Friday, March 20, 2015

Chesterton Debate: Question three and my answer

Dr. Benson asked a third and final question of me based on my opening remarks in the Chesterton debate. His question is indented below; my answer follows.

Chief Justice Brian Dickson in Big M Drug Mart stated that religious freedom is prototypical - meaning it has led the way to other rights such as freedom of speech, assembly etc..  It would seem then that once we have religious freedom of all including freedom of politicians to live in accordance with his/her religious principles, we have a greater chance of protecting all the other freedoms.  This being the case, as well as the strong evidence (referred to in my opening comments) about various public goods (such as charitable works, volunteerism etc.) being strongly correlated with religious adherence, do you not agree that religion needs to be protected from moves to narrow its public as well as private influences?
Paragraph 123 in Big M:
Religious belief and practice are historically prototypical and, in many ways, paradigmatic of conscientiously‑held beliefs and manifestations and are therefore protected by the Charter . Equally protected, and for the same reasons, are expressions and manifestations of religious non‑belief and refusals to participate in religious practice.
It is my view that freedom of religion and its more general right, freedom of conscience, are essential for a democratic country, as well as the closely related principle of freedom of expression. So in that sense, yes – religion deserves protection. But I do not think that it needs additional, special privileges above and beyond those accorded to all voluntary associations within society. Protecting the freedoms of expression and conscience are sufficient to guarantee religious liberty.

Consider this: religious liberty itself is constrained in countries where citizens do not enjoy full freedom of conscience and expression. The Economist reported in December that 19 countries punish their citizens for apostasy - leaving their religion - and in 12 of those nations it is punishable by death.

55 countries (including several Western democracies) have laws against blasphemy; a conviction could lead to a prison term in 39 nations and execution in six. Blasphemy laws have been abused almost everywhere they are enacted, frequently to suppress religious minorities, persecute political rivals, minority sects, or stifle inconvenient speech. It is important to realize that Canada is not exempt; we too have a blasphemy law, which was last used to censor a Monty Python film, in a failed attempt to prevent its distribution in Canada. I've never understood the rationale for blasphemy laws; surely those who believe in an omnipotent God know He does not need the support of a human law, while those who do not believe in God view blasphemy as the ultimate victimless crime.

Mr. Benson claimed in his opening remarks that "secular is a sort of exclusionary violence to freedom and rights". Yet it is precisely the devout, particularly those who belong to minority faiths, would should be the most committed secularists. The principle of secularism - government neutrality between and among faiths - is the best protection for religious minorities that are persecuted in far too many places in the world. Anyone genuinely concerned about religious liberty, and freedom of conscience, must oppose tonight's resolution, for a secular state is the only one that guarantees full freedom of religious worship and expression. A secular state is not concerned with purported acts heresy or apostasy. No one need smuggle a bible into a secular country; a secular nation has no pogroms.

And let us not forget that those that adhere to no religious tradition are equally deserving of protection - and are often specially targeted for persecution. Even in the United States, with its official separation of Church and State, politics is so infused with religion that atheists are banned from holding public office by the constitution of seven US states. Contrary to Mr. Benson's insinuations, it is not the secular minded folk who lack tolerance.

Regarding religious adherence and various public goods, Professor of sociology Phil Zuckerman asks an intriguing question: "Is a society to be considered moral if its citizens love the Bible a lot (as in the United States), or rather, if its citizens virtually wipe out poverty from their midst (as in Scandinavia)?"

More generally, however, there are very good reasons for keeping God out of politics. As lawyer and philosopher Ron Lindsay put it, "We can't base our laws based on the word of God in part because we don't know what God is saying. The Jewish and Islamic god says you can't eat pork; the Christian god says that's okay. The Islamic god says Friday is a holy day, the Jewish god says Saturday, the Christian god says Sunday. The list of disagreements can go on and on and on. As soon as you introduce religious precepts into a public policy discussion, you are essentially shutting out of that discussion anyone who is not a follower of that religion."

Let us ground our politics in evidence and values accessible to all members of society. We can best protect freedom of religion by keeping it as far from politics as we possibly can.

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