It is reassuring to see the overwhelming backlash that occured in the wake of the Archbishop of Cantebury’s statements related to allowing Sharia law in the UK for Muslims in civil matters. However, keep in mind that historically new ideas are always at first rejected. If they are not defeated properly, that is, defeated in principle by a proper understanding and logical refutation of the underlying premises then the ideas will come back. Unfortunately, as evidenced in the linked article, the so-called critics continue to get it wrong:
The most damaging attack came from the Pakistan-born Bishop of Rochester, the Right Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali. “English law is rooted in the judaeo-chrisitian tradition. It would be impossible to introduce a tradition like Sharia without fundamentally affecting its integrity.” Sharia “would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions like monogamy, provisions for divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence. “This is not to mention the relation of freedom of belief and of expression to provisions for blasphemy and apostasy.”
Bishop of Southwark Tom Butler, a liberal who would normally be expected to defend Dr Williams, said the archbishop had been entering a minefield and added: “It will take a great deal of thought and work before I think it is a good idea. I remained to be convinced of the feasibility of the incorporation of the Sharia into the English legal system as it would raise many difficulties.” [source]
The “practical” problem argument is ridiculous on its face. This is like telling Socialists that the only reason you are against them is that it would be “impractical” to implement an income tax and nationalize industries. Or, it would be like telling the Nazi’s that their plan to take over the world and systematically murder millions of people is not feasible. I’m confident that Muslims so inclined would eagerly craft a “feasible” plan for implementing Sharia within the British legal system. Rejecting an evil idea on grounds of its “feasibility” and not rejecting an idea on principle is a deadly error.
The more complex argument is the claim, often repeated by conservatives on the religious right, that America and here the British common law was founded on “Judaeo-Christian values”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The concept and realization of individual rights occurred despite Christianity not because of it as I imagine Giordano Bruno, Galileo, and millions of other “heretics” persectued by the Church will attest.
If individual rights can not be supported logically then we have no chance. The argument that liberty and capitalism are based on Judaeo-Christian values is worse than no argument at all. It is not only historically inaccurate it places the basis for rights on grounds of faith based claims which are arbitrary. In fact, it can be logically demonstrated that rights are necessitated by man’s nature and necessary for our survival and happiness. The secular argument for rights has historically been associated with unreligious periods for a reason.
The best piece I have seen on this topic is “Religion vs. America” by Leonard Peikoff at: http://www.aynrand.org/site/News2page=NewsArticle&id=5360&news_iv_ctrl=1225
Dr. Peikoff traces the philosophical history of the West to show that the concepts of individual rights and the the pursuit of happiness are ideas associated with unreligious periods and statism, misery, and oppression are associated with religious periods. Dr. Peikoff writes:
What effect does this approach have on human life? We do not have to answer by theoretical deduction, because Western history has been a succession of religious and unreligious periods. The modern world, including America, is a product of two of these periods: of Greco-Roman civilization and of medieval Christianity. So, to enable us to understand America, let us first look at the historical evidence from these two periods; let us look at their stand on religion and at the practical consequences of this stand. Then we will have no trouble grasping the base and essence of the United States.
He goes on to trace the fundamental ideas of each major historical period:
Greece created philosophy, logic, science, mathematics, and a magnificent, man-glorifying art; it gave us the base of modern civilization in every field; it taught the West how to think. In addition, through its admirers in ancient Rome, which built on the Greek intellectual base, Greece indirectly gave us the rule of law and the first idea of man’s rights (this idea was originated by the pagan Stoics). Politically, the ancients never conceived a society of full-fledged individual liberty; no nation achieved that before the United States. But the ancients did lay certain theoretical bases for the concept of liberty; and in practice, both in some of the Greek city-states and in republican Rome, large numbers of men at various times were at least relatively free. They were incomparably more free than their counterparts ever had been in the religious cultures of ancient Egypt and its equivalents.
What were the practical results of the medieval approach? The Dark Ages were dark on principle. Augustine fought against secular philosophy, science, art; he regarded all of it as an abomination to be swept aside; he cursed science in particular as “the lust of the eyes.” Unlike many Americans today, who drive to church in their Cadillac or tape their favorite reverend on the VCR so as not to interrupt their tennis practice, the medievals took religion seriously. They proceeded to create a society that was anti-materialistic and anti-intellectual. I do not have to remind you of the lives of the saints, who were the heroes of the period, including the men who ate only sheep’s gall and ashes, quenched their thirst with laundry water, and slept with a rock for their pillow. These were men resolutely defying nature, the body, sex, pleasure, all the snares of this life–and they were canonized for it, as, by the essence of religion, they should have been. The economic and social results of this kind of value code were inevitable; mass stagnation and abject poverty, ignorance and mass illiteracy, waves of insanity that swept whole towns, a life expectancy in the teens. “Woe unto ye who laugh now,” the Sermon on the Mount had said. Well, they were pretty safe on this count. They had precious little to laugh about.
What about freedom in this era? Study the existence of the feudal serf tied for life to his plot of ground, his noble overlord, and the all-encompassing decrees of the Church. Or, if you want an example closer to home, jump several centuries forward to the American Puritans, who were a medieval remnant transplanted to a virgin continent, and who proceeded to establish a theocratic dictatorship in colonial Massachusetts. Such a dictatorship, they declared, was necessitated by the very nature of their religion. You are owned by God, they explained to any potential dissenter; therefore, you are a servant who must act as your Creator, through his spokesmen, decrees. Besides, they said, you are innately depraved, so a dictatorship of the elect is necessary to ride herd on your vicious impulses. And, they said, you don’t really own your property either; wealth, like all values, is a gift from heaven temporarily held in trust, to be controlled like all else, by the elect. And if all this makes you unhappy, they ended up, so what? You’re not supposed to pursue happiness in this life anyway.
There can be no philosophic breach between thought and action. The consequence of the epistemology of religion is the politics of tyranny. If you cannot reach the truth by your own mental powers, but must offer an obedient faith to a cognitive authority, then you are not your own intellectual master; in such a case, you cannot guide your behavior by your own judgment either, but must be submissive in action as well. This is the reason why–as Ayn Rand has pointed out–faith and force are always corollaries; each requires the other.
Dr. Peikoff attributes the beginning of the Renaissance to St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who reintroduced Aristotelian logic into philosophy. The rebirth of interest in the ideas of the Ancient Greeks and Romans effectively ended the Middle Ages. The Magna Carta issued in 1215 and the British common law which originated in the 12th and 13th centuries were important milestones in establishing the rule of law and first steps toward undoing the absolute power of the monarch and Church. However, politically, as the Roman and Spanish Inquisition’s made clear, much of Europe and Puritan America remained in the grip of Christian theocracy. Over the next 500 years, the power of scientific discovery as evidenced in the works of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton would lead to the period known as the Age of Reason or Enlightenment. It was the gradual rejection of religious dogma in favor of reason during this period that ultimately led to the founding of America. Dr. Peikoff continues:
The consequence of this approach was the age’s rejection of all the other religious priorities. In metaphysics: this world once again was regarded as real, as important, and as a realm not of miracles, but of impersonal natural law. In ethics: success in this life became the dominant motive; the veneration of asceticism was swept aside in favor of each man’s pursuit of happiness–his own happiness on earth, to be achieved by his own effort, by self-reliance and self-respect leading to self-made prosperity. But can man really achieve fulfillment on earth? Yes, the Enlightenment answered; man has the means, the potent faculty of intellect, necessary to achieve his goals and values. Man may not yet be perfect, people said, but he is perfectible; he must be so, because he is the rational animal.
Such were the watchwords of the period: not faith, God, service, but reason, nature, happiness, man.
Many of the Founding Fathers, of course, continued to believe in God and to do so sincerely, but it was a vestigial belief, a leftover from the past which no longer shaped the essence of their thinking. God, so to speak, had been kicked upstairs. He was regarded now as an aloof spectator who neither responds to prayer nor offers revelations nor demands immolation. This sort of viewpoint, known as deism, cannot, properly speaking, be classified as a religion. It is a stage in the atrophy of religion; it is the step between Christianity and outright atheism.
This is why the religious men of the Enlightenment were scandalized and even panicked by the deist atmosphere. Here is the Rev. Peter Clark of Salem, Mass., in 1739: “The former Strictness in Religion, that . . . Zeal for the Order and Ordinances of the Gospel, which was so much the Glory of our Fathers, is very much abated, yea disrelished by too many: and a Spirit of Licentiousness, and Neutrality in Religion . . . so opposite to the Ways of God’s People, do exceedingly prevail in the midst of us.” (10) And here, fifty years later, is the Rev. Charles Backus of Springfield, Mass. The threat to divine religion, he says, is the “indifference which prevails” and the “ridicule.” Mankind, he warns, is in “great danger of being laughed out of religion.” (11) This was true; these preachers were not alarmists; their description of the Enlightenment atmosphere is correct.
This was the intellectual context of the American Revolution. Point for point, the Founding Fathers’ argument for liberty was the exact counterpart of the Puritans’ argument for dictatorship–but in reverse, moving from the opposite starting point to the opposite conclusion. Man, the Founding Fathers said in essence (with a large assist from Locke and others), is the rational being; no authority, human or otherwise, can demand blind obedience from such a being — not in the realm of thought or, therefore, in the realm of action either. By his very nature, they said, man must be left free to exercise his reason and then to act accordingly, i.e., by the guidance of his best rational judgment. Because this world is of vital importance, they added, the motive of man’s action should be the pursuit of happiness. Because the individual, not a supernatural power, is the creator of wealth, a man should have the right to private property, the right to keep and use or trade his own product. And because man is basically good, they held, there is no need to leash him; there is nothing to fear in setting free a rational animal.
This, in substance, was the American argument for man’s inalienable rights. It was the argument that reason demands freedom. And this is why the nation of individual liberty, which is what the United States was, could not have been founded in any philosophically different century. It required what the Enlightenment offered: a rational, secular context.
When you look for the source of an historic idea, you must consider philosophic essentials, not the superficial statements or errors that people may offer you. Even the most well-meaning men can misidentify the intellectual roots of their own attitudes. Regrettably, this is what the Founding Fathers did in one crucial respect. All men, said Jefferson, are endowed “by their Creator” with certain unalienable rights, a statement that formally ties individual rights to the belief in God. Despite Jefferson’s eminence, however, his statement (along with its counterpart in Locke and others) is intellectually unwarranted. The principle of individual rights does not derive from or depend on the idea of God as man’s creator. It derives from the very nature of man, whatever his source or origin; it derives from the requirements of man’s mind and his survival. In fact, as I have argued, the concept of rights is ultimately incompatible with the idea of the supernatural. This is true not only logically, but also historically. Through all the centuries of the Dark and Middle Ages, there was plenty of belief in a Creator; but it was only when religion began to
fade that the idea of God as the author of individual rights emerged as an historical, nation-shaping force. What then deserves the credit for the new development–the age-old belief or the new philosophy? What is the real intellectual root and protector of human liberty–God or reason?
— Doug Reich blogs at the The Rational Capitalist with commentary, analysis, and links upholding reason, individualism, and capitalism.