Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Some Thoughts on The Nature of Religion:

One of the wiser minds around in the area of law and the relationship between law and religion in Canada is Toronto lawyer David Brown.

We have had the pleasure of being in various courtrooms over the years when each of us was acting for different clients. He has also attended various Centre events at which we have had a variety of Canadian constitutional lawyers. I have benefited a great deal from his writing and friendship.

Recently, we have had occasion to consider afresh some of the recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions dealing with the nature and scope of religious freedom.

A recent exchange has prompted these thoughts that I think should be more widely shared.

1) Religious Beliefs are Not Simply Individual:

There is a tendency to view religious freedom in individualistic terms. By this I mean that it is all too easy to view the freedom of religion as if it is something that attaches merely to individuals. It ought not to be so circumscribed. Religions matter to society as much in their social and community dimensions as they do on an individual basis. Religions offer something to society that “bind” individuals through conscience and beliefs in a way that the merely individual convictions of citizens likely do not. Religions are, par excellence, the framework of communities whether viewed on an ethnic or belief basis.

2) Religious Beliefs are Different from Other Beliefs:

There is another tendency, that of viewing religious belief as “no different” from other beliefs. This, too, is an oversimplification and an inaccurate one at that. Religious beliefs are different from other conscientiously held beliefs because they draw from different sources and those sources have societal and cultural implications of their own. Religious beliefs of the Judeo-Christian variety recognize that human beings are contingent beings. They do not make themselves, but are made within a moral order. This moral order is a given reality, not simply one created by the individual. This approach to meaning has vast implications for society at a time when so many theorists are concerned about the devaluation of our “horizons of significance.”

3) The Religiously Inclusive “Secular” Means that Religious Beliefs Have a Distinct Role Within Society:

These two factors above mean that those who consider religion are considering something that is a social good and not something to be viewed in merely individualistic terms. As William Galston and others have noted (see my article in 33 UBC Law Review (2000) “Notes Towards a (Re)Definition of the “Secular”” - - available on the Centre’s website), liberalism needs religion and if it loses sight of what unites religion into the liberal scheme, then it threatens its own existence.

This is something that the courts will, sooner or later, have to come to grips with. The Statistical support for the importance of religions (as distinct from other belief systems) is overwhelming and that is something the Centre hope to work on in the future.

Iain T. Benson©