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Religious legislation


ABOUT three weeks ago South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng caused a stir with the mere suggestion that society would be much better if religious teachings were allowed to influence law.

Speaking at the Annual African Law and Religion Conference at the University of Stellenbosch, Justice Mogoeng was of the belief that South Africans could be transformed if religion was allowed to influence the laws governing their daily lives.
The basis of his argument was that if religious teachings were the basis of law it would deter many undesirable crimes like murder and social ills like adultery, fornication, separation and divorce which he believed had led to broken homes and a broken and bitter generation.

I balked at the mere idea simply because religion itself is a bone of contention with different teachings and beliefs. I can count five main types of religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. Among these five are divergent teachings and many of these religions are in conflict with each other.

Think of how many wars have been fought and are still inspired by religious divergence? So the question one begins to ask is which religion would form the basis of the legislation seeing as South Africa; like many countries does allow a number of religious movements! Presently there is already a raucous that public holidays only take cognisance of Christian-based holidays like Easter and Christmas yet no allowance is made for Jewish holidays like Pesach or Hindu holidays like Diwali.

Or would it be a case of taking what’s considered “good” from each religion and laying it as a foundation for law? Moreover another problem I have with religion being the underlying rock for the law is the fact that in society there are people who are not religious and don’t conform to any of the above groups.
Then there are atheists among us who simply doubt the existence of a God or gods.

It is for this reason why I favour secularism and secular states which separate religion and law. Don’t get me wrong though; religion does have its place in society. I like the framework which does encompass religious institutions and gives religious dignitaries their respect.
You could have an official State church or religion, but once again we should allow others to freely practice their own faith and beliefs outside of this. No one should be persecuted for what they believe or don’t believe in. Religion is still very important in that it helps to form and shape the moral fibre within society.
For the most part it does teach us between right and wrong. However, it would also be entirely misleading that people can’t be morally upstanding citizens outside of religion.

The strength of your moral convictions, which might not necessarily be inspired by the church, will dissuade you from doing what is considered right and wrong. I believe each one of us is instilled with a moral compass. Each person has their own standards as to what they believe is morally acceptable and what is not. For instance take a situation in a supermarket where a teller mistakenly gives out more change than warranted.
One person may take this as good fortune and another would perceive this to be stealing and would return the excess cash. Similarly and closer to home, is the question of bribing a policeman.

For some this would be grossly unethical and clearly flouting the law and for others mere survival. However we should also be aware that religion comes with its own set of problems in that in some instances it is seen to oppress, repress in terms of equality and freedom of expression. Think how slavery flourished under the cloak of religion for many years.
We must be aware that during the time when in most countries religion formed the basis of the law, we still had social ills like adultery and fornication and rampant crimes like murder. So it becomes clear that religion is not the end-all when it comes to legislation. We have many living examples of countries where religion influences law . . . take for instance countries where Sharia law is instilled and practiced.

Those countries have not been able to negate what we consider socially undesirable or eliminate murder and other crimes. They stone adulterers; a form of punishment we believe violates a basic human right. The fact that we live in a democracy should ideally mean that legislation should be free from religious influence. Religion is a private and personal choice. Legislation remains largely a public and policy issue. Like water and oil the two should remain clearly divorced.

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