How religion has fallen, for law to take its place

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Philip Wood, a QC and former Allen & Overy partner, pens book on why lawyers are the new priests

Speaking to a former lawyer turned lawtech expert recently on why he thinks City firms are so slow to adopt technology, he tells me: “It’s because of law’s doctrinal commitment to ‘traditional’ law. It’s like a religion.”

Broad-brush similarities between law and religion aren’t hard to come by. They’re both, broadly, codes of conduct, with concepts of protection, morality, survival and control over destiny at their heart. But the relationship between law and religion is far more complex, and interesting, than that.

Philip Wood, an honorary QC and a former partner at Allen & Overy, is the author of one of the most to-the-point texts on this topic. His book, The Fall of Priests and The Rise of Lawyers, “charts the growth and slow decline of religions over centuries and the fantastic and sudden growth of law”.

Oxford graduate Wood explains over 272 pages how the importance and influence of religion has been on the decline since the early modern period, when scientific breakthroughs courtesy of the likes of Francis Bacon and Galileo took place. Rational attacks on religion started in the West in the 1600/1700s: people began to doubt God’s omniscience and omnipotence, while scientific discoveries dispelled ‘God in the gaps’ beliefs that a deity must be behind concepts we don’t understand. And so, the “total devotion” to God common among populations in the 1600s was, gradually, squashed.

Another major factor behind religion’s dwindling follow-count, and likely one that will pique our law student readership’s interest, is what Wood calls “the growth of state power over law-making which displaced the power of the priests”.

Law, he says, “expanded with colossal rapidity” from 1830, at which time the world’s population and its GDP shot up. Since 1830, population has increased seven-fold, GDP 85-fold, and written law in books? By a thousand.

These things, it seems, are linked. Population increases mean more people, who made more things, which generated more wealth. “Creatures of industrialisation and credit”, like banks, insurance and property, cropped up. These things needed to be regulated, and it was the law that did so over Western religious authorities. To the latter, says Wood, “God had little interest in corporations or banks”.

Now, there are more than 140,000 solicitors in the United Kingdom, a seven-fold increase on the 1960s. In the same time period, the Church of England reckons the number of regular service attendees has halved, despite a huge population increase since then.

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Wood’s exploration of law being on the up and religion on its way down implies law and religion are two distinct things. But historically this hasn’t been the case.

Roscoe Pound, an American legal scholar, in 1942 described the major agencies of social control as: morals, religion and law. “In the beginning of law,” he says, “these are not differentiated.” He continues that in ancient Greece, “the same word is used to mean religious rites, ethical custom, the traditional course of adjusting relations, the legislation of the city, and all of these looked on as a whole”. Another example is Old Testament Israel where, an academic paper from the 1980s says, “the law, the Torah, was the religion”.

Nowadays, though there are plenty of similarities between them, law and religion feel a long way away from being synonymous. But maybe, says Karen Armstrong, an author on comparative religion, that’s because we see religion through a Western lens.

Speaking on an Intelligence Squared podcast about the history of religion and violence, she explains that our view of religion “as a series of rituals and obligatory beliefs centring on a supernatural God, and entirely separate from other activities” is unique to the West. She continues:

“The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states that there is no word in either Greek or Latin that corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’… [T]he words that we translate as ‘religion’ in other languages almost invariably have a much wider, more inclusive frame of reference… [For example] Dharma in sanskrit includes law and social life and commerce and politics as well as the service of the Gods.”

Maybe it is the case, then, that law and religion are in some ways one and the same. Lord MacMillan — who, fangirl moment, sat on the seminal tort law case of Donoghue v Stevenson — notably said that: “The whole conception of the relationship between God and man is legal. God enters into a covenant with man whereby He contracts that in consideration of man performing certain stipulated duties He will bestow upon his certain rewards.”

As for law being inspired by religion, well it’s not hard to draw comparisons between the ancient Ten Commandments and our modern criminal law. ‘Thou shalt not steal’ and ‘thou shalt not murder’ — there’s no explanation required there. As for ‘thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’, this sounds like a warning against perjury or fraud, and even the fourth of the commandments, to respect the Sabbath day, seems to bear a resemblance to the law of Sunday trading hours.

That leaves, then, six other commandments — and a whole load of other stuff in The Bible and other religious texts — that don’t seem to have had any bearing on the law at all. Perhaps Wood is correct in his belief that law has now “outstripped” religious codes; we’ve certainly seen major legal changes like the decriminalisation of homosexuality pushed through despite religious opposition.

More pressing now, then, is not whether law and religion are the same, or similar, in concept — but what the former’s approach to and relationship with the latter should be.

Human rights cases like Eweida and policies which ban certain Muslim dress in France, for example, expose the tensions between religious freedom, competing rights and public policy. Next month’s gay cake case, which will see the Supreme Court travel to Belfast to decide whether two Christian bakers breached discrimination laws when they refused to bake a cake bearing the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”, will shed some light on this historically, and unceasingly, complicated relationship.

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Any old shit to sell a book.



More importantly, what happened to Roll on Friday?



“Apologies, our server has temporarily blown up into little pieces. We’re blaming Zuckerberg. IT is on the case and normal service should resume shortly.” – from twitter.


loljk m8

Almost a self-indulgent as submerging oneself into a vat of crush avocado, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, a squeeze of lime and a handful of chopped coriander.



“Rational attacks on religion started in the West in the 1700s”: Copernicus/Galileo/G Bruno et al disagree with you.


Baron Jeff.




Religion is so dead lol. It baffles me that supposedly rational thinking lawyers can follow it.



This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.



Jesus is alive


Christian Barrister

I accidentally downrated this when I meant to uprate it.

I apologise.



A serious lawyer would assess the evidence to determine the truth.

They would look at the historical evidence for the life and resurrection of Jesus, who made the most audacious claim in human history.

If, beyond reasonable doubt, after taking serious consideration of the one of the most historically accurate documents in history (the Gospels), then one can come to such conclusion.

Not as simple an answer as one would assume. Religion might be dead, but whether Jesus is dead is another matter.


Just Anonymous

The mere fact that a claim is audacious does not impress me. I see audacious claims from litigants in person all the time.

Is the Gospel of Luke accurate when it talks of a worldwide census requiring all citizens to register in their hometowns?

What about the Gospel of Matthew, which says that many other people were also resurrected at the same time as Jesus (Matthew 27:52-53)?

It seems to me that the conclusion that the Gospels are historically accurate is reached only by cherry picking those details which are accurate, and ignoring the rest.

And even if they were accurate about historical details, that’s hardly a sufficient reason to believe that the religious claims are also true.

I disagree with Anonymous at 10:13. It is perfectly possible for a rational, reasonable individual to be religious – and many are. However, in my opinion, these particular arguments are weak.


Anonymous at 10:13

I was not saying that it is not possible for a rational, reasonable individual to be religious. I was saying that the fact some of those rational, reasonable individuals are religious is baffling. It is baffling in the sense that to believe in religion is not a rational or reasonable thing to do, although those who generally use logic can choose to use it selectively.



You are right to question the accuracy of those details – but do those points really negate the central themes of the gospels? Scrutiny ought to be directed towards Jesus’ miracles, teachings, and whether he was cruficied and resurrected. Jewish-historical sources, such as the historian Josephus, corroborate some of the claims, where Jews deemed Jesus as a ‘sorcerer’ rather than the messiah. The crucifixion was prophesied in Isaiah 53. The claim that Jesus appeared to 500 people after his resurrection in 1 Corinthians is held as a historically reliable piece of evidence. These are the points that ought to be scrutinised.

To your point about ‘cherry-picking’, the same arguments applies to your reasons you have given. Analysing the gospels as a whole, it is widely acknowledged that their historical accuracy is nearly unparalleled relative to other historical documents.
The claim is audacious as because it is that claim which inspired the thousands post-resurrection, where followers had nothing to gain and were willing to die for their faith – such events require a plausible, alternative explanation.



So nothing remotely new or interesting?



Katie, please don’t start trying your hand at Theology. This is GCSE level analysis.


You know who

Don’t flatter her, she doesn’t have any GCSEs



In all fairness, she did pretty well in law school (according to her LinkedIn)


You know who

Remarkable how they let her in without any GCSEs or a functioning brain!



