Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An atheist on the bench?

South Africa's Judicial Services Commission (JSC) held interviews on Monday for the appointment of new judges to the country's various High Courts. One applicant caused a stir when he declared, during his interview, that he is an atheist. Torquil Paterson, a senior advocate from the Grahamstown Bar Council, informed the panel that he left the priesthood for the law because he concluded that there was no God.

It's not often that you hear of people openly admitting their unbelief, and I think it takes guts. But I would like to ask the question (also asked here): does it really matter if an atheist becomes a judge? Are there any disadvantages that you can think of by letting an atheist preside over cases in a court of law? Would it be a problem, for example, to let an unbeliever - who would be responsible for making far-reaching and highly influential decisions that might affect us all - sit on the highest court in the land, such as the Constitutional Court in South Africa or the Supreme Court in the United States?


Laughing Boy said...

Does it really take guts to admit unbelief or is that just something atheists say to stroke their own egos? Oh, well, who am I to say? I'm just a gutless born-again Calvinist-type Christian who believes the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.

As for the judge, I don't see how being an atheist would make him unfit to judge matters of law in a secular state. A judge is supposed to make rulings based on existing law, to keep society from straying from the ideas in their constitution. South Africa isn't a theocracy is it?

Sarah said...

Interesting that it caused a stir. But I suppose it's understandable, even though I don't know personally the politics of South Africa at all. If that happened here, you might as well call yourself a Muslim. You won't get voted in.

I know for certain an Atheist has better judgement than anyone else. I believe firmly that there are morals engrained into humanity. Whether that's by "God" or by evolutionary process itself, it doesn't really matter. In a theological perspective as well as a evolutionary one (not sure which I take!) we have human ethics which we follow.

Anonymous said...

I agree with LB, religion (or lack of) should not matter at all in a secular system.

I never understood why a Christian would ever want to become a judge, prosecutor, or their belief system is based on God being the judge and maker of all rules. Jehovah's Witnesses are the only ones I've heard of that do not involve themselves in government, nor do they exercise their voting rights.

I'm interested in hearing how the polls turn out. Keep us posted!

Kevin Parry said...

I also agree with LB, in a secular state it shouldn't really make any difference. In a secular state like South Africa, the primary role of a judge is to uphold the Constitution and Bill of Rights. And I think theist and atheist judges can do this quite effectively.

The reason, I think, that this particular case caused a stir is that South Africa has only been a democracy for 14 years. Before 1994 Christianity was a state religion, and I think many still believe that Christianity should have some sort of preference in the realm of state, and within the judiciary, and people of influence and power should be theists of a sort.

BC500 said...

I find Sarah’s comment, that she knows for sure that an Atheist would have better judgment than anyone else, extremely na├»ve. The only thing you know for sure about an Atheist is that they do not believe in God. Other than that, you have absolutely no idea what they do believe in.

Since Mr. Paterson was in the Priesthood, hopefully he absorbed a proper grounding in morality. So how do his beliefs impact his judgment now?

I do agree with Laughing boy’s conclusion… and ask what is Mr. Paterson’s track record to prove that he is qualified for making rulings that would follow the law of the land?