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Author: Ted Fairchild

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Source: Public Domain Music by Kevin MacLeod, “Amazing Grace."

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Hello and welcome. Today we're going to learn about religion and law. What comes to mind when you think of law? Well, authority, a sense of morality and justice and truth, a sense of right and wrong, ethical conduct in the world, how to behave, punishment, right and wrong, maybe reward for good behavior as well.

Where does it all come from? How do we learn this? We teach our children this. How do we learn this? From our parents.

Where does it come from? Where does it go back to? Well, certainly there's an element of handed down wisdom, a sense of justice and morality. But what is it really? Maybe you think of the Ten Commandments, prescriptions and prohibitions against certain things.

So what we hope to understand today is that law and ethics and morality and religion are all very much interwoven and that, in some cultures, religion is the terra firma, the ground of law and the legal structure. We also want to see that, in some cultures and societies which seek to separate religion and the sphere of state, the secular realm of civil life, politics, and law, one still finds the presence and the influence of religion and the inherited traditions of religion, the commitments, and its laws.

In order to really understand the etiology, or the origin and cause and the evolution of these norms and codes and laws and how religion fits into it all, we might look at primitive societies. In primitive societies, early society back into the Stone Age, really, there was no term or concept for law. Sure, there were laws.

There were natural laws that governed people's lives, like the weather and death and we could even think of motherhood and the role of motherhood as caretaker of the child as being one of the foundations of morality and personal responsibility. And there were other rules that governed behavior, as well, based on ancestral authority. And this was for reasons of respect and maintenance of order and cooperation among king and tribes. And they required solidarity to function in a strange and unpredictable world.

So there were these early forms of prayer to the ancestors, the keepers of the order. And they also prayed to the supernatural powers and made sacrifices to them. They prayed to animal spirits to ensure a good hunt. They prayed to agricultural gods for good harvest, et cetera.

So their worldy order and behavior as societies followed these beliefs and norms. And we see some signs of it, for example, in their art, in their cave paintings, in the shards of pottery. But it was not a written code. It was orally transmitted or through art. But it was not written down-- not until the Bronze Age, anyway, and the emergence of Sumerian society around 3000 BCE.

Some of the earliest forms of writing known as cuneiform indicate the relationship between man in these societies and the supernatural-- and also domestic relationships involving geographical boundaries as well as relationships between individuals-- in other words, ethical conduct in society. So the first written codes can't be considered law. However, they were an evolving code of conduct for societies that were beginning to shift into relationships that involved mixed clans as opposed to single clan, king-based rules and behavior and guidelines and obligations.

The English word law comes from decree and partnership. And the word legal comes from the Latin lex, which is taken from the Latin verb legare, to bind, to bring together, to bring together. Religion comes from the Latin re-ligare, also to bind. So we see there's a shared etymological root between law, legal, and religion. The Greek word for morality is ethicos, which refers to behave in society.

You don't begin to see the intertwining of formal law and ethics and social behavior until writing and language starts to be more directly associated with the supernatural-- not the supernatural only as an indirect other but the supernatural as a direct other who communicates personally with mankind. This is known as the revealed word of God revelation-- revealed to Moses, Christian prophets, and Muhammad. It becomes the basis for law in the land, formal law and the Mosaic law, for example.

So there's a founding of religious culture that sought to bind together family and non-family alike to fulfill the contract that a people made with God. So it's a metaphorical kinship, which is inscribed and written down in the sacred texts of many of their religious traditions. The higher law now had a conduit or connection to life in society.

The Ten Commandments-- divine revelation to Moses and became the bedrock of society, laws, and ethics and norms. Thou shalt not kill, et cetera, one system under God, so to speak-- similarly in Islam, the Quran, the words given to Muhammad from Allah. This is the basis of their law.

In front of many US courthouses, you can find a representation of the Ten Commandments. And it leads you to wonder what is exactly the role of religion in life today.

In some cultures today, that higher law is still directly referred to as a basis for civil law, like we said with Islam. These states are known as theocracies-- theo, the Greek word for God. It refers to a society beholden to divine law.

In many Middle Eastern countries, religious law forms the basis for all other laws. For example, in Islamic societies, it's called Sharia. And religious scholars are very involved in the process of assessing the relationship between divine doctrine and state law.

So we've been following this transition from what anthropologists sometimes call primitive law to formal codification or a coding, codes of conduct, laws, and rules to live by, et cetera. And humanity has had a changing relationship to ideas about what is right and wrong, what should be emphasized, how to express that, and who is responsible. And that could take us into the realm of enforcement and Roman law and private property and business relations, et cetera.

But what we've really been trying to understand here is the theory and the history behind some of our common sense understandings about right behavior, morality, laws that we take for granted and just accept as ways of conducting ourselves in society. And we also have been looking at how religion and religious concepts and beliefs are almost always behind this sort of common sense understanding.

Some reformers of history thought that these codes of conduct were so common sense that God could just be written out of the law and let jurisdiction over human behavior rest in human hands. And let issues pertaining to God rest in the realm of religion-- two separate realms, so the argument went-- separation of church and state. And this has been the case and still is the case in many places-- in France, in the US, for example. The US, in principle, tries to maintain this.

But now we're back to our question, knowing that the origin of law has a religious background and knowing that all of ethics and morality seems to be an evolutionary chain that precedes law but then comes into and becomes a part of it. Again, we're back to the question. What is being bound? What is the binding force?


Terms to Know
Separation of Church and State

The creation of separate religious and secular spheres in a society.

Ten Commandments

The principal divine ordinances given to Moses by God.


Government by religious leaders and/or according to religious principles.