Religion is not in decline. At a global level, it is growing very quickly and atheists are a falling share of the population.



The fastest growing religion in the world currently is Islam.

A religion which, as we all know, has a healthy respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law…


Truth Teller

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.


Teller of Truth

This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.


Confused Dot Common

Why shouldn’t a poster be able to make a point which is objectively true (that it says in the Koran that the Prophet Mohammed married a six year old and then had sex with her when she was nine) when it says so in the Koran?

Is this not a legitimate point for debate about Muslim attitudes to women, underage girls etc?

Or is it a topic that is too hot to handle and should therefore be deleted, thereby preventing discussion?



It’s for the greater good that this is not debated, or even mentioned in the media.

If this was widely known, far-right louts would use it as an excuse to declare that “all Muslims are paedophiles” or that “paedophilia is accepted in Islam”.

It’s better that the topic isn’t discussed on public fora as it could inadvertently promote hatred.

Academics can debate it, and we have to bear in mind that at the time it happened, what we would deem to be underage marriage was accepted, especially for diplomacy (ever seen Blackadder 1?)

Best keep it under your hat and be careful what you say.



Pure doublethink.


Big Dolla

Realist my ass.

A fact is a fact is a fact. That it might ‘promote hatred’ is no reasom for censorship.



You patronising shit



Legal Cheek won’t be able to afford Germany’s giant fines for not censoring this.



This post has been removed because it breached Legal Cheek’s comments policy.


An Barrister

This post made a perfectly legitimate point too, but was deleted for fear of causing offence.

Corbyn. Symphathiser

“Law is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world.”

H. No, doesn’t have the same ring to it.



This book came out over a year ago… Well done legal cheek



Give me a break, I don’t read too good



He did a great talk at the Allen & Overy Autumn Lecture on this, and he even said that law is the religion of the world; we’ll always need lawyers, lawyers will always have jobs, because so much runs on law, codes, practices, rules, doctrines etc. we will always need lawyers to interpret them – what good is a priest for interpreting religious scripture to a business executive, or media mogul. It was a great lecture. No mention of it in this article though.



The prophets got their retaliation in first, about 3000 years ago:

“No one enters suit justly; no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.” Isaiah 59:4



Worldwide religion is increasing, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism alone already account for nearly 70% of the world’s population. Interestingly Islam is expected to grow by 35% by 2050 whilst Christianity is also projected to rise, but more slowly, at about the same rate as the global population overall to represent approximately 35% of the world’s population. Indeed Science is increasingly complimenting religion with the science around the Big Bang theory pointing to harmony with belief in God. Finally, the historical evidence for Jesus is pretty much indisputable now by way of competition we have a lot more evidence for a historical Jesus then Julius Caeser.



Why do Christians get so excited about proving Jesus existed? Even if he did, so what?

It doesn’t prove god exists.
It doesn’t prove he was god.
And it certainly doesn’t prove he rose from the dead.



Personally, I think it’s the most fascinating event in history – a man claimed to be God, and rose from the dead, and there evidence for it.

Thus, they get excited because it is necessary for Jesus to have existed in order for the rest of the claims to follow up. But sure, you’re right, that’s only the first step.

It really gets exciting is when you examine the rest of the evidence that points in favour of Jesus being resurrected, the historical accuracy of the events portrayed in the New Testament, and the rise of new followers so soon after the resurrection. Whilst circumstantial, it’s difficult to credaibly explain the exuberance of early day Christians and the rise of the Church (who died, and had nothing to gain, because of their faith) without the resurrection of Jesus. That point alone holds considerable weight.

I doubt many have examined the (credible) academic scholarship for themselves. Of course the resurrection sounds absurd, but that’s what makes its truth so much more exciting.

I think the question we ought to ask ourselves is: if Christianity (or any other belief for that matter) is true, would I follow it? A rational person would seek out truth over self-interest.



Link me to a website that sets out the evidence that proves the resurrection to be true.



Trying to find something objective online is difficult (as both sides likely give rise to confirmation bias).

That said, I think the debate in the link below provides a reasonable and rational discussion, and provides some good points to explore further:



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