Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Religion is a major source of division

The Centre of Inquiry Canada and Canadian Secular Alliance (I am a proud member of both organizations) were asked to respond to two articles in July of 2010 - Religion not the only source of division and Canada, taxpayers, and religious liberty. I volunteered to write the piece.

Unfortunately, the Holy Post (the National Post's religion blog) decided after the reponse was drafted that the essay should stand on its own, so the published version was renamed Religious groups have no claim on tax dollars and the edits made the piece significantly weaker, in my view. 

Here is the original response written on behalf of the Canadian Secular Alliance:

Religion is a major source of division

A judge in Quebec recently ruled that teaching a world religion course from a secular perspective (that is, examining the tenets of various faiths without upholding any particular one as exclusively true) is a "totalitarian" infringement on the freedom of religious schools to entrench their dogmas in the minds of their students.

Should the judgment be upheld, the natural extension would be to apply the same logic to all religious factions. This would pit Jesuit against Lutheran against Sunni against Jew against Hindu, and so on, all fighting for larger grants and subsidies from the public purse.

The true offence for secular-minded Canadians (which include some religious, doubting, and non-believing citizens) is that such schools are in violation of provincial education standards while happily accepting public funds.

Some have argued that public money is not secular money. Yet it absolutely should be the case. Public money should not be spent supporting only its left-handed citizens or those with red hair. Private citizens, of course, may dispense their accumulated wealth as they see fit. But public money should be used to maximize the well being of all Canadians, not just those who adhere to a specific sect. This is a key property of a secular state - no individual is granted special treatment based on his or her particular faith, or the absence thereof.

Yet in a curiously argued piece entitled, “Religion not the only source of division,” Ray Pennings laments the slow and steady decline of active theists in Canada.

Pennings claims that “32 per cent of Canadians who are active in their belief make 65 per cent of the nation’s direct charitable donations,” but that only “42 per cent of the $2.1 billion raised annually” can be considered “secular.” Therefore, according to Pennings, nearly a quarter of all donations - or about half a BILLION dollars - are for purely evangelical and proselytising activities that have nothing to do with the relief of poverty, disease, or distress.

Pennings also asserts that non-theists "are responsible for 35 per cent of Canada’s total contributions.” This is impressive, given they make up approximately 23% of Canada's population, according to a Harris Decima poll conducted in May 2008. So while "theists punch far above their weight when it comes to contributing to charities," non-theists do so to a considerably greater extent. According to Pennings’ own figures, theists contribute $81 each on average to genuinely charitable causes, while the average non-theist donates $94. Perhaps those concerned about the well-being of Canadians most in need should embrace Pennings' observation that active believers are “declining by 1 to 2 per cent annually.”

Religious voices have a place in public discourse, but they must be earned, not automatically granted. They should not be funded with taxpayer money, nor should public institutions be proclaiming the inerrancy of any creed. In other words, just like everyone else, believers must make their case on their own time, on their own dime.

Interestingly, Pennings grants a key argument made by secularists of all backgrounds – that "religion can be, has been, is and will likely continue to be a subject of division between people." No one has argued that religion is the only source of friction between human beings; but why should government perpetuate and subsidize an acknowledged fractious and anti-social force?

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