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A religious but not righteous Judge: Cherie Blair

It is instructive to note that when Cherie Blair gave Mr Shamso Miah an expressly lenient sentence (suspending a six month jail term for two years) despite his having assaulted another man and broken his jaw, she stated not once but twice – thus, made a point of emphasizing – her reason: the fact that he is ‘a religious person.’ Here are the words she used: ‘I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before. You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.’

What is certainly not acceptable behaviour is a judge handing down sentences based on personal views about religion, whether positive or negative. Mrs. Blair’s are publicly positive; she is well-known to be a Roman Catholic, as her husband the former Prime Minister now is also, having converted from Anglicanism; their children were educated at the Roman Catholic Brompton Oratory School; and the newly Roman Catholic Mr Blair has founded a religious organisation dedicated to promoting the ecumenicalism among the faiths.

As a barrister Mrs. Blair should be able to see the inadmissible corollary of passing lenient sentences on believers because they are believers; namely, that non-believers should receive less lenient sentences. If she had said – and said twice – in passing judgment on a person she knew to be non-religions, ‘I am going to apply the full penalty of the law based on the fact that you are not a religious person,’ she would not have merited any less of an outcry than she has caused, for the very good reason that this is the logical obverse of what she in fact said, and would be as unacceptable.

It is appropriate for good character and lack of previous convictions to be taken into account in sentencing in criminal cases. Mrs. Blair gave as her ground for thinking that the guilty individual is of good character that he is a religious person. So, obviously, Mrs. Blair explicitly holds that ‘being a religious person’ and ‘being of good character’ are related. She must however know that they are not invariably related; she would have to have been living in a closed refrigerator for the last two decades if she went so far as to think they are the same thing, for as any number of examples show – not least among them the atrocities committed in the United States on 9/11 – being a religious person is fully consistent with, and sometimes is the cause of being, a thoroughly bad person. So she must be assuming – leaving all history and the contemporary world aside as providing too many troubling counter-examples – that there is a tendency for religious people to be of good character because they are religious (and not, say, that they have a tendency to be of good character because they are people).

Let me pick through the logic of Mrs. Blair’s view carefully here. She cannot consistently think that non-religious people have a tendency to be of good character because they are non-religious. If she did, she would think all people, whatever their beliefs or non-belief, have a tendency to be of good character. But this generous thought is precisely not what her statement says. On the contrary, her remarks to the jaw-breaking ‘devout Muslim’ (so the newspapers described him) Shamso Miah imply that she thinks that religious people have a greater tendency to be good than non-religious people. What justifies this assumption? Is it the fact that self-avowed non-religious people commit atrocities against other all other people, religious and non-religious alike, explicitly in the name of their non-religion, indeed driven to such actions in service of their non-religion? Of course not. So on what basis other than prejudice and religious sentiment can Mrs. Blair claim, in a judgment made in a British courtroom, that someone ought to be more leniently treated because he is religious?

The wrong done to non-religious people of good character by this judgment, and the perversity of the judgment in itself, make it right that the National Secular Society (NSS) has lodged a complaint against Mrs. Blair. Some of the media response has been predictable. Andrew Brown, who has a regular blog on the Guardian website in which to air his views on religious matters, quotes the NSS statement:

"What would have happened if he had been an atheist? Would Mrs. Blair/Booth have refused to suspend the sentence on the grounds that non-believers have no guiding principles that tell them that smashing people in the face for no good reason is not the right thing to do? This is a very worrying case of discrimination that appears to show that religious people get different treatment in Cherie Blair's court."

And then Brown says that on the question ‘whether being a devout Muslim (or Christian) is in itself a sign of good character…Cherie Booth seems to be arguing that it is…. For [secularists] being a devout believer is quite the opposite. It's evidence of bad character.’ How does Brown, ignoring Mrs. Blair’s assumptions, get from this NSS remark to the claim that it, or any secularist, thinks ‘being a devout believer is evidence of bad character’? (It gets worse; Brown continues by saying that in NSS President Terry Sanderson’s ‘world’ judges should be saying, ‘Although you have no previous convictions, you are none the less a follower of Pope Benedict XVI and so unable to tell right from wrong. I therefore find myself compelled to impose a custodial sentence’. This travesty is par for the Brown course.) It is precisely because assumptions in either direction are empty – a central and foundational secularist tenet – that the NSS rightly challenges Mrs. Blair, a point Mr Brown seems unable to grasp.

In the Times a young philosophy graduate turned journalist, Mr Hugo Rifkind, although claiming to sympathise with the National Secular Society’s complaint against Mrs. Blair, further claims that his ‘philosophy degree’ tells him that Mrs. Blair and her Roman Catholic church are the ones who are right in claiming that religious belief ‘gives you a sort of super, better morality, which outweighs everything else’. His reason for saying this is, as he puts it, that ‘There’s no such thing as abstract morality. It doesn’t even make any sense. If God isn’t the ultimate answer, what is?”

This is an awful advertisement for wherever Mr Rifkind studied philosophy. Either that or he was not paying attention in ‘week one’ when it appears (from what he says) his ethics course took place. And he certainly seems to have stopped thinking since then. Let me direct his attention to Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, Hume, Kant, and a few dozen others among the thinkers he ought to have come across in his studies, whose ethics are not premised on divine command or the existence of supernatural agencies, but proceed from consideration of what human beings, in this life in this world, owe each other in the way of respect, concern, trust, fairness and honesty. The rich deep tradition of humanistic ethics stemming from classical antiquity has a tendency to make much of what passes for morality in religion (‘give away all your possessions’, ‘take no thought for the morrow’, ‘women must cover their heads in church’) look merely silly or trivial – at least in regard to what is distinctive to the religion, and not part of wider ethics whether religious or non-religious. Indeed Mr Rifkind is somewhat overexposed in philosophical ignorance here, for he ought to know that what is of practical value in Christian ethics is an import from the late Hellenic and Roman schools, mainly Stoicism, in the fourth century CE and later, to supply the want of a livable ethics in a religion that, to begin with, imminently expected the end of the world and had no use for money, marriage, and other aspects of ordinary life. So as the centuries passed it had to look about for something more sensible, and of course found it in the classical pre-Christian tradition. And to put matters in summary terms: the Roman Stoic conception of good character knocks Mrs. Blair’s (and Mr Rifkind’s) into a cocked hat, where they belong.

The point that emerges from this unedifying matter is that Mrs. Blair has proved herself unfit for the bench, and a vigorous reassertion of judicial impartiality and inclusiveness is needed. It ought to come as a corollary to a disciplinary action against Mrs. Blair, her removal from the bench, and a commitment to having better reasons for keeping violent people out of prison than that they believe in ancient pre-scientific superstitions.




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