Monday, December 03, 2012

Securlarism is not nearly enough

I had the honour of being a speaker at the Eschaton 2012 conference, organized by the Centre for Inquiry Ottawa. I submitted the topic of my address before it was written: The Importance of Secular Governance for Canada. But (as often happens with me during the creative process) the speech I wrote was considerably different than the one I had in mind before I put fingers to keyboard. I believe the new title is a more accurate reflection of the content.

Below is the speech I prepared; my actual words did not deviate greatly from the text. 

Secularism Is Not Nearly Enough

What is secularism? Answering that question in the richness it deserves could fill all the time allotted for this session and then some. The Canadian Secular Alliance defines it as a political principle: government neutrality in matters of religion. In other words, government should neither support nor suppress religious expression among its citizenry.

As you might expect from a policy advisor to the Canadian Secular Alliance, I agree wholeheartedly with this contention. Today I will talk about the importance of secularism, highlight a specific Canadian policy that should be discontinued, and then broaden my focus to encompass a much wider view of the world. In the next fifteen minutes, I will discuss Canadian law, international efforts that would impact all of us, and finally I hope to convince you that secularism is a necessary, but nowhere near sufficient, principle for a just and stable society.

To start with, let's openly acknowledge that, overall, Canada does very well on the secular front, and furthermore, is generally moving in the right direction.

From removing restrictions on interfaith and interracial marriage to liberalising divorce laws; from the establishment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as the Constitution of Canada, thereby enshrining freedom of conscience, to formally recognizing gay marriage as equal in all respects to heterosexual unions; over time, we are moving more and more to a society informed by secular values. This needs to be recognized, and should celebrated.

But we must also acknowledge that we do not yet live in a truly secular country. But in most cases, the exceptions, though still substantial, are rooted in tradition. Such is the case with prayers opening municipal councils; this is still common practice across the country. The discriminatory publicly funded school systems in Ontario are grounded in obsolete clauses in the province's constitution. We must always remember that while freedom of speech is a fundamental human right, freedom from offense is not.

Another historical artifact, albeit one with major consequences for Canadian society, has to do with our charity law. According to the Canada Revenue Agency, an organization must pursue at least one of the following four goals to be granted the designation of a charity:
  • The relief of poverty
  • The advancement of education
  • Other purposes to benefit the community that courts deem charitable
  • The advancement of religion
The first three items on the list are in accordance with a general understanding of the term "charitable activities". Whether and how the last criterion benefits society is far from clear.

A bit of history: In 1891, the British House of Lords ruled on what constitutes a charity in a dispute between the tax authorities and the Moravian Church. They developed a common law test, based on the preamble of the 1601 Statute of Charitable Uses (also known as The Statute of Elizabeth). This ruling is the basis for the Canadian government's determination of which organizations are deemed to be charitable in nature. Perhaps it is time for Canada to reconsider whether a decision made in the nineteenth century, itself based on the introduction of a law more than four hundred years old, is the best foundation for taxation practises in 2012.

Yet some traditions die hard. In a letter received by the Canadian Secular Alliance on July 27, 2012, Jim Flaherty, federal Minister of Finance, stated that "charitable status for the advancement of religion is based on the presumption that religion provides people with a moral and ethical framework for living and plays an important role in building social capital and social cohesion."

I, for one, would challenge that presumption. In my experience, there is a high correlation between deeply held religious belief on the one hand and opposing the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, the right to free speech, and the right of freedom of conscience on the other. Furthermore, this phenomenon is not limited to Canada - I submit that strong religious sentiment can have a significant detrimental effect on any society, as recent decades in Ireland, India and Israel demonstrate, to pick among countries starting with a single letter. (It is important to acknowledge, however, that the faithful do not have a monopoly on misogynist and censorious views that lead to social strife.)

But we are not talking about fine philosophical distinctions or abstract positions with little practical impact on Canadian society. Mr. Flaherty’s unchallenged assumption significantly distorts fiscal policy across Canada.

The Canadian Secular Alliance obtained from the Canada Revenue Agency a detailed list of charitable tax deductions made in 2007. All charities must declare what percentage of their efforts is devoted to the four categories of recognized charitable activities. According to their submissions to the Canadian Revenue Agency, over 26,000 Canadian registered charities did nothing beyond promoting the advancement of religion. This is nearly one-third of all charitable organizations in Canada! Not one of them declared that they spent any time, effort, or money feeding the hungry or clothing the naked. In total, they received nearly 14 billion dollars in donations in 2007, and the Canadian government granted them tax credits of almost 1.2 billion dollars.

