Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-7f7b94f6bd-82ts8 Total loading time: 0.326 Render date: 2022-06-28T14:02:57.016Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 June 2016

M. Christian Green*
Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University


What if instead of studying religions by texts, history, and practices we studied them by what they fear? I first had this thought in considering philosophical differences between Plato's Republic and Laws. What accounted for the shift from the profound idealism of the Republic to the apparent authoritarianism of the Laws? The standard answer is that Plato was born in a time of troubles, at the tail end of the oligarchic regime of the Thirty Tyrants, who took hold of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian Wars. As recounted in the Apology, it was a regime that was famously and vigorously opposed by Plato's great teacher, Socrates. Socrates is absent from Plato's last dialogue, the Laws, written as an older man, after a stint in prison for having opposed another tyrant. In the Laws, the contemplation of ideal forms in Republic gives way to promulgation of detailed laws to achieve unity, harmony, and a perhaps tenuous peace. Most imperative of all is the need to avoid the chaos of war and tyranny. The philosopher is gone—Plato has lawyered up.

Copyright © Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University 2016 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 See Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1991); Plato, The Laws, trans. and ed. Trevor Saunders (1970; repr. London: Penguin Classics, 2005).

2 See Plato, Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002).

3 Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (1961; repr. London: Penguin, 1970).

4 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 71 (1948), art. 18.

5 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force Mar. 23, 1976, art. 18.

6 Doubt has also been trendy in the media in recent years. See Peter Steinfels, “Uncertainties about the Role of Doubt in Religion,” New York Times, July 19, 2008; Julia Baird, “Doubt as a Sign of Faith,” New York Times, September 24, 2014; William Irwin, “God Is a Question, Not an Answer,” New York Times, March 26, 2016; Damon Linker, “Why Doubt Is So Difficult,” Week, March 29, 2016; “Faith and Doubt” (letters to the editor), New York Times, April 2, 2016.

7 See “Islam and Apostasy: The Right to Renounce,” Economist, June 27, 2014; Ebrahim Moosa, “Muslim Political Theology: Defamation, Apostasy, and Anathema,” in Profane: Sacreligious Expression in a Multicultural Age, ed. Christopher S. Grenda, Chris Beneke, and David Nash (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014); Claudia Mende, “The Reinvention of Islam” (interview with Ebrahim Moosa),, March 22, 2016,

8 Simon Cottee, “Reborn into Terrorism,” Atlantic, January 25, 2016,

9 Ibid., quoting Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2010).

10 Mehdi Hasan, “What the Jihadis Who Bought ‘Islam for Dummies' on Amazon Tell Us about Radicalization,” New Statesman, August 21, 2014.

11 Cottee, “Reborn into Terrorism.” For another recent manifestation of controversy over the term “apostate” as an assessment of faith, see Adam Taylor, “John Kerry Keeps Calling the Islamic State ‘Apostates,’ Maybe He Should Stop.” Washington Post, February 23, 2016.

12 Citing Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Response to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970).

13 Citing Lewis A. Coser, The Functions of Social Conflict (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956), 71, 101.

14 Quoting Coser, The Functions of Social Conflict, 101.

15 See Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). Jonsen and Toulmin specifically refer to doubt in several places in their account. See ibid., 165, 170.

16 Blaise Pascal, The Provincial Letters, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin Classics, 1982). Pascal seems to have more doubts about casuistry in the hands of humans than the rationality of belief in God. See Gary Gutting, “Pascal's Wager 2.0,” New York Times, September 28, 2015, on why belief in God in the face of doubt is a good bet.

17 Casuistry and probabilism are often referred to as proportionalism or consequentialism today, but they surface frequently in debates over the applicability of moral norms, especially moral absolutes, in particular cases. See, for example, Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, Moral Norms and Catholic Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1979); John Mahoney, The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989); Josef Fuchs, Moral Demands and Personal Obligations (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1994); Charles E. Curran, The Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999), especially chapters 6–8; Patrick Andrew Tully, Refined Consequentialism: The Moral Theology of Richard A. McCormick (New York: Peter Lang, 2006): Charles E. Curran, The History of Moral Theology (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013). Cf. John Finnis, Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision, and Truth (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1991); Robert P. George, Natural Law and Moral Inquiry: Ethics, Metaphysics, and Certitude in the Thought of Germain Grisez (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1998).

18 Jonsen and Toulmin make the connection between casuistry and halahkah squarely, in maintaining, “Halakhah is the casuistry of Rabbinic Judaism.” Jonsen and Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry, 57. At a later point in their account, they cite a discussion that took place in the journal Judaism in response to an article on this flexible dimension of halakhah. See Gordis, Robert, “A Dynamic Halakhah: Principles and Procedures of Jewish Law,Judaism 28, no. 3 (1979): 263–82Google Scholar. A subsequent issue of Judaism, 29, no. 1 (1980), contained no fewer than twenty articles in response to Gordis.

Ijtihad has been recommended as an interpretative methodology by progressive theorists of Islamic law for some time. Among some of the more interesting recent writings on ijtihad, see David Smock, “Special Report: Ijtihad: Reinterpreting Islamic Principles for the Twenty-First Century,” Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, August 13, 2004; Tariq Ramadan, Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Ahmad Atif Ahmad, The Fatigue of the Shari‘a (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); L. Ali Khan and Hisham M. Ramadan, Contemporary Ijtihad: Limits and Controversies (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2012). There is even a documentary film about ijtihad and feminism: see Ijtihad: Feminism and Legal Reform, video, 56.91, directed by Nancy Graham Holm, 2012, posted by Muslims for Progressive Values, February 9, 2013 (parts 1 and 2) and April 19, 2014 (part 3), https:// (part 1), https:// (part 2), https:// (part 3).

19 See, for example, Zarghuna Kargar, “Farkhunda: The Making of a Martyr,” BBC News Magazine, August 11, 2015,; Alissa J. Rubin, “Flawed Justice After a Mob Killed an Afghan Woman,” New York Times, December 26, 2015; Campbell Robertson, “The Prosecutor Who Says Louisiana Should “Kill More People,’” New York Times, July 7, 2015; Shaun King, “Meet Dale Cox: The Perverse, Racist, Deadly D.A. of Caddo Parish, Louisiana,” Daily Kos, July 6, 2015, Of course, sometime justice wins: see Sara Mechi, “Acting Caddo DA Dale Cox Leaves Race Following National Criticism,” KTBS, July 14, 2015,; “Caddo Parish Elects First Black District Attorney as Spotlight Stays on Death Penalty and Jury Selection Controversies,” Death Penalty Information Center, accessed May 16, 2016,

20 In this regard, it is interesting that many of the Christian casuists and probabilist theorists have come to be labeled—and to self-label—as dissenters. See, for example, Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, Dissent in the Church, Readings in Moral Theology 6 (New York: Paulist Press, 1987); Charles E. Curran, Faithful Dissent (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1986); Charles E. Curran, Loyal Dissent: Memoirs of a Catholic Theologian (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2006).

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *