The Fall of the Priests and the Rise of the Lawyers
Philip R. Wood
Hart Publishing/Bloomsbury £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
THE thesis of this book is simple enough. It is that there has been a “slow decline of religions over centuries and the fantastic and sudden growth of law”. As a result, it is necessary to consider “whether the law could fill the gaps left by religion and whether a philosophy of life and the meaning of life can be formulated without religion”.
Readers will be pleased to know that the author thinks it can. Indeed, he thinks that “the moral systems of religion have been overtaken by secular law. Secular law has now become the main pillar of the moral framework necessary for our survival.”
After two chapters exploring what is religion and what is the rule of law, the book proceeds by setting out in a series of short accounts the basic tenets of Western religions (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam), and Eastern religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, Confucianism, and others), with comments thereon.
I doubt that many steeped in these various religious traditions will find much to enlighten in these sketches: indeed, they are more likely to read much that will perplex. This is followed by a chapter looking at the three main forms of law (common, Napoleonic, and Roman-Germanic), and how these are to be found in most of the eight main jurisdictional family groups. It is noted that these forms of legal system have been exported globally in the past 300 years, and that this has been a great event in world history. It is concluded that “the rule of law and the laws embedded in legal systems are now the single most significant ideology in the world and the most important in terms of our survival.”
There is then a “brief tour of secular law” (30 pages covering criminal law, family law and sex, inheritance law, constitutional law and democracy, tort and the limits of liability, contract, conflicts of laws, public international law, bankruptcy law, and property law) to demonstrate “how wide the gap is between secular and religious law”.
The book then turns to the money banks and corporations, which the author thinks terribly important, But he notes — regretfully — that, while it would be an “unfair generalisation to allege that religions are hostile” to them, “on the whole religious leaders are not overly enthusiastic about these things.”
We then have chapters on secularisation and religious decline, at the end of which it is concluded that “it may well be that humankind will decide it can do without religion, but humankind cannot do without law.” Thus we turn to the rise of the lawyers — and to the intriguing question “who in fact rules the world and also who should rule the world”. This turns out to be a contest between lawyers and economists, which the lawyers seem to win, since lawyers “can no longer cast themselves just as the ministrants of law. Lawyers must be moral leaders.”
We finish with a short reflection on scientific progress, before concluding with the author’s Seven Commandments (my term, not his), the first of which is “Honour and believe in the Rule of Law.”
I shall leave the assiduous reader to discover the remaining six, as one would need some return on the investment in reading the book itself — not that there is none: en route, one is reminded (in a discussion on redistribution of wealth) that “Robin Hood was a very attractive fellow, but he was also a mugger,” and one can be relieved to be reassured that when “at our back we always hear some terrible chariot hurrying near, its horses whipped by a blind charioteer who cares nothing for either GDP or the rule of law”, it is “not the cat”. We later learn that that terrible charioteer “is the foul fiend within ourselves”.
It seems that we need lawyers, not priests, to save us from this scourge.
Dr Evans is Professor of Public International Law at the University of Bristol.