Religious freedom debates set blood boiling. Just consider notable Supreme Court cases of recent years such as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission or Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania. How can we reach any agreement between those who adhere strictly to the demands of divine law and the individual conscience and those for whom human-derived law is paramount? Is there any legal and philosophical framework that can mediate when tensions erupt between the human right of religious liberty and laws in the secular realm?
In her 2019 book, The Possibility of Religious Freedom: Early Natural Law and the Abrahamic Faiths (Cambridge UP), Karen Taliaferro argues that natural law can act as just such a mediating tool. Natural law thinking can both help protect religious freedom and enable societies across the globe to maintain social peace and to function on the basis of fairness to all. Taliaferro shows that natural law is not merely a somewhat arcane legal philosophy promulgated by a subset of mostly conservative Catholic scholars and philosophers. She argues that natural law offers those in many faith traditions and those of no faith whatever a workable, intellectually rich way to examine fundamental questions of law and fairness without relegating religion to ever-diminishing permissible venues.
One of the signal contributions of the book is that Taliaferro shows us how non-Christian thinkers such as the Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes), the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, and Sophocles in his play Antigone (and Taliaferro’s original and provocative reading of that work alone is well worth the price of the book) employed natural law reasoning even if they did not use the term as such. For those who need to learn how societies around the world (and Taliaferro draws fascinatingly on her own experiences in the Middle East at times in the book) can balance the rights of religious people and the demands of other citizens for a strict, often ruthless secularism this book is the place to start. Give a listen.
Hope J. Leman is a grants researcher.