Over here in the UK, there has been a tremendous fuss over the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting that incorporating some elements of Sharia Law in UK law is now inevitable. Rowan Williams’s remarks were politically naïve: if he didn’t know how they’d be received, he was a fool; if he did, he was reckless. (People often say how intelligent Williams is, but I think they confuse intelligence with being thoughtful, well-intentioned and in possession of a fine beard.)
However, what annoyed me was that even the serious press failed to get behind his headline-grabbing phrase and unpick what he was really proposing, which was something much more modest. So when I was asked to record a “Thought for the Day” for the Scottish Humanists, I thought I’d break the habit of a lifetime and stick up for him.
So first, the red herring:
The question he was addressing was how to accommodate deep and real plurality in society without threatening its essential unity. The wrong answer to this is that there should be different laws for people who hold different beliefs. This is a clear non-starter. For one thing, who is to decide to whom such laws would apply? We can’t bind people by the religion, or lack of it, of their parents. So the only alternative would be for people to choose themselves which legal code to opt into. This is just absurd.
So what is a better answer?
As has become clearer in recent days, all Williams meant was that people should have the option of settling some civil disputes through voluntary means of arbitration, and agree to be bound by its conclusion.
There is, and should be, room outside the law for some diversity in how we choose to relate morally to one another. The key distinction here is between laws we all must obey, and practices that can be legally recognised but do not need to be followed by everyone.
A good example of this is gay marriage: the law could recognise this, but that wouldn’t, of course, mean there was one law for gays and another for heterosexuals; or that gay marriage was being forced upon the straight community.
Williams’s mistake was failing to make clear that the principle of one law for all is sacrosanct. Secularism requires a neutral public space in which people of all faiths and none can come together to debate and legislate as equals. As long as we maintain this, there is plenty of room in private and community life for people to live by their very different, deeply held beliefs.
So, putting aside the merits of what Williams actually said, are there any terminal problems for the sort of “space for legal recognition of belief-specific arbitration” pluralism I suggest? I think there are some real problems, which I’ll perhaps raise if no one else does, but in broad terms, I can’t see a principled objection to it.
(You can listen to the “Thought” here, or read the complete version at the bottom of this page.)