It looks like I’m going to write an entry criticising every piece in the book… Oh dear. At some point, I should get around to Eggs_Maledict’s request to explain what I like about conservatism. Every time I sit to write that entry, I get a bit lost and need to reframe the argument. Look forward to it.
In the mean time, we have ‘Religion and the Law in Australia’, written by Clarence Wright. In fairness to this guy, he hasn’t made any beefed up claims about himself (like the other two authors) and seems to have been included in this anthology by virtue of being friends with the editor (they’re both Brisbane atheists). Later, the anthology will include Tim Minchin’s poem about a dinner party, so I think we’ve given up on considering this anthology to have much in the way of intellectual merit.
But let’s give Wright’s article a chance to shine…
He starts off with Thomas Aquinas’ account of ‘natural law‘ but mangles a bit to get to his conclusion:
This religious and unsophisticated ideal of just law resulting from ‘God’s’ direction, through his Holy Text, the Bible, no longer serves a significant influence on jurisprudence. [Source: Clarence Wright, ‘Religion and the law in Australia’]
Phew. If we accept Wright’s reading of Aquinas (which we shouldn’t, but whatever), then we atheists have nothing to worry about. This religious ideal is no longer a significant influence! Hooray and hoorah. Victory to us.
Wait… why is his conclusion on the second page of his article?
Damn. It was a trap.
I intend here to examine the record of legal development in Australia to better understand how religion has influenced our society. [Ibid.]
So all that waffle about Aquinas was just showing off? Okay…
In commencing the main body of his article, Wright sets the tone with his opening line:
The first laws of Australia were developed by the first Australians, who arrived on this continent more than 40,000 years ago (some 34,000 years before ‘God’ created the universe). [Ibid.]
Hurr hurr hurr. It’s funny because Christians believe that God created the universe 6,000 years ago. Hurr hurr. Like all of them. Go ask a Christian when they think that the universe was created and they’ll all say ‘6,000 years ago, in October’. That’s because they’re dumb. Hurr hurr.
Do you know what’s really dumb? Citing Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel as the source for that factoid. You’d have to be a complete moron to do that, wouldn’t you? Lo and behold, the footnote (number 6) links the 6,000 year old universe thing to Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.
I might be being uncharitable here. It might be that the footnote is in the wrong place (mostly because I don’t remember Diamond mentioning the 6,000 year old universe thing) in which case Wright is just stupid for making the unnecessary comment and stuffing up his footnotes, but whatever.
There’s a short passage on the application of Blackstone’s Commentaries to Australia (terra nullius) and the tenuous link to religious justification for spreading Christianity is vaguely mentioned. Nothing meaty is really discussed or analysed.
Wright jumps immediately to the writing of the Constitution but swerves after introducing the scene to discuss the U.S. Constitution. After name dropping Sam Harris and Thomas Jefferson, he gets back to the above-mentioned point of the article: Australian law and religion. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution looks an awful lot like Article VI, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. Woooooooo.
Wright jumps from there to a confusing account of Adelaide Company of Jehovah’s Witnesses vs the Commonwealth. He drops a few quotes hither and thither before jumping to an American case, then another Australian case. The point?
Thus, the Commonwealth continues to provide funding to the states, which eventually migrates to the religious education of children throughout Australia. [Ibid.]
Oh… And this a bad thing, right? You can tell that Wright thinks it’s bad that public funding goes to religious schools in Australia, but he never bothers to show why (nor did Max Wallace’s article). It’s just assumed that it’s bad and this unexamined assumption prevents any meaningful analysis of religion’s influence in Australia.
Bafflingly, Wright ‘turn[s] the focus […] to areas of remaining inequity in our legal system that relate to religious organisations.’ This is, remember, an essay ‘examin[ing] the record of legal development in Australia to better understand how religion has influenced our society’. Now it’s outlining inequity in our legal system that relate to religious organisations. Are these the same thing? Does religious influence ipso facto mean inequality in the legal system? Who knows? Certainly not Wright.
[I]n litigation, the financial resources to retain high-quality legal representation that quickly deals with legal issues are highly preferable, if not necessary, for success.
Religious organisations have significant resources […]. This degree of wealth and power of religious organisations is often applied for the purpose of retaining top legal teams to appear in courts on matters which are important to their faith. [Ibid.]
Do you know who else has significant resources? Companies. That degree of wealth and power of companies is often applied for the purpose of retaining top legal teams to appear in courts on matters which are important to them. Do you know who else has significant resources? Governments. That degree of wealth and power of governments is often applied for the purpose of retaining top legal teams to appear in courts on matters which are important to them. Do you know who else has significant resources…
It’s not like the religious organisations are doing something wicked and terrible. They, like everybody else, are able to defend themselves in court using whatever resources they have to do so. It’s terrible that people can buy legal services like this but this isn’t due to the influence of religion in Australian law. This is due to capitalism in Australian law.
Wright then outlines a case where the Exclusive Brethren won a Family Court case against an unrepresented father (‘we should be careful not to be critical of an unrepresented father’s efforts against a seasoned and experienced legal team’, says Wright). Surprise, surprise. People who hire lawyers are more likely to win their lawsuits than people who represent themselves (especially in Family Court. Holy hell, what was the guy thinking?).
Wright concludes the passage with:
While it would be tempting to criticise Justice Brown’s decision, that decision is the correct application of the relevant law. [Ibid.]
Hang on… So his complaint is that terrible things happen when the law is applied correctly because religious institutions can pay for lawyers? Again, the passage has so many unexamined assumptions and no real analysis.
Wright then moves quickly on to another case which makes utterly no sense. In a nutshell, an unmarried woman wanted IVF and successfully claimed that the Victorian law which prevented her from having IVF was inconsistent with the Commonwealth law. A group of Bishops didn’t like this decision and hired some lawyers. The High Court dismissed the submissions from the Bishops.
Hang on… What is this passage supposed to show?
Thus, the role of social conscience of a nation as it relates to an individual’s dispute does not fall upon the Church. [Ibid.]
Oh… Good? Hang on… Wasn’t this an essay about the inequity of our legal system in regard to religion? Or was this an essay about the influence of religion on Australian law? Either way, how does this relate to either of those aims?
It doesn’t help that Wright often gets confused. Half way through discussing the IVF case, Wright says:
Dempsey discusses various submissions regarding this position […]. Dempsey would disagree [Ibid.]
Who is this mysterious Dempsey and why do we care if he agrees? Only Clarence Wright knows. The footnotes appear to link to the author of a journal article.
In his conclusion, Wright goes back to mentioning Aquinas for no apparent reason. Then he hops on to a calling of arms for atheists:
We should be prepared to criticise religious groups exercising the law [by using their wealth], whether that is democratically — through our electoral rights and contact with elected representatives — or through public support or criticism of judgements made through our courts. [Ibid.]
So we should get politicians to lean on judges or we should criticise judges ourselves?
It just doesn’t make any sense…
In case it isn’t already obvious, don’t buy this book (The Australian Book of Atheism). It’s utterly dreadful.