Law, Religion and Tradition

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Jessica Giles, Andrea Pin, Frank S. Ravitch
Law and Religion in Global Context
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , September
     191 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


According to its Foreword, Law, Religion and Tradition is among the “first fruits” of the inaugural European Academy of Religion (EuARe) conference held at the University of Bologna in June 2017 (vii). While many edited volumes are the result of conference panels, this particular conference—and the controversy it generated—requires some explanation.

When the EuARe was founded in 2016, the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR) and the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) released a joint statement declaring that they were “not in support” of the new body, which they claimed was superfluous to needs, disruptive of existing scholarly organizations, and unrepresentative of “the non-confessionally based and globally oriented approach that is essential to the study of religions as an academic discipline” (the inaugural conference seemed to focus on normative Christian theology and interreligious dialogue). Questions were raised about the new organization’s funding and its relationship to the Italian state.

Reading Law, Religion and Tradition in the wake of this dispute, it seems that EuRAe’s critics have a point: this is not a volume written with critical-descriptive scholars of religion in mind. Its Foreword is provided by Ján Figel’, the European Union’s (EU) Special Envoy for the Promotion of Freedom of Religion and Belief Outside the EU, who suggests that the book will be helpful to those engaged in the “noble effort” of promoting the “essential value, expansive universal right and civilizing principle” that is freedom of religion (vii-viii). Given that much recent scholarship in the field has challenged the idea that religious freedom is an “essential value” or “expansive universal right,” this lack of self-awareness is somewhat surprising; and in light of the violence wrought by Europeans throughout history in the name of “civilization,” an EU official’s uncritical use of the term “civilizing” is somewhat jarring.

The Introduction, written by co-editor Andrea Pin, begins by stressing the “contemporary perception” that law and religion are in tension: “[a]t least since the time when Peter and the Apostles made the bold affirmation, ‘We must obey God rather than men,’ the conflicts between the two have never left us” (xi). Setting aside that many religious traditions—and scholars of law and religion—do not take “Peter and the Apostles” as their point of departure, the alleged distinction between law and religion seems a little overdrawn; one need only look at the demographic make-up of most European judiciaries to question Pin’s assertion that law is typically conceived in terms of “[r]evolution, equality, freedom,” as opposed to religion’s “inertia, stability, hierarchy” (xii). Still, this rhetorical move is necessary to put forward the volume’s thesis: “[t]he belief that underpins this whole book is that law and religion have at least one value in common that could make each understand the other more than they normally do. That value is tradition” (xii).

It is hard to argue with this statement. There is no doubt that many legal and religious systems place great stock in tradition (although some may not). The importance of precedent, ritual, and archaic terminology in many iterations of both law and religion affirm as much. Yet Pin’s Introduction offers no real exploration of the notion of tradition, instead simply stating a number of truisms—“both law and religion address and cherish tradition”; “Tradition can be many things”—without elaborating further. This approach to tradition is so broad that it is not clear if the law, religion, and tradition nexus is meaningfully different from the relationship between art, religion, and tradition; kinship, religion, and tradition; politics, religion, and tradition; etc.

The chapters themselves engage a diverse set of issues, ranging from tradition and peacebuilding (Jessica Giles), to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws (Muhammad Ahsan Qureshi), to European freedom of religion cases (Zachary R. Calo; Hugh McFaul). These contributions will be of interest to other scholars in these fields. In the absence of an overarching theory of tradition, however, this reviewer was not convinced that the volume formed a coherent whole, or that it moved the conversation beyond what is already well known by scholars of law and religion: namely, that it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other; that the two interact in myriad ways; and that this interaction is structured by political, cultural, and economic factors. “Tradition” may well be relevant to both Book XVI of the Theodosian Code (Ryszard Bobrowicz) and gender equality in contemporary Iran (Marziyeh Bakhshizadeh), but greater editorial input—such as the volume’s subdivision into themes, disciplines, or periods—might have helped the reader understand why it is worth examining these subjects in tandem.

Law, Religion and Tradition may offer more to those trained in other disciplines but with an interest in religion than it does to religious studies specialists. For example, legal scholar Frank S. Ravitch’s chapter, "Tradition's Edge: Interactions Between Religious Tradition and Sexual Freedom" provides an account of same-sex marriage "from the perspective of several religious traditions" (71): United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; the Episcopalian Church; Japanese Zen Buddhism; and the Roman Catholic Church. Given the scale of this project, it is unsurprising that Ravitch’s discussion focuses primarily on official declarations by religious professionals, rather than on the debates and compromises taking place at a local level. As an overview, it might well be a helpful introduction for lawyers, political scientists, or social movement theorists interested in cross-cultural discussions of same-sex marriage. Yet it can still be slightly grating for a scholar of religion to read such broad-brush statements as "there [is] no inherent conflict between Zen and same-sex marriage"—as though this conflict were inherent in other traditions?—or “[certain precepts are] accepted by all Zen Buddhist clergy and followers” (80; emphasis added).

In sum: the individual papers included here are, no doubt, interesting. The editors are to be commended for bringing together a group of scholars who are diverse in discipline and career stage, ranging from graduate students in Global Studies and Theology to lecturers and professors in Law. Yet the volume fails to make particularly meaningful connections between these very different disciplinary approaches. Law, Religion and Tradition “works” when understood as conference proceedings, but for those interested in an interdisciplinary collection of essays on the interaction of law and religion, there are more coherently edited options available.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Méadhbh McIvor is Assistant Professor of Religion, Law and Human Rights at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

Date of Review: 
October 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jessica Giles is Law Lecturer at the Open University.

Andrea Pin is Associate Professor at the University of Padua, where he has taught Comparative Public Law, Economic & Social Rights, Islamic Law, Human Rights in Comparative Perspective, and Italian Constitutional Law.

Frank S. Ravitch is Professor of Law and Walter H. Stowers Chair in Law in Religion at the Michigan State University College of Law.




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