Thursday, 4 February 2010

Mrs Blair, religion and a punch in the mouth

Here's a tip. Next time you intend to punch someone in the face, go to church first. Or a mosque. Or some other officially-sanctioned place of worship. And then pray - because you're religious - that it's Judge Cherie Booth QC, a.k.a Mrs Tony "Faith" Blair, who gets to hear your case. She'll probably let you off.

After all, she let off Shamso Miah, a "devout Muslim", with a suspended sentence after he was convicted of fracturing a man's jaw during an altercation in a bank queue. Miah had just come from his local mosque. Booth's quoted remarks, which form the subject of a complaint by the National Secular Society to the Office for Judicial Complaints, are really quite startling:

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 are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.

Jack of Kent has been Tweeting that Booth's words show no evidence of discrimination against non-believers, as the NSS alleges. Perhaps they don't, technically. We don't know how she would have treated someone in Miah's position who had punched a stranger hard enough to break their jaw shortly after leaving a meeting of Sceptics in the Pub. "The NSS have lost their critical faculties and become hysterical over a lousy court report" says the legal blogger. And: "There would be a story if there was an atheist raising 'moral character' control treated less favourably, but there isn't."

Maybe not. But I think the following deductions can safely be made from the short reports of the story that have appeared in the press:

1) Miah's lawyer adduced the fact of his mosque visit as evidence of his religiosity and, hence, good character*

2) Cherie Booth accepted this evidence. In particular, the words "based on the fact you are a religious person" appear to suggest that his religion, rather than merely attesting to his good character, was in itself the primary reason for suspending his sentence. Being generally of good character was the secondary reason for the suspended sentence. If she did not mean to say this, then her use of language was, for a senior lawyer, remarkably imprecise.

3) She also appeared to suggest that being religious was a guarantee of future good behaviour, since it showed that he "knew it was not acceptable behaviour" to punch someone in the face. She drew an explicit connection between being religious and being aware of the unacceptability of this kind of violence.

Whether or not an atheist of good character would have been treated in the same way is not the only issue. The likelihood that Booth was "just referring to the terms of the mitigation put to her by his defence" (another JoK Tweet) is very relevant, however. It shows that both the defence lawyer and the judge accepted evidence of religiosity as evidence of good character. Similarly, Charon QC speculates:

Mrs Booth may well have added the religious point for added emphasis. It could be that a religious person being castigated in this way ‘you are a religious person and know that this is not acceptable’ would find that more shaming?

That caveat only applies to the second use of the word religious; and I can't reconcile it with the plain statement that the suspended sentence was "based on the fact that you are a religious person". But even if Charon is right, it is still problematical: it suggests that a religious person is being held to a different standard than a non-religious one. That his religion was the reason he ought to have known better. But you don't need religion to tell you that it's wrong to punch someone in the face.

The suggestion that someone who is a practising member of a religion is more likely to be law-abiding may not in itself amount to discrimination against the godless, but it is a prejudice. It's a widely held belief, even among many non-religious people, but there's no evidence for it. Some of the worst monsters of history - Ivan the Terrible, Henry VIII, Vlad the Impaler - have been deeply and sincerely religious men, as are the theocrats who currently oppress the people of Iran. Being religious in "the wrong way" today might predispose someone towards committing acts of terrorism or abusing children. More broadly, religious nations (eg the United States) are not notably more moral or crime-free than those (such as the Scandanavian countries) with a higher proportion of non-religious citizens.

The influence of religion on character, if any, is likely to be highly complex. I've written before about research which suggests that religious believers tend to attribute to God views that are in fact theirs. Thus belief is likely to exaggerate character traits that are already present. A violently-disposed person might want to wage war in the name of God, whereas a charitable one may work harder for a good cause out of belief that they are doing God's will. Alternatively, strongly-held beliefs might induce feelings of guilt that resolve themselves in violent, "out-of-character" actions.

There is, however, no direct link between religious belief and moral behaviour. My guess would be that religion is perceived to be a good thing because it is concerned with morality and, historically, with the imposition of socially-sanctioned moral codes. The idea that religion is "moral" somehow rubs off on believers, who are imagined to embody the morals enjoined by their faith. And no doubt some of them do behave better as a result.

Is Booth's decision the result of some personal quirk? It seems unlikely - after all, the defence lawyer thought Miah's religiosity worth bringing up. It's quite possible that the argument is being adduced, and tacitly accepted, in courts up and down the country. The only unusual feature here might be Cherie Booth's high public profile. I couldn't find any directly relevant British cases, but I recall that when Munir Hussain's was (briefly) imprisoned for battering his intruders there was much talk of his being a devout Muslim, as though this was somehow a relevant consideration. The US Supreme Court in the 1988 case of Franklin v. Lynaugh declared that "evidence of voluntary service, kindness to others or of religious devotion might demonstrate positive character traits that might mitigate against the death penalty". This, of course, implies that church attendance is equivalent to more obvious forms of altruistic behaviour.

If being religious is being accepted as evidence of good character in and of itself, then on average people who regularly attend church or mosque should be receiving lower sentences - or being released from jail earlier on grounds of "good behaviour" - than non-believers (or non-practising members of religions) whose situations are similar. This would amount to discrimination, not necessarily against individuals, but against the non-religious as a group. I'm not aware of any research in this area. It would be interesting to know.

*It turns out that this might not in fact be the case. See here.