The other day, the House of Lords turned its attention to shechita. If I hadn’t been a member of the House I’m sure I would have missed it. It was a shock to realise that something that matters a huge amount in people’s lives could come and go without much attention.
No one was proposing a law at the moment. It was just a debate, but nonetheless important for that. The Lords was being used as a sort of softening exercise by those with a special interest in animal welfare. It was a way of establishing arguments and gauging political support.
It proved very interesting — and in some ways reassuring. It demonstrated that the community is well organised on ritual slaughter. I don’t mean in a sinister way. I just mean in terms of briefing and encouragement to sympathetic legislators. It was impressive.
The argument itself was also reassuring. The supporters of restrictions on ritual slaughter were people of high intellectual calibre, well-informed and full of earnest good intent. Yet they really didn’t have the best of the scientific argument.
Lord Winston (the celebrated medic and broadcaster Robert Winston), in particular was dazzling and Lord Sacks brought his usual authority. Of course, I was disposed to agree with them but I think a neutral would have to have been impressed. The very best opponents of ritual slaughter would have been able to claim is that the scientific case was arguable.
Which should not be enough.
You see, although the scientific case is of vital importance, it must not be made to do all the work by itself. Opponents should be required to demonstrate that the animal welfare case against shechita is overwhelming because there are other arguments to be weighed in the balance.
This, I felt, was the less reassuring part of the debate.
It is a central part of the case of Richard Dawkins, and fellow atheists, that the claims of religion should not be regarded as having any moral or political force. Since, in their view, religions are superstitious, invented nonsense, the fact that a group of people adhere to the superstition should be of no account.
The argument in favour of shechita — that some people say that it is required of them by God — should have no force at all. And it was noticeable that in all the arguments in the Lords over ritual slaughter, no opponent accorded religious practice any special weight.
It was as if this Dawkins argument had been silently, simply accepted.
Yet shechita actually provides a perfect example of the faults in this atheist position. Leaving aside the scientific argument about animal welfare altogether, religious practice must be weighed in the balance when the law is considered. And this assertion does not depend on the existence of God.
First it depends on the existence of practice. That is to say, the fact that many people practise it and it has great value to them. This does not trump any consideration of animal welfare, but it needs to be taken into account, weighed in the balance.
After all, it is not good for the welfare of animals that we kill them. Yet we allow that because we weigh in the balance the fact that so many people practise the eating of meat.
The second argument for allowing religious observance to be weighed in the balance is not the fact of practice, but the value of it. Society is stronger for the development of communities bound together by their traditions and rituals. Animal welfare is critical, but humans matter too.
Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of ‘The Times’ and a member of the House of Lords