Thursday, 4 February 2010

Natural Law

The Pope has said that UK equality law is against natural law.

In his speech confirming his visit here in September, he said: "Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society.

"Yet (...) the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs.

"In some respects, it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed."

The parts of equality law that the Pope objects to are those that accord the same rights to gay people as to everyone else, particularly in employment. The Church (both Catholic and Protestant, by the way) wants the right not to employ gay people in certain areas. Catholic adoption agencies also want the right to turn down gay couples, preferring to leave children in care rather than let them be adopted by people whose sexuality they find unacceptable. Some have threatened to close down if they cannot have this right.

The Pope is saying that according equal rights to homosexuals and denying the Church the right to discriminate against them violates natural law. Under 'the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded' , some are more equal than others.

The term 'natural law' or lex naturalis has varied meanings. Philosophers have defined it in different ways since the Ancient Greeks. For Catholics, it has a specific meaning, as defined in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

The natural law is the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which he has endowed us. This law we learn not through the unaided operation of reason, but through the light of supernatural revelation.

The natural law consists of one supreme and universal principal, from which are derived all our natural moral obligations and duties.

The natural law is universal, that is to say, it applied to the entire human race, and is in itself the same for all.

Natural law is something that God has instilled in us all, whether we believe in him or not. There is an objective, unchanging morality that exists independently of humanity, outside of time. Accepting homosexuality as equal to heterosexuality is against it.

The godless have stopped up their ears against the truth and are hell-bent (literally) on defying natural law. But deep down, they must know that the Pope is right because of this seed of lex naturalis planted in us all by God.

Where this leaves people whose religions have their own inherent laws that they believe come from their god(s) is not clear. It would be interesting to know what a Muslim or Sikh, for example, thinks about their internal moral compass coming from the Christian God.

Many Catholics do not share the Pope's hardline views on homosexuality, contraception and other matters. Perhaps part of the reason for his visit is to whip them into shape.

Cherie Blair aka Judge Cherie Booth, a Catholic, has also been talking about religion and morality. She suspended the sentence of a man who broke another man's jaw after an argument in a bank queue. Her reason was that he was a religious person. She said: 'You are a religious man and know this is not acceptable behaviour'.

She appears to be saying that religious people have an inherent, natural, sense of right and wrong purely by virtue of being religious. As the defendant was a Muslim, the particular religion appears irrelevant.

The defendant may be a) religious and b) remorseful but the two facts should not be conflated as they have apparently been here. As a judge and the wife of an ex PM, Booth should know that choice of words matters. Saying something like 'you are a religious man and...' represents all religious people as a homogenous group, all possessed of the same characteristics. By extension, the non-religious as a group cannot be expected to have this sense. If that is not what she intended, then she should have made her position clearer. Questions will inevitably be asked about how she would have sentenced a non-religious person.
It's not just about justice being done, but about it being seen to be done.

It could be argued that a religious person who knows right from wrong has less excuse for bad behaviour than someone who is not religious.

The Pope may wish to have a word with Booth while he is here to clear up the fact that morality comes not from any old religion but from Christianity alone.

What both Booth's view and the Pope's have in common is the assumption that morality, a sense of right and wrong, is founded in religion and has a supernatural, extra-human, source. Both views of course ignore scientific findings that morals and rules of social behaviour are evolved pro-social traits that exist in all social animals to a certain degree and are at their most complex and codified in humans.

The Pope and other religious spokespeople are also opposing equality law because they think it is a threat to their freedom of speech. By which they mean their right to express their prejudices along with their beliefs. Religious hard-liners are often quick to play the victim, claiming their own rights are under threat, while trying to deny others the right to criticise them or, in some cases, even to question their beliefs. Freedom of speech is not the issue here. It is only when words constitute harassment or incitement to violence that the law steps in.

The Pope said in the same speech that "Fidelity to the gospel in no way restricts the freedom of others - on the contrary, it serves their freedom by offering them the truth".

I would be much obliged if someone would explain the logic of this to me.
UPDATE: 8 February
The NSS has been contacted about another apparent case of sentence reduction on religious grounds. Sukhvinder Singh Gill was intially sentenced to 33 months at Leicester Crown Court last year for making fake designer clothes. Last week his sentence was reduced to 12 months even though he had been in prison before. Judge Cook said: "Offending on this scale is serious. Legitimate businesses were cheated out of profits they deserved and an immediate custodial sentence was entirely justified". He added that Gill is "highly respected in the Leicester Sikh community" as one of the reasons for shortening the sentence.
The person who contacted the NSS commented that "He is not respected in the Sikh community - I am from the same community and this story dilutes the stature of Sikhism and the blatant favouritism and special dispensation given by the Appeal Judiciary smacks of religious bias."

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