Sunday, March 01, 2015

Chesterton Debate: My opening remarks

On Friday evening, I debated Dr. Iain Benson on whether "one’s religious convictions should play a significant role in how they conduct themselves in political affairs."

I took the negative side of the resolution, and below is my fifteen minute opening address to make the case for government neutrality in matters of religion.

There is a scene in the 1971 film "Fiddler on the Roof" where the rabbi of a poor, oppressed Jewish village in pre-revolutionary Russia is asked to say few words about the Tsar. He responds, "A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar... far away from us!"

It is natural and appropriate for believers to have freedom OF religion, and it is equally right and just that others should have freedom FROM it. In this way, individuals are free to conduct themselves according to their personal or shared religious (or not) viewpoint.

But tonight's debate is not about private behaviour. This evening we are discussing political affairs: Using the power and influence of one's public position to pressure others to conform to your creed's mores, co-opting governmental institutions to serve sectarian ends, or legislating on the basis of religion. These activities should be rejected.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to suggest that a public avowal of a particular faith would disqualify an individual from an elected or appointed role in public office. I propose that devout Catholics and ardent atheists are both welcome to fully participate in public and political life. On their own time, those with religious convictions can attend the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque of their choice while serving any function in government or politics.

I further propose that Catholics should not be forced to abide by the strictures of (say) Hinduism, and vice-versa. Both should be free to follow their respective faiths. I, as an adherent of neither, would object to being coerced into submitting to the dictates of either. In addition, religious groups generally desire minimal interference from governments in doctrinal affairs. Clearly, then, all of us have a personal interest in opposing tonight's resolution. For once one religion can impose its tenets upon the populace, there is little to stop other faiths from doing the same if they gain political power at a later date. Let us keep any religion - and therefore all religions - at a safe distance from our political institutions.

The Supreme Court of Canada agrees. In 2004, it wrote: "As a general rule, the state refrains from acting in matters relating to religion. It is limited to setting up a social and legal framework in which [...] members of the various denominations are able to associate freely in order to exercise their freedom of worship."

This is a common theme in Canadian jurisprudence. Eight years later, it also wrote: "State neutrality is assured when the state neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief, that is, when it shows respect for all postures towards religion, including that of having no religious beliefs whatsoever."

I endorse this sentiment, and I think many of you agree with it as well. I hope I can convince the rest of you that this principle is the best means to secure liberty and human flourishing. If I succeed, everyone here tonight should agree that one’s religious convictions should *not* play a significant role in how they conduct themselves in political affairs.

This does not mean we should dismiss any action on the basis that it might be motivated by religious faith. As Barack Obama put it: "We are under obligation in public life to translate our religious values into moral terms that all people can share, including those who are not believers."

On the thousands of issues that politicians must negotiate, the world's major religions are often silent, contradictory, or ambiguous. One's religion should not play a significant role in political affairs because, for the vast majority of political decisions, there is no clear religious course of action. And in those cases where sacred scrolls do detail specific punishments for particular misdeeds, we in Canada often cheerfully disregard them - and this is as it should be. I am confident no one supports the Biblical injunction that would force a woman to marry her rapist. [Deuteronomy 22:28-29] While many here may disapprove of adultery, none present would advocate killing those who cheat on their spouses, as the Bible commands. [Leviticus 20:10]

In other areas, religious and materialist philosophies each incorporate such disparate perspectives that neither can claim to own a side of an issue. Look at climate change. Some religious folk believe God has a plan for humanity and would never allