Religious Beliefs and the Law

I read the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s first Reith Lecture on the subject of Creed recently. And what he has to say about religious beliefs makes for an interesting read, particularly in the context of the Supreme Court judgment upholding the right of women to enter the Sabarimala temple.

Appiah opines that religious beliefs are mutable. They tend to change over time and their form at any given time is reliant less on a religious text or inscription and more on the people interpreting them. He also contends that apart from beliefs, two other dimensions exist for any religion: the actual practice of the religion and the community which practices it. This shifting nature of beliefs is borne out in the Sabarimala case, with several articles (examples here and here) that question the antiquity of the belief used to bar the entry of women of a certain age from entering the temple.

This poses a question: should the courts consider religious beliefs at all? This is a slightly different argument to the one where the courts looking at essential religious practices are criticised for their competency in judging such practices. This argument says that the mutability of religious beliefs makes them a poor foundation on which to pass a judgment that is meant to stand the test of time.

Of course, this does not answer the question of what, if not this, should be the basis for pronouncing judgments on similar issues. Nor does it answer the broader charge that State institutions like the judiciary should resist the urge to consider such questions, leaving them to be dealt with by private individuals and communities. But it does provide a useful justification for the courts to not go down the rabbit-hole of religious beliefs when faced with a question of religious importance.