Friday, January 09, 2004

Canada, Beliefs and Tolerance

Canadians can rightly boast about being aware of the need to accommodate religious diversity and we have made strides in certain areas. But "some strides" does not justify the sore backs we collectively give ourselves through patting them so often nor establish that we have arrived at some permanent and secure destination.

Though some might disagree with it, the allowing of turbans for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was a superb example of accommodation as was the allowing of Jewish eruvs in Montreal when the city of Outremont had ordered them removed (see: the Centre's LexView of Rosenberg v. Outremont (City), Quebec Superior Court, September 6, 2002. A review of this decision may be found at:

The fact that Sikhs and Jews have had to litigate to establish their rights shows that such victories for religious accommodation did not come easily and that there are radical anti-religious groups or viewpoints thriving in Canada - - or if not exactly thriving, still able to, as in many cases, find Court Challenges money to help them grind their litigation axes.

The maintenance of religious freedom in Canada isn't something we, or any other country should take for granted. Far from it. After putting a piece in the National Post early in January 2004 about developments with French anti-religion, I got an email from a person in Saskatchewan who tells of nuns there being told they could not wear their habits when teaching in a public school and that they had to hang up their crucifixes in the principal's office - - and that was in the 1960's!

Things aren't all that much better now for Christians in Canada. In recent years Canadians have seen case after case in which religious institutions, religious elected officials and religious individuals (many of them Catholics or Evangelicals) have had to fight for their right to manifest their religious beliefs in appropriate ways. Sometimes the challenges have been in the "private sphere" and other times in the "public sphere" but they have never been in a sphere where there are "no beliefs."

The idea of a sphere that is stripped of all beliefs is simply silly. Where there are human actions there will necessarily be beliefs whether religiously grounded or not. So to strip out the beliefs of religious believers by refusing them the right to their religious expressions, beliefs or (as in France today or Canada a few decades ago) symbols means that only the beliefs of atheists and agnostics have a presence. That is hardly fair or democratic. It certainly is not an accommodation of diverse beliefs, it is a denial of them. The current French situation, like that in Saskatchewan earlier, shows intolerance pure and simple however much the French indulge in the vague claims that their anti-religious positions are based upon "the Principles of the French Revolution." Will they start to remove the veils of Muslim girls with guillotines next? That would be both French Revolutionary and revolting.

The idea of "one belief trumps all" in law or politics is a temptation that from time to time religions have given in to and such domination has given many years of argument to those who fear religions. But it is not only religions that can give in to the temptation to dominate. That is the form we would expect a particular temptation to dominance would take in religious ages. The form such domination takes in atheistic and agnostic or secularist (anti-religious) ages - - such as we are living in today, is to make the atheist/agnostic/secularist beliefs the dominant ones. And what better way to be dominant than to claim to be neutral and general and exclude the others as partial and particular?

Yet when all are recognized to be believers (it all depends on what we believe, what kind of faith we have) then it is a question of accommodation of diverse beliefs and faiths not the suppression of them and the elevation of one set to a position of primacy.

Iain T. Benson ©