EQUALITY, FREEDOM, AND RELIGION by Roger Trigg, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, pp. ix + 184, £ 25, hbk
Article first published online: 2 DEC 2013
© 2013 The Dominican Council.
Volume 95, Issue 1055, pages 124–125, January 2014
How to Cite
BLACK, M. (2014), EQUALITY, FREEDOM, AND RELIGION by Roger Trigg, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, pp. ix + 184, £ 25, hbk. New Blackfriars, 95: 124–125. doi: 10.1111/nbfr.12051_6
- Issue published online: 2 DEC 2013
- Article first published online: 2 DEC 2013
Has modern liberal democracy become intolerant of religion? Have secular individualists corrupted the very religious tradition from which modern society draws its strength? Are irreligious humanists replacing eternally valid principles of law and social organisation with relativistic incoherence? These issues are acutely current in North America and Britain. Professor Trigg's opinion is clear: religion is suffering in modern society, in large part due to a legal myopia about equality. In his view attempts by liberals, humanists, secularists and philosophical relativists (he appears to use the terms interchangeably) to increase the judicial equality of individuals has led necessarily to a reduction in social freedom, particularly freedom of religion.
To support his argument, Trigg makes numerous ontological, theological, philosophical and sociological claims, with little supporting argument, throughout the book: existence after death is an essential part of human nature and true religious belief; knowledge of supernatural agency is universal; treating people equally marginalises them and their beliefs; the only defensible morality is based on eternally valid principles, to identify but a few. The case studies of recent legal decision in Britain, Canada, the United States and Australia are ambiguous regarding his basic premise that religion is being persecuted by the judiciary. Most are either split decisions, suggesting that religion is still taken seriously by the courts, or accompanied by judicial commentary which shows careful consideration of religious rights by individual judges.
Perhaps Trigg's most interesting contribution, however, is his suggestion for a novel legal concept: not the right to belief but the right of belief. ‘Human rights protect people not beliefs’, he points out. Although he does not entirely approve of the language of rights in its post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment form, he suggests a remedy: adding to this vocabulary the right of belief itself – belief, as it were, as species of Dawkinsian meme which has its own ontology and stability as it is passed from generation to generation and into which each individual is born. Belief of this kind remains constant and is not even really a matter of choice by individuals no matter how much they insist it might be. It is this eternally valid belief which must be protected in law. ‘It is absurd’, he claims, ‘for justice not only to refuse to favour people, but also ideas, beliefs or principles’.
So beliefs themselves should be attributed rights. But unlike people, all beliefs cannot be considered equal. ‘A respect for diversity of belief must ultimately be meaningless. Beliefs cannot be equal even if the people holding them are’. He wants this translated into law. ‘No country should take a neutral view about the worth of beliefs’. What counts for Trigg are beliefs which are religious. He admits to imprecision about what constitutes religious versus other kinds of belief but he knows what religious belief excludes: liberal, secular, humanist, relativistic beliefs about democratic society. These are temporary, unreliable, and not robust enough upon which to build a truly free society. Religious beliefs are superior to these, even superior to conscience which is a typical liberal individualistic concern. While he is unclear who is competent to define such beliefs, he has no doubt that some religious beliefs are better than others. And if there are ‘better’ beliefs there must be ‘best’. It is these which must be recognised juridically and whose liberty must be defended as in the legal system: ‘Rights to equality [of persons] cannot trump those of religious freedom [of beliefs themselves]’.
Equality, Freedom, and Religion has a genre problem. If its claims are purely philosophical then its extrapolations into theology – from the constituents of human nature to the transcendental nature of the divine – are theosophical and of suspect orthodoxy. If its claims are based on divine revelations, it does not disclose either their content or source and the reader is left confronting a vague fideism. The book may consequently alienate even those ‘liberals’ who are sympathetic to his views on the importance of religion in political life. Those who are unfriendly toward religion are likely to be horrified by the enormous, and enormously undefended, claims. His conclusions will confirm the suspicions of any who believe there is a conspiracy by the religious right to return to the good old days of conservative persecution of almost any group not adhering to true belief.
Equality, Freedom, and Religion is a polemic, and probably effective as such. But its contribution to the current political debate is therefore likely to be at the extremes, among the fundamentalists of the left as well as the right, who will only be reinforced in their opinions by it.