Religious Law: Definition & Purpose

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  • 0:01 Defining Religious Law
  • 2:11 Religious Law System Examples
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

The following lesson will cover the role that religious laws play in a variety of legal systems. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check for your understanding.

Defining Religious Law

There are dozens of religions that exist in our world today. Each of them has a set of rules that govern how we should behave. For example, an important set of rules that Catholics and other Christian religions follow include something known as the Ten Commandments. These commandments cover serious things, such as not killing, and other serious things, such as not lying or feeling greedy. While these laws are meant to try and produce a good individual, the end game is to please a higher power, so the consequences for not following these rules may not be seen most distinctly in this life.

Unlike in the past, today there is a distinct division between secular laws and religious laws. The source of religious law is the deity, legislating through prophets, whereas secular law is made by human beings. It also then follows that religious laws are perceived to be eternal and non-changing, while secular rules can be changed by their makers.

Furthermore, religious law tells people what to believe as well as how to behave, whereas secular law deals with our external actions as they affect others. Oftentimes, these can intersect. For example, many religions teach that life is sacred and that we should not kill. Secular law also believes that we should not kill but bases that belief in how killing would negatively affect others rather than bringing displeasure to a higher power.

In a religious legal system, disputes are usually overseen by an officer of that religion, so the same person is both judge and priest. In a secular system, by contrast, the office of judge is separate. So in a secular system, disputes are overseen only by a judge with no influence from religious leaders.

I also mentioned that there's a stark difference in the enforcement of the laws. In a secular system, punishments are imposed in this world, and the most severe (death) amounts to forcible removal from a society. On the other hand, the sanctions and rewards of a religious system may also occur in this world but are often to be felt most keenly in the next.

Religious Law System Examples

Today there are few countries whose legal systems are exclusively religious. Some countries would prefer that they hardly intersect at all. In fact, our very own legal system puts strict limits on how much church law can intersect with state law. However, some countries, mainly highly Muslim countries, like Iran, allow for much more co-mingling of church and state.

There are also countries that are somewhere in the middle. Some countries that still have strong ties to religious law systems may have a dual system where religious rules govern some areas of their everyday life, such as family issues of marriage and divorce, and where the state covers other secular matters that cover a wider array of issues. Today, countries such as Israel, India, and Pakistan have some degree of these dual type systems, but that degree can vary widely.

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