That is over one billion dollars every year of government subsidies for religious proselytising. That is roughly thirty dollars for every Canadian citizen. Either these funds are completely wasted, or they are having a significant impact on Canadian society - though perhaps not for the better. In either case, might these funds be redirected to serve more productive goals?

Clearly, despite the progress Canada has made, secularists still have work to do to apply secular principles to Canadian governance, and to ensure Canadians do not lose the freedoms we currently enjoy that stem from secular policies.

But we cannot for a moment believe that our efforts should stop at our borders. Let us move from Canadian regulations to the realm of international law, and attempts to codify freedom from offense as a global norm. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has been agitating in the international community for over a decade to ban speech offensive to Muslims.

Of course, the question is not whether there should ever be restrictions on expression. No country provides for completely unlimited free speech. Even the United States, with its famous First Amendment, has several significant limitations on expression - the canonical example being that it is illegal to falsely yell "FIRE!" in a crowded movie theatre.

Most people support the principle of placing limits on unfettered speech. Some widely accepted examples include limited and well-crafted laws regarding slander and libel, truth in advertising, and uttering death threats.

Given that reasonable limits exist on speech, the question is: Do mocking religious figures or making other blasphemous utterances fall outside the bounds of acceptable expression?


The attempts of the OIC to classify satire as hate speech, and related efforts, have impacts on Canadians just as much as arguments within our own parliament. We cannot be blind to them.

Similarly, secularism itself is not a default position for democratic nations. Though it has not been used in decades, Canada still has a blasphemy law on the books, punishable by up to two years imprisonment. In 2009, Ireland passed a law that makes "Publication or utterance of blasphemous matter" an offense subject to a maximum fine of €25,000. The Arab Spring is replacing several autocratic regimes with democratically elected illiberal Islamist governments. There are many and complex factors behind the fact that dictators were generally more secular than their elected replacements - but the point is if we truly respect freedom of conscience as a fundamental human right, there is much work to be done in the world.

Certainly one's ire should be raised when religious dogma is upheld in the face of contrary evidence, or when governmental policy is used to buttress the faithful of one creed at the expense of those belonging to other groups.

But religion is far from the only example of ideology trumping facts. And many of the most pressing issues facing our world today have nothing to do with religious zealotry or a violation of secular principles.

Though some religious folk may welcome the rapture and thus dismiss climate change, humans are cooking the planet with our ever-increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, almost entirely for secular reasons: an all too familiar litany of fear, economics, political expediency, and human short-sightedness.

The 2008 financial meltdown had everything to do with greed and fraud. Wall Street made huge profits not by increasing efficiencies, but by maximizing economies of externalities. A greater commitment to secular principles, if possible, would have done nothing to avert or reduce the impact of the real estate and financial crash.

The economic crises facing the EU and soon Japan have nothing to do with undue religious influence in the halls of political power.

Our current agriculture and animal husbandry practices are almost perfectly designed to evolve a superbug that could wipe out a significant portion of humanity entirely for the most secular of reasons.

Since the first human evolved, plant and animal species have been going extinct at an unprecedented rate.

We have polluted huge swathes of the earth's land and water to such an extent that significant areas our planet's surface are inhospitable to any form of life.

Little (if any) of this damage was done with religious motivations at its core. None was committed violating any secular principle.

So although secularism is important - and more than that, I believe it to be essential - it is also not enough. Not nearly enough, not by a long shot. Many of the key crises we face today as a species, as a global society, have nothing or at most little to do with religion. Secular governance is nowhere near enough to produce peaceful, stable, sustainable societies.

We should not waver for a moment in our commitment to secular governance. But we should also not forget for a second that there is much else that needs our attention as well.

We must resist ALL dogmas, whether they be religious, economic, political, philosophical, or scientific. All areas of human endeavour are open to scrutiny, question, and refinement.

Furthermore, no single approach works across all domains.

Science would fail miserably if its findings were subject to a majority vote.

Peer review would be a horribly inefficient way to run a corporation.

Unregulated capitalism has proven to be a dismal failure if environmental protection and sustainability is a desired outcome.

Yet in their appropriate domains nothing we have tried as a species to date has surpassed democracy, free markets, and peer review.

Consider this: maybe there is something better that we simply haven't tried yet. At a minimum, we need to be open to the possibility, or else this - what we see today, here, now - is as good as it gets. Even more, as good as it can get. And I, for one, emphatically do not believe this to be true.

Let our legacy be that we bequeath upon our collective descendants a better, more just, more sustainable world than the one we inherited from our ancestors.

Thank you.