Traditionally, the law year commences with a church service. In a hangover from the law’s English heritage, that service is always held in July. In Australia (and Queensland in particular) this is a good thing. Barristers, judges and clergy alike turn up in full kit – wigs, ermine fringed gowns, robes, the lot. Everyone in the local legal fraternity also fronts up. The most senior judge in the jurisdiction delivers a short address, as does the most senior clergyman. It is all very formal and ritualistic, a hangover from a bygone age. For a skeptic and atheist like me, it presents something of, ahem, a challenge.
Our law term commencement service was yesterday. I toyed with the idea of not going, but decided this would not only look churlish, but was churlish. Country towns with small professions are generally very collegial, and failing to front at an event social as much as religious would mark me out as someone with an unnecessary bug in my hat.
I gave religion the boot when I was about 13. Not for any particular reason, just that I found I didn’t believe it, no matter how hard I tried. It was impossible to relate to such a distant God. I never got the sense that God was among us, and strongly suspected that Jesus Christ was a greatly misunderstood philosopher and freethinker, but most definately not God. As I was on a full scholarship at a religious school, this presented something of a quandary. So I did what countless non-believers in a similar setting have done in the past. I kept schtum and observed the bare minimum, floating (largely) under the radar. My family wasn’t particularly religious, so this was no great burden.
In later years, I was grateful for the solid religious instruction I received. Apart from perplexing the door-to-door hawkers of various American-made beliefs, I’m generally fairly well-informed on religious debate, doctrine and scripture. I’ve noticed that those who know nothing are more easily snowed, particularly by some of the loopier fringe religions. Although operating out of a different tradition, I think David Hicks falls firmly into this category. A political and religious naif, he was easily persuaded into adopting a system that had neat, pat answers to everything within his ken, not to mention a few tasty conspiracy theories to boot.
The bishop, in his law term address, spent a pungent ten minutes talking about the separation of church and state, and how Christianity – in cooperation with parliament and the courts – had largely achieved this, while Islam had not. He pointed out that religious morality, when enforced by the state, utterly loses its power to persuade. The essence of true morality is choice. Legal ‘right’ and religious ‘right’ may often coincide, but that is an effect of history, not enforcement.
Needless to say, my discomfort at being in a place where everything was unfamiliar – the hymns, the procedure, the method – evaporated at least temporarily. I realised that to a very large degree, this Anglican clergyman was articlating what skeptics have been saying for years: if society is to function, religion has to be kept in its box.
Afterwards, scone in hand (yes, these churchy things are also characterised by devonshire teas and good, strong coffee), I sought out the bishop and complimented him on his talk (called a homily, I learned). ‘Oh yes,’ he said mildly. ‘We are on the same side in this’.