Reflections on Justice
A Humanist point of view – Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource Forum of Faiths
You might say that I’m contributing my paper under false pretences. Firstly, although the Suffolk Humanist group, Suffolk Humanists, is affiliated to SIFRE, we wouldn’t describe Humanism as a ‘faith’. Faith is defined as ‘a strong belief in something, especially without proof’, or ‘a specific system of religious beliefs’. It’s also defined as having complete confidence or trust in something, but since Humanists are essentially sceptics, we’re not inclined to have faith in anything that isn’t proven. Humanism is an approach to life for people who live without religion and who care about right and wrong.
Secondly, we would not presume to ‘teach’ anyone anything, since we have no book of rules, and no secular equivalent of clergy, imams, rabbis and the like to convey Humanist teachings. There is no Humanist party line on justice, any more than there is on many other things. However, we do encourage people to think rationally about their rights and responsibilities, and to see themselves as accountable to for their actions.
Therefore, this paper is a personal reflection from a Humanist who’s thought about justice and what it means. It is not intended to be a comprehensive review of Humanism and justice. Many Humanists would agree with me about some, if not all, of this; others might differ. One of the distinctive things about being a Humanist is thinking for oneself. Some might say that Humanism is a cop-out, since we’re not required to follow any set of rules. This is nonsense. We seek the best in and for human beings, and the advancement of humanity by its own efforts, so we give much thought to doing the right thing in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, which, we would argue, is actually more difficult than following a set creed.
Justice is the administration of law according to prescribed and accepted principles. Aristotle said, ‘All virtue is summed up in dealing justly.’ The ancient principle of ‘due process’ is based on an individual’s right to a fair and public trial, properly conducted, the right to be heard at his or her trial, and the right to an impartial hearing. It also means that laws must be framed so that any reasonable person might understand them.
We might also say that just laws should not reflect ignorance and prejudice, such as the law that criminalised homosexuality until recently, and that they should be relevant to the way we live now, not decades or hundreds of years ago. There are many laws on the statute books that should have been repealed long ago. For example; a few years ago, a male body was discovered in a Woodbridge park. It had been dead so long that it was impossible to tell the cause of death, though it was probably natural. The person who’d dumped it was a close relative who must have kept it at home for a long time, for peculiar reasons. The only offence the police could find to charge him with, due to a lack of evidence, came from an ancient ecclesiastical statute – failing to give the body a Christian burial. A local journalist contacted me for comment, since I’ve conducted lots of non-religious funerals. Did this mean that all the people who’d arranged secular funerals for their relatives had been breaking the law? No one was going to bother prosecuting them, as this particular law was no longer considered relevant – except when it came in useful in the body in the park case.
Institutions of the law are essential in any civilised society, yet they enshrine injustice. One of the framers of the American Constitution, Thomas Jefferson, wrote, ‘Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind,’ yet in modern America, the neo-conservatives are impeding progress and even reversing it. Americans still claim their constitutional ‘right to bear arms’ and powerful evangelical Christians impose their views on abortion and sex education on everyone through legislation. In Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, Islamic sharia law is being used to impose a medieval version of ‘justice’. This is a misuse of power.
Gene Roddenberry, the American who wrote the original Star Trek TV series, expressed some fundamental Humanist principles through his stories. Conflict resolution was achieved through negotiation, not force. Equality was a principle underlying the organisation of the star ship Enterprise – equality of gender, race and so on. Similar principles are enshrined in the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, which begins with the words ‘Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…’ and goes on, in article 3, to state, ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.’ We’ve a very long way to go before these ideals are achieved for everyone, everywhere. One obstacle is nationalism. As long as some countries – including America, the most powerful country in the world – resist the imposition of fundamental principles of justice by an international criminal court, they’ll continue to get away with murder, and more.
The current governments in Great Britain and America are perhaps the most religious they’ve been for a long time, and religious politicians are abusing their positions to impose their beliefs on us. Religion should not play any part in either politics or the law, which should be entirely secular. It’s illogical to enshrine belief, or faith, in a justice system. People have faith without evidence, yet evidence is fundamental to the law. People of faith should enjoy the same rights as everyone else, but there must be equality. There are, in any case, so many different faiths, and they all seem to contradict one another. The law must not permit special privileges for religious people. One does not need a faith or religious belief to be a good person, yet this is a common assumption, despite the evidence for all the cruelty and injustice perpetrated in the name of religion. Humanists want a level playing field, which means, for example, that religious ceremonial should not play any part in the rituals and traditions of the judiciary, the military or government at any level. Such practices are old-fashioned and discriminatory. It makes it much harder for an atheist to become Prime Minister, for example, and almost impossible for an atheist to become President of the United States.
Here are some of the ways that Humanists or secularists have influenced the law in this country.
The National Secular Society (of which I’m a member) was founded in 1866 by Charles Bradlaugh, who was elected MP for Northampton in 1880. It was usual then for MPs to swear a religious oath on the Bible when entering Parliament. Bradlaugh asked to be allowed to substitute a secular affirmation but was refused, despite the support of the Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Because he wouldn’t swear a religious oath he was not permitted to take his seat in the House of Commons, it was declared vacant, and a by-election was called. At one stage, he was arrested by the Sergeant at Arms for attempting to take his seat. However, after he was re-elected several times, he was finally allowed to take his seat in 1886. It would be interesting to know how many of the witnesses who swear the traditional oath on the Bible in court are actually religious, and how many realise that they can make a secular affirmation. Perjury (meaning lying on oath) is rightly a very serious offence, as it’s crucial to establish the truth in court, yet it could be argued that very many witnesses perjure themselves before they begin, by swearing an oath that’s meaningless to an atheist, agnostic, or non-theist (such as a Buddhist).
Humanists were actively involved in the campaign to reform abortion law through the Abortion Law Reform Association, resulting in the passing of the Abortion Act of 1967. Not all Humanists are happy about abortion, but most would prefer women to have abortions carried our safely in hospital, rather than risk dangerous back street abortions, which are still common elsewhere. Most Humanists are in favour of legalising voluntary euthanasia (as is a majority of the British public), and many support the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. The subject is currently under review by a House of Lords Select Committee.
Humanist organisations, including the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society, have contributed to parliamentary consultations over issues like free school transport (when children attending religious schools have been given preferential treatment) and the legal requirement for schools to have collective worship, which is unpopular, impractical and often flouted. The most recent legal statement of the requirements for collective worship (as distinct from assembly) is contained in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.
Humanists across Europe have been campaigning to keep religion out of the new European Constitution. We think that faith organisations already have more than enough privileged access to government and that existing laws cover most of the issues they complain about.
In May 2002, Lord Avebury introduced a Religious Offences Bill, which aimed to abolish the common law against blasphemy and miscellaneous obsolete laws about religious offences. It also proposed a new law against incitement to religious hatred. We want the abolishment of the law of blasphemy, which some faiths would like extended, but have concerns about the proposed new offence of incitement to religious hatred. The issue is complicated and there’s a lot of potential for misuse of a badly framed law. Some of us are concerned, for example, about the possibility of its use to punish causing ‘offence’, as some religionists are easily offended, and we’re keen to maintain the principle of free speech, even when it’s used to express opinions we loathe, such as extreme nationalism.
In an ideal world, courts of law should be places where experienced and impartial minds can consider the merits of each case and offer practical ways of dealing with them. However imperfect the system may be, it’s preferable to the alternatives – arbitrary tyranny, corruption, gun law, chance, or trial by tabloid. If we haven’t broken any just law, we have nothing to fear. The Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote, ‘It is impossible for someone who secretly does something that mankind has agreed is harmful, to be confident that he will escape detection, even if he escapes it ten thousand times. Until he dies, he will always be uncertain of remaining undetected.’ And if he’s detected, let justice prevail.