A wordy way of saying – ‘we want to be allowed to discriminate’. Similar arguments were used against, women, Jews, blacks, Irish and so on.

    Society has moved on – so should Christians.

    • No – as I read it, the article is saying that it’s not good enough simply to assert/assume that religion is irrational. Some forms of religion no doubt are, but the prevailing secular assumption that they all are is manifestly false.

      • i read it that way as well. That said, I happen to disagree with the claim.

        A religion can be regarded a rational system if you accept the basic premise on which it is founded; but if you don’t, it’s not – see Richard Dawkins passim. As it happens, I believe in God (which not all Quakers do): but that, at least for me, is a matter of faith, not of reason. At the risk of appearing flippant, it’s the Enoch Powell fallacy: Powell almost always conducted arguments with unimpeachable logic, but did so from premises that were sometimes verging on the absurd.

  4. Professor Stephen Williams has presented an appeal for equality of respect for religion and secularism in the framing of laws and the judgment derived from judicial tests of those laws.

    He asserts that if (and offers an instance of this being the case in recent times) religion is regarded as “irrational” and secular systems “rational” then religious freedom is unfairly limited.

    I would suggest that rationality in judgement would be comparable to deduction. These are not the same because a court room is not a scientific experiment and coming to a judgment in law not the same process as conducting a mathematical proof. But broadly speaking we begin with a set of axioms and by the operation of a soundly devised calculus arrive at a conclusion.

    I agree with Professor Williams that this process is perfectly possible within a system of religious thought.

    The Islamic suicide bomber [1] is completely rational in his actions. He [2] uses a number of axioms (precepts).
    • There is a supernatural creator of the universe to which the name Allah is given.
    • Allah is capable of communicating with humanity and has done so through his prophet Mohammed.
    • Allah has indicated (through his prophet) that he wishes all of humanity to follow the prophet.
    • There is an afterlife.
    • Those who do not believe the above lead worthless lives and will suffer eternal torment in the afterlife.
    • The true believer can attain paradise in the afterlife by dying while destroying unbelievers. [3]

    The suicide bomber, from these precepts, makes the logical and rational (given that they are true) decision to make a bomb, place it in a rucksack and detonate it on a crowded train or bus when he is surrounded by unbelievers.

    In claiming that religion in general and Christianity in particular can be rational Professor Williams conceals the fact that rational results using deduction are only obtained if the precepts provided by religion are true.

    Professor Williams chooses to use the cases of Ashers Bakery and Preddy versus Bull as demonstration of secular rationalism trumping religious scruples.

    I would like to think that our law-making and judicial decisions have a utilitarian rather than a strictly rational basis. I rather like the principle stated in On Liberty by John Stuart Mill that the citizen should be free to think and do as she/he wishes given that this does not harm or limit the liberties of her/his fellow citizens. This is a pragmatic rather than a dogmatic approach to law. It is why laws against smoking required confirmation of damage to the health of others by “second-hand” smoke rather than just damage to the health of the smoker.

    So the issue in the above two cases is between the liberty of the baker and the hotelier on the one hand to choose who to serve based upon the beliefs and moral scruples of the parties and on the other hand the liberty of the customers to enjoy the same services as others in society given that their actions cause no harm to others. I imagine that these two cases have appeared in court because it is difficult to discern significant harm to others on either side (beyond hurt feelings and moral outrage).

    It is, perhaps, a sign of progress that issues as trivial as a wedding cake and a night in a hotel are now the test of the relationship between law and religion.

    Since February 1555 when Dr. John Rogers was burned alive in front of his wife and ten children, for collaborating on the production of a version of the Bible in English, by the sentence of a Christian bishop; since January 1697 when Thomas Aikenhead a 20 year old student was hanged for the religious crime of heresy; since June 1954 when Alan Turing took his own life [4] after being convicted, sentenced and punished for a crime which did not follow the principle of John Stuart Mill but was on the statute book from the days of religious justification and supported by the religious Establishment; I believe we have made significant progress.

    While I was writing this comment, a survey of 6000 Anglican laity revealed that the majority approved of same sex marriage but that cohort, broken down by age and sex (as in the tired old joke) reveals that males over the age of 50 (largely the demographic of the global Anglican priesthood) have a majority which disapproves.

    This is the problem with a dogma driven legal system. Whose dogma should prevail? In a complex, modern multi-faith and majority no-faith society the only practical way forward is secular utilitarianism and the only dogma used might be that of John Stuart Mill that the citizen should be free to think and do as she/he wishes given that this does not harm or limit the liberties of her/his fellow citizens.

    And here is where the rationalism ends. A judge must decide who, if anyone suffers harm – a process which in the quoted cases is more like deciding if the ball would have missed the leg stump or the batsman is out LBW than solving a theorem.

    If it is any comfort to Professor Williams – I (a married, heterosexual atheist and member of the National Secular Society) would have found for Ashers Bakery in the first and for the respondents (Preddy and Hall) in the second of those cases mentioned above – but then I am not a judge.

    [1] I am aware that not all suicide bombers are Moslems and that all Muslims are not potential suicide bombers.
    [2] I use the male pronoun for textual clarity. I am aware that some suicide bombers are female.
    [3] I am aware that not all Imams teach this precept.
    [4] As determined by an inquest – although some continue to prefer to think that his death was accidental.

    Alan Rogers

  5. Overall Stephen Williams’ article reads as a more moderately expressed version of those agonised cries of persecution that typically emanate from the extreme Christian right. A complete analysis would be tedious, but he errs from the start (consequence 1) in contrasting “the religious and the secular”. “The religious” embraces not just Rev Williams’ Presbyterianism and our host’s Quaker beliefs but also the whole range of the world’s religions, some of which are irrational by any reckoning (including sometimes their own!). State neutrality is neutrality between all these and more, for the spectrum embraces also non-religious beliefs such as my Humanism, the stark atheism of others and the total indifference of so many.

    Any position the State and its courts took other than neutrality would be arbitrary, given that the courts have no criteria by which to adjudicate on the truth or falsehood of any position. So does Williams really want to base his case for religious freedom on the rationality of religion? He rails against Baroness Hale et al but offers them no basis for judgement, merely the unargued assertion that “Christian moral tenets are demonstrably rational.. . the foundational theological claims of Christianity are rational”. I think his confidence in the rationality of his own beliefs might if he was put in the witness box be put under strong challenge.

  6. I would question the irrationality argument of religion on the basis of cause and effect and delayed results alongside the burden of proof. We now have many things proven which people neither believed or wanted to accommodate in their rationale, ie global warming is the Earth’s current way of showing us things we had not witnessed before. The world witness here is quite important, the rationale of faith in whatever religion depends on “the witness of” we now know through many years of study that there were for instance several witnesses to the crucifixion, as well as witnesses to the ascension, they all viewed it differently, but they all witnessed the same event. In a court of law with possibility and probability the view would surely be taken that if there were several witnesses to the same event that the probability would be that it was true, therefore if it is true, how can it be irrational? That is the first point.

    My second point is if we take things back to the weather, erosion begins from the moment that two different elements come together ie stone and waves, but we do not see the consequences of this for some time. My argument is that you don’t have to immediately see something for it to be fact, but if you believe it not knowing it is fact that is faith. If many witnesses have the same faith that then realizes the fact: it is not irrational but a very rational way of dealing with humanity and the consequences of life and decay. We may die in body but not in spirit ie dust to dust and ashes to ashes. The body is separated from the spirit but the spirit is there nevertheless. I am so glad it is, even though I cannot always see it or even always sense it rational proves to me time and time again it is.

    • I’m afraid that on that we must simply agree to disagree. I would not for a moment deny the historicity of the Crucifixion: it’s probably one of the best-attested events in first-century history. What I doubt is its theological significance. I agree that “if you believe it not knowing it is fact that is faith”: but because I believe in God as a matter of faith (which I do) that does not prove the existence of God: all it tells you is something about me. Or as the late, great John Fenton once said at a NT lecture at which I was present: “faith statements aren’t ‘true’: faith statements are statements about faith.”

      But I fear we’ve drifted a long way from “law & religion”!

  7. Have no fear, for we have wandered no farther away than anyone else. I accept your argument about faith and the individuality of it, I also accept that faith is not proof of the existence of God. For what is proof is the fulfilment of that faith against all the odds as a sequence of events about which you could have no control. Having no control of the events is not the same as not taking responsibility for our actions towards them. This is where the hermeneutics matters. The theological significance is, I am reliably taught, that we do not relate to inanimate objects even though what flows through them may affect our emotion, i.e. say watching sport or a movie either live or on tv. Relationship with God has to be sought, so we are reliant on knowing from “the word” in completion i.e. old and new and yet to come on understanding the nature of God the third point is reliant on the former two. Yet we know that in humanity these positions can change: they can improve or get worse. To that end The “word and the way it is presented changes but the subject stays the same: i.e. the fulfillment of the word.

    The problem in Law is that (a) the word is not static (b) the word is personal (c ) the word cannot be interpreted in the same way by two different people. However until quite recently in this country the bible was the sole source of the acknowledgement of truth. Is that why people swore on the bible with God as witness and the fear that it held for a believer if they lied under Oath? Of course if they did not believe it had no power over them which always perplexed me somewhat. The realisation that law and religion is far away from the proof of the existence of God is like the trinity of confusion because without the original event none would be relevant or possible. Social norms do not always dictate what laws should be introduced, but what does dictate laws is the desire to control or harm those who exist outside our own belief system, or if the social norm becomes to harm others laws are put in place for that, to stop communities from imploding. Otherwise eventually there is no community thus no need for law or religion.

  8. I hope we now agree that the religious can be rational in the process of deduction from axioms (precepts). They can, of course, be irrational but this is not the privilege of the religious. The non-religious show exactly the same propensity for irrationality. On the rationality of of precepts, I think Blaise Pascal (a rather better mathematician and philosopher than me) wrote in the seventeenth century “God is or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here.”

    The support for this view you can find in How Not To Be Wrong – The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life by Jordan Ellenberg. Penguin Books 2014.

    Ellenburg has interesting things to say on religion and law – many are rational but counter-intuitive. In the same chapter – Are You There, God? It’s Me Baysian Inference (which ends with the Pascal quotation) you will find the following “When the District Attorney leans into the jury and announces, “There is a one in five million chance that an innocent man would match the DNA sample found at the scene he is answering the question 1: How likely would an innocent person be to look guilty”? But the jury’s job is to answer the question 2: How likely is this guilty-looking defendant to be innocent? The understanding of this error requires a basic grasp of Baysian conditional probability theory.”

    Perhaps we should all now realise that being rational is not quite so simple as one might think.

    Alan Rogers

    P.S. I have no pecuniary interest in Penguin Books.

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