The Cherie Blair nonsense that has caused a bit of fuss today has finally brought out into the open the undue relationship (in certain cases) between religion and justice. Read my argument from The Independent below or on their site.
Cherie Booth’s remarks betray an assumption still made by too many in society that you are a good person if you are religious – that religiousness is proof of good character and not being religious is a negation of morality. Even if few people would buy into that statement put so bluntly, some people would, and a lot of people come close to it.
The claim is nonsense and the logical inconsistencies of thinking that morality depends on god or religion are well known. Socrates asked 2,500 years ago whether (a) the gods say to do something because it is good or (b) something is good because the gods say to do it. Ever since then, the theist who answers (b) has had to explain why they would not rape and murder if god told them to and the theist who answers (a) has had to explain what the ultimate moral arbiter beyond god is, and what sense it makes to say that morality comes from god if even god is constrained by some other moral source one step back again. Neither theist has ever had much luck in doing so.
The belief that for human beings to be moral requires an external divinity also has nasty undertones of contempt for humanity. As the philosopher and humanist A J Ayer said, ‘The underlying assumption is that only purely selfish behaviour is natural to man; so that if it ever happens, as it not infrequently does, that people behave unselfishly, they must be inspired by a higher power. This assumption is false and the conclusion that is drawn from it is invalid… if experience shows that people act unselfishly as well as selfishly, we can only conclude that both types of behaviour are natural.’
In any case, even if a person is religious, it does not endow them with any special rectitude (as the case of a religious man convicted of assault might be seen to demonstrate). Prison population statistics show that over three-quarters of those locked up are religious; we know from the annual Citizenship Survey that religious and non-religious people are involved to the same proportion as each other in volunteering. We all know in our daily lives good non-religious people and bad religious people. More than that, we know that religion can actually inspire violence – from honour killings to crusades to gay-bashing to terrorist atrocities.
If leniency should be shown to those who are of otherwise good character, sorry for what they have done, then it is these qualities that matter, not whether or not the penitent in question believes in gods, angels or an immortal soul.