So should judges take faith into account when sentencing?

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The Independent Online

NO , says Andrew Copson is chief executive of the British Humanist Association.

Cherie Booth’s remarks betray an assumption still made by too many in society that you are a good person if you are religious – that religiousness is proof of good character and not being religious is a negation of morality. Even if few people would buy into that statement put so bluntly, some people would, and a lot of people come close to it.

The claim is nonsense and the logical inconsistencies of thinking that morality depends on god or religion are well known. Socrates asked 2,500 years ago whether (a) the gods say to do something because it is good or (b) something is good because the gods say to do it. Ever since then, the theist who answers (b) has had to explain why they would not rape and murder if god told them to and the theist who answers (a) has had to explain what the ultimate moral arbiter beyond god is, and what sense it makes to say that morality comes from god if even god is constrained by some other moral source one step back again. Neither theist has ever had much luck in doing so.

The belief that for human beings to be moral requires an external divinity also has nasty undertones of contempt for humanity. As the philosopher and humanist A J Ayer said, ‘The underlying assumption is that only purely selfish behaviour is natural to man; so that if it ever happens, as it not infrequently does, that people behave unselfishly, they must be inspired by a higher power. This assumption is false and the conclusion that is drawn from it is invalid... if experience shows that people act unselfishly as well as selfishly, we can only conclude that both types of behaviour are natural.’

In any case, even if a person is religious, it does not endow them with any special rectitude (as the case of a religious man convicted of assault might be seen to demonstrate). Prison population statistics show that over three-quarters of those locked up are religious; we know from the annual Citizenship Survey that religious and non-religious people are involved to the same proportion as each other in volunteering. We all know in our daily lives good non-religious people and bad religious people. More than that, we know that religion can actually inspire violence – from honour killings to crusades to gay-bashing to terrorist atrocities.

If leniency should be shown to those who are of otherwise good character, sorry for what they have done, then it is these qualities that matter, not whether or not the penitent in question believes in gods, angels or an immortal soul.

YES, says Paul Woolley is director of Theos, the public theology think tank

It’s no surprise that the National Secular Society (NSS) has complained to the Office for Judicial Complaints that Cherie Booth’s decision is discriminatory and unjust. Isn’t Cherie Booth’s ruling simply another example of double standards and the ‘privileging’ of religion? The NSS certainly seems to think so, but I don’t. Cherie Booth’s decision was neither unjust or discriminatory. The controversy surrounding this case centres on a wrong understanding of religion, discrimination and Cherie Booth’s logic.

Firstly, Cherie Booth didn’t suspend Shamso Miah’s prison sentence on the basis that he believes in the existence of a deity in the same way that a person believes in the existence of the moon. Religious faith is a world-view, a way of seeing and living in the world, that should affect the totality of a person’s life and the choices they make. Religion (derived from the Latin religare, meaning ‘to bind’) binds people together.

Secondly, judges are required to discriminate among offenders and distinguish between those for whom prison is the right response and those for whom it isn’t. In arriving at her judgement, Cherie Booth had to balance competing concerns. The crime Mr Miah committed was serious, and the law should judge and punish crime. However, Cherie Booth also had to decide whether sending Mr Miah to prison would be of benefit to him and the wider society. Since he hasn’t been in trouble before, and since he is an active member of a community, she decided that suspending the sentence for two years was the better course of action. It is now for Mr Miah to demonstrate, not only in words but also deeds, whether or not he knows how to live responsibly. If he fails to take the opportunity and gets into trouble again, he will rightly go to prison.

Thirdly, Cherie Booth was taking into account that Mr Miah is part of a community of faith. In that community, he is known and accountable. The evidence indicates that belonging to a community reduces the likelihood of re-offending. That’s why community based rehabilitation programmes are so popular.

This is not a worrying case of discrimination. Cherie Blair’s action was neither unjust or unusual. It was commonsense.