Friday, July 22, 2005

Why Conscience and Religion have to Be Held Together

It is a common blind spot for religious believers to forget that other believers (atheists, agnostics and so on) have their rights as well and that the freedom to be extended to non-religious believers is significant, just as significant in terms of law and public policy as that extended to religious believers.

Still, so many fail to see this or comprehend it. Worse, they may disagree with it, thinking that religious beliefs have some privileged place in society worthy of greater protection than the beliefs of atheists and agnostics. This is a serious error.

In the brilliant screenplay by Robert Bolt for the film A Man for All Seasons, the following exchange takes place between Thomas More and his future son in law Roper. What it says is significant for conscience as well as religion. Here is the exchange.

ROPER: Then you set Man’s law above God’s

MORE: No far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact – I’m not God, the currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain-saling, I can’t navigate, I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh there I’m a forester. I doubt if there’s a man alive who could follow me there, thank God….

ALICE: [exasperated, pointing after Rich]: while you talk, he’s gone?

MORE: And go he should if he was the devil himself until he broke the law!

ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes, What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – Man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Now many religious people would agree with this because they understand that the laws are there for the just and the unjust. I’d like to suggest here that they have not applied this logic to the protection of conscience and the laws protecting that.

For all citizens have the right to the freedom of conscience - - why should only religious citizens have this? There is no good reason. The extension of conscience protection states that we recognize the importance of freedom to make conscientious decisions for everyone. What sort of concept of God could a person have who does not believe there is a freedom to choose for or against God?

Exactly. The freedom that most Christians believe God gave us to choose Him is no less for those who have chosen (so far) not to accept him. If this is so for the biggest question of all (belief or not in God) how can it be less for the other questions of life as a citizen in society?

It is time that Christians and religious groups generally started reminding themselves that when they advocate for the freedom of religion and the protection of religion (as they should) they should also be advocating for the freedom of conscience and the protection of conscience for everyone - - whether or not they are religious believers.

That our Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains the protection for “conscience and religion” in Section 2 merely supports this argument.

So when we advocate, as we should, for the protection of the religious rights of people in society (such as Marriage Commissioners) we must remember those in society who might hold the same office and not have religious convictions but, as in the Marriage Commissioner case, also object to marrying same-sex people. The same principles apply to all public offices and all citizens religious or non: they have the right to have their beliefs accommodated up to the point of "undue hardship".

Iain T. Benson ©