In a very helpful BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day earlier in the week, Hindu academic and commentator Akhandadhi Das succinctly identified three key factors missing from the debate about Rowan Williams' lecture and interview of religious and civil law. First, the sources of the system of law we now have in the UK are themselves plural. Second law and religion (or any philosophy concerned with transcending the immediacy of life with a 'higher moral purpose') are different kinds of enterprises. Third, therefore, and bearing in mind the distinction between voluntary practice and unitary codification by the state, they can run as a series in different spheres, rather than having to be seen as integrated or competing. Spot on. Read the whole thing here. The crucial excerpts are as follows:
[M]any of the laws we think of as British have been borrowed from other sources and it's been customary to draw on ideas that work elsewhere. Some of those sources have been religious. For instance, 19th century British legislators adopted aspects of the ancient Hindu text, the Manu-smrti, particularly to do with land law and inheritance. But, that's a different proposition to what the Archbishop seems to have suggested. [...]
I agree that our laws reflect some of the best principles of any civilisation and have created the country I am most happy to live in. However, it is wrong to say that state laws embody the highest values of a society. They actually define the lowest level of behaviour we are willing to tolerate. State laws don't promote the best behaviour - they're designed to stop the worst.
But, a civilised society shouldn't hover just above the lowest boundary of what is acceptable. It must aspire to so much more. We need inspirational influences which extol positive qualities of kindness, generosity and responsibility to others. Religion often gets into a mess when it tries to affect the laws we all agree to live by. It succeeds best when it offers a vision of ideal human behaviour and provides a spiritual process of personal transformation that helps us grow towards that ideal.I agree with the general response to the Archbishop's speech that we cannot have separate or alternative legal systems. Religious and state standards should not be run in parallel. You could say that they're meant to run in series.