Monday, February 11, 2008

One Law for Everybody?

Christopher Hitchens has predictably slammed the archbishop of Canterbury's openness to "plural jurisdiction," i.e., the formal intermingling of English law with Islamic law:

In the midst of this dismal verbiage and euphemism, the plain statement—"There's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said" — still stands out like a diamond in a dunghill. It stands out precisely because it is said simply, and because its essential grandeur is intelligible to everybody.
Curiously, Hitchens fails to anticipate the obvious rejoinder from the religious side of this, namely, that god's law should be the "one law for everybody." The trouble with god's law is that for all god's reputed omnipresence, omnipotence, and boundless wrath for those who violate his laws, he has done an extremely poor job of making his authorized laws stand out from countless counterfeits. The indeterminacy of god's law renders it less than useless, as Ophelia Benson argues (continued here), picking up where Hitchens left off:
Religion is about what believers consider the eternal and absolute will of God for the universe and for its human inhabitants, without having any reliable way of knowing that, or testing it, or falsifying it. It's eternal and absolute, yet humans know nothing whatever about it - yet they claim that they do. This is an abysmal epistemic situation from which to make laws. That is why Arch should shut up about the relationship between law and religion, because there shouldn't be one. Humans can't make decent laws by 'relating to the most fundamental and non-negotiable level of reality, as established by a 'covenant' between the divine and the human' - because there is no such covenant, or if there is, it's odd that we have no real evidence of it (no, a very old story does not count as evidence). The archbishop comes right out and admits that his side of the aisle deals in the non-negotiable, and yet he wants the rest of us to let his crowd help shape the law. Forget it. The combination of the unknown-unknowable and the non-negotiable is poisonous. That's why law should be secular; that's why theocracies are nightmare places; it's appalling that Rowan Williams doesn't get that.
Religious people tend to get queasy at the notion that law should be founded on nothing more solid than the shifting grounds of legal precedent, public opinion, and the political process, but they fail to appreciate the shortcomings of the alternative they propose, namely, their own (or even their own community's) unshakable convictions about god's will. As ephemeral and unsettled as the law and politics can sometimes be, they at least 'show their work' by foregrounding assumptions and remaining open to contestation. As such they are infinitely more solid than the worldwide caucophony of untestable, unverifiable religious certainties.

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