Recent cases over Christians refusing gay couples hotel accommodation and Christian couples wanting to adopt have brought Christian belief into conflict with the law. The Christians have lost. Lord Justice Laws, arguing in 2010 that Christian belief was ‘subjective’, laid a marker for those judgments by drawing a distinction ‘between the law’s protection of the right to hold and express a belief, and the law’s protection of that belief’s substance or content’.
In classical Athens, a number of charges could be brought against individuals on religious grounds, under the general heading of asebeia (‘impiety’). These included perversion of ritual, desecrating religious property, revealing ‘mystery’ cults, entering holy places when disenfranchised, introducing new divinities and expressing certain opinions about the gods.
What, then, was Greek religion’s ‘substance or content’ that was felt to need such protection? Despite the absence of any divinely inspired texts for guidance, it was the virtually universal belief that gods were unpredictably hostile or benevolent, and that the listed infractions guaranteed their hostility. Since the state subscribed to those beliefs, it was a matter of simple self-protection to uphold them in law. Plato in his Laws reached the same conclusion. For him, gods were the benevolent upholders of moral virtue. So anyone who tried to persuade people otherwise had to be punished, for society’s general well-being.
Lord Justice Laws’s judgment applied to beliefs which he characterised as ‘subjective’. Since Athenian society did not regard its beliefs on asebeia as subjective, an Athenian Laws would presumably have ruled differently. But is the real legal distinction between an individual’s beliefs, which (whether subjective or not) must by definition be private, and their application to justiciable public situations, e.g. when you own a hotel or want to adopt? If so, Christians might console themselves by accepting the judgments, and reflecting on the behaviour of early Christians. On the ‘Render unto Caesar’ principle, they argued that Christians obeyed the law far more rigorously than pagans ever did.