Why ‘secular laws’ must rank above ‘religious laws’ in every society

Recently, a post I had made a long time ago where I was looking at the definitions and nature of religion received a comment which raised a very important point.  It was something that I had attempted to get across – and failed.  Here, I hope, to remedy this!

Context:  Having used the Jungian definition of ‘religion’, I argued that ‘freedom to practice one’s religion’ must never be given greater weight in our society than ‘secular laws’.

Permit me to recall ‘Xanthippa’s First Law of Human Dynamics‘ -IF there is a potential for ANY law (rule) to be applied IN EXTREME ways – never foreseen when the law was first formulated – eventually, it WILL BE!!!’.  In other words, every potential  law or rule must be subjected to scrutiny of its effects when (and it is a question of when, not if) it will be applied to a ridiculous extreme.

Therefore, in that post, I used an extreme example: ‘If there is a blanket protection for actions based on religious belief, even such extreme acts as ritualized murder would be protected’.

The comment:

‘I cannot agree with your definition of religion. Since I am Catholic, I will use my understanding of it to explain my position. At the core of Catholicism, is the belief that there are some things that, with regards to morality, are objectively wrong- wrong in every time, place, and situation. I believe that you yourself would assent to this, since you already have identified objective moral truths (human sacrifice, polygamy, ritual rape, paedophilia (child-brides), ritual cannibalism, genital mutilation).

Now, it is not enough to believe that human sacrifice is wrong, rather, one must also behave in accordance with that belief. If one does not have the freedom to act in accordance with that belief, of what value is the belief? None. It is nothing but an illusion of freedom which the state allows to placate the people.

The crux of the issue, however, lies in the contradiction between the constitutionally granted “freedom of religion” and the secular law- a contradiction that is only truly resolved if religious belief and secular law both conform to objective moral truth. You seem to assume, though, that secular law is ipso facto closer to objective moral truth and therefore has primacy, but that is a false (and sometimes dangerous) assumption. Our laws were not created in a vacuum, but created by people who drew from their religious beliefs, cultural backgrounds, and own understanding of morality. There is nothing to suggest that they inherently knew better and we should accept their moral code a priori.’

I am not, in any way, shape or form, convinced that there is such a thing as an ‘objective moral truth’.

This does not mean I don’t think some things are wrong.  Yet, I recognize these for judgments based on my observation of the collection of impressions I will, for lack of a better-defined term, call ‘life’.  I would be loath to have pretensions to any absolutes, even if I became convinced ‘absolutes’ could be defined.

First things first….   Sequentially, I suppose.

The commenter self-identifies as a ‘Catholic’ (Roman Catholic Christian, I presume).

He/she then asserts that ‘objective moral truths’ exist, and as a proof cites me that, among other things, ‘ritual cannibalism’ is wrong.  However, where I say these acts cannot be justified by ‘exercising one’s religious freedoms’ IF they contravene the secular laws of the land, the commenter goes further, calling this wrong in every time, place and situation and equating this condemnation with an ‘objective moral truth’.

HOW can a Catholic possibly assert that?

Is it not one of the core beliefs of Catholicism that the priests’ blessing physically transforms a wafer of bread into the actual flesh of Christ, wine into the actual blood of Christ?  Is the consumption of these not part of their worship rituals?

This is, by definition, ritual cannibalism.

Don’t be dismissive of its importance!  Either the person truly believes they are eating Christ’s flesh, or they are heretics to their faith and not a Roman Catholic Christian.  These definitions are not mine…  One cannot possibly be both a practicing Roman Catholic Christian and believe that it is an ‘objective moral truth’ that ‘ritual cannibalism’ is wrong in every time, place and situation – unless one believes their religion demands behaviour contrary to ‘objective moral truths’!

No, I am not trying to pick on the commenter:  rather, I am attempting to illustrate of just how quickly things get muddled when we enter the realm ‘theological principles’ and ‘objective moral truths’…  No society of free people could hope to form effective laws which respect core human rights and freedoms on such a tenuous foundation.

This is precisely why ‘secular laws’ must ‘trump’ religious ones whenever there is a conflict:  ‘secular laws’ do not and must not legislate morality.  To the contrary:  the primary role of secular laws must be the protection of individual rights and freedoms against the oppression by other peoples’ ‘morality’!

Justifying a proposed law by an appeal to ‘morality’ or ‘greater good’ or ‘public interest’ (all of these are the same thing at their core, they just wear different cloaks) should sound our ‘alarm bells’ that something dangerous is afoot and requires close scrutiny.


Passing laws on these grounds necessarily permits the morality of some to over-rule or abridge the rights of others.  Than, in my never-humble-opinion, is always a bad thing!

The commenter says:

You seem to assume, though, that secular law is ipso facto closer to objective moral truth and therefore has primacy…’

No, not at all.  I am sorry if I gave that impression.  To the contrary!

Secular laws are not created in a vacuum – not even the vacuum of some ‘alternate dimension’ where rule-making deities reside.  Rather, they are a negotiated contract among the citizens of a country how to best keep from infringing on each other’s rights as we strive to coexist and thrive.  It is a living contract, not set in stone, but continuously evolving to reflect the changes in our society – and it must be supreme because by the virtue of accepting citizenship (or residency), one voluntarily chooses to abide by them.  Or, at least, that is what the meaning of accepting citizenship (or residency) ought to imply…

Because it is a negotiated contract of ‘minimum interference’, if you will (OK – let me just say that it ‘ought to be’ as we see laws becoming more and more intrusive and ‘moralistic’….), it will necessarily reflect the moral ideals of the majority of the members of the society.  That is how it should be – provided that the core rights and freedoms of each and every individual are not infringed.

Our laws must permit every person to exercise their rights and freedoms as fully as possible – but not past the point where this activity would violate the rights of another person.  Sort of like that right to swing one’s arms stops just short of hitting someone else’s nose…

In other words, a man – say, my father – must be free to believe (or not) in whatever Gods he wants.  And, he must be free to worship (or not) them as best as he can – but the limit on his freedom to practice his religion must stop short of the right to kill me because I offended his God by wearing the wrong kind of polka-dots on Sunday!