Does religion help or hinder social progression in relation to Western legal systems, and if so how do we find the balance between religious expression and state secularism?

Religious expression is both protected by the Human Rights Act 1988 and present within UK laws, with 12 Church of England bishops active within the House of Lords. In 2015, the government clarified that ‘laws and practises protect religious freedom… in practise, the government generally enforced these protections’. Yet, between 2011 and 2021, the population of Christians fell ‘from 59%… to 46%’. In 2015, the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life concluded that Britain is no longer a Christian country based on 3 observations: the increase in number of non-religious people, the decline in Christian affirmation and increase in non-Christian religious affirmation. Despite the country’s historic association and following of Christianity, it no longer correlates with its population and no longer represents their lifestyles. The Church of England still has a ceremonial role in public life and politics, churches are still traditional places for weddings and funerals and religious schools are still legal. While being able to argue a freedom of religious expression here, we can also argue that it currently infringes too much on non-religious way of life. The balance, therefore, between religious expression and state secularism is something that needs to be protected by the UK government.

The concept of the legal system, regardless of which country it rules over, shares similar qualities with the ruling nature of religion; both share structures and sanctities, as well as providing a guideline as how to live ones life. They, in theory, dictate the way that one should lead their lives. Differences only appear when it comes to universality; the legal system applies to everyone, regardless of social factors, whereas religion is taken upon consensually. Instances where these become interconnected, when religion becomes prevalent within law, is where problems start to arise, as consent is no longer optional when it comes to religious practises. For instance, in Italy, the Vatican caused the country to impose ‘Right to Life’ provisions in Human Rights instruments, to prohibit acts such as abortion in line with the Church. Similarly, abortion is still banned in Northern Ireland.

Minority groups, such as women and homosexuals, are often underrepresented within religious laws, with the Bible stating that ‘do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’ (1 Timothy 2:11-15) and that ‘if a man has intercourse with a man as with a woman, both commit an abomination’ (Leviticus 20:13). This has been interpreted into law throughout history such as the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which made the age of consent between men 21 instead of 16, like heterosexual relations. Rape within marriage, which predominantly affects women, was still legal until 2003 with the Sexual Offences Act and gay men were not allowed to donate blood until 2022. This, although laws have been changed now, reflect the repressive nature that literal religious readings had on UK law; still, despite rectifying this, affects UK opinion as ‘more than a third of over-65s do not consider forced marital sex rape’. More liberal readings of the bible would consider social context in their beliefs, taking into account minority rights’ into their religious practise. However, with the representation that the House of Lords has of Christianity, plus the Christian association that the Conservative Party still has, the values of the religion still remain. This demonstrates the harmful nature too much religious impact has on UK law, considering that minority groups generally have legal equality.

As well as this, it is considered an outdated outlook on a country, which has significant minorities of other religions. For instance, the UK Muslim population increased by 1.16 million between 2011 and 2021, highlighting a large section of society that feel underrepresented by their government. Sharia law, the Muslim way of life that they should adhere to, also contains roughly the same values of life that all Muslims should follow, like Christians. Yet, it is currently not represented explicitly within UK law. While the discussion of whether law should include mentions of religion at all remains unanswered, if we are to include religious values, all significant religions in the UK should be represented. The controversy surrounding Islamic law, heightened by the Islam-related terrorism within recent decades and Western-deemed poor treatment of women and homosexuals, prevents the public from fully welcoming the Muslim population; ‘23.2% of people from upper and lower middle-class social groups harbour prejudiced views about Islamic beliefs’, showing a general distrust of Islamic practises. However, considering the controlling stances Christianity has over women’s bodies and social practises, each religion should not be adhered to literally within UK law. Instead, moderation should be practised as to what applies to the majority of the UK population, values that Britain upholds regardless of religion, and remain partially secular.

John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth century philosopher, proposed the Harm Principle as a way of combatting free speech within a society; he states that ‘If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind’. In theory, he claims that one should be able to exercise one’s freedom to express their opinion, as long as it does not cause harm to another. He also, in contrast, allows that person’s opinion to be subjected to criticism, so that ideas can be tried and tested. By allowing this, the strongest and most universal of ideas within society would be held up, to such standard as the law. This, in today’s world, would become impossible considering the variety of cultural and social differences countries have from one another, as well as our differences being something to be proud of. Having one, uniform opinion would turn our world into a world domination, which has not ended well within history.

The solution, therefore, of how to balance Mill’s definition and placed-importance of free speech and the interference of religion within Western law is a hard question to answer. No country has fully succeeded, with France’s state-secularism failing to acknowledge religion as a whole and singular-religion countries not giving representation to others. However, if a country could allow reasonable practise of all religion, while simultaneously allowing free speech of those who do not practise, the dilemma would be easier to solve.