On Chief Justice Mogoeng calling for prayer in Parliament

When the Judicial Service Commission hearings on Judge Mogoeng Mogoeng were being held, I expressed significant doubts regarding his suitability for the role of Chief Justice. Among my concerns were his views on homosexuality, his reasoning in certain judgments related to sexual assault, and of course, his religious views and whether they would impact on his rulings.

In 2014, I articulated the same concerns after Chief Justice Mogoeng expressed deeply troubling views on matters including adultery, divorce and “promiscuous fornication”, concluding by reminding readers that:

It’s not an anti-religion “fundamentalism” that motivates my concerns – it’s a commitment to keeping religion in its proper place. As I’ve argued in the past, it’s about “leaving your (metaphysical) beliefs at home when you go to work, especially in the public sector”.

So, I start from a position of sympathy for the view that it would be inappropriate for the Chief Justice to lead our Members of Parliament in prayer, because this would usually (at least appear to) constitute an invasion of religion into a space where it doesn’t belong.

But views evolve – or at least they often should – and in this case, I suppose mine have. And I know that this is the sort of thing that gets one labeled an “accommodationist” or some such thing, but my commitment to secularism is perhaps no longer as fragile as it was then, where trivial instances of religious adherence were more likely to be perceived to be significant threats to it.

Others might worry about a slippery slope here – that it starts with prayer, and ends with foetal pole cardiac activity bills (often erroneously described as “foetal heartbeat” bills), the criminalisation of homosexuality, or some other violation of liberty motivated by religion.

However, I don’t see that danger in a case where the emphasis is precisely on religious freedom, including the freedom to not be religious. A silly tweet by Reverend Kenneth Meshoe (leader of the African Christian Democratic Party) misled some into thinking that CJ Mogoeng asked our 400 Members of Parliament to pray, but he didn’t. Here’s what actually happened:

In terms of religion interfering with secular governance, I’m unable to see this as a threat, because it appears to me to instead be an affirmation of diversity of views. It even sounds to me like there is an emphasis on the “meditate” part more than the “pray” part.

Some of you will think I’m being far too charitable here. But I know that the Chief Justice is religious – that most South Africans are – so I’d expect them to want to pray in serious situations. My commitment to their religious freedom means I want them to be able to do so, so long as doing so doesn’t interfere with their jobs.

Having our oaths end with “so help me God” – as long as there is a secular alternative – doesn’t bother me, and neither does having our Members of Parliament being sworn in on the Bible (so long as they can opt out of that). Our National Anthem – calling for God to bless Africa – is a sentiment of hope, despite being an appeal to something that doesn’t exist (God, not hope). Ideally, it wouldn’t be there, sure, but it’s not something I can justify being upset about.

Religious freedom is important. Secularism is also, including for the religious themselves, who would not want policy to be informed by religions other than their own. But, tolerance of each others’ views is also important, up until the point that those views lead people to do harm (which needs further explication, I know, but that’s not the topic here).

We (secularists, but especially non-religious ones in this case) don’t strengthen our cause by over-reacting to trivial “threats”. Instead, we run the risk of hardening a perception of us being hostile to religion and the religious, which risks making them less inclined to listen to us when legitimate concerns arise.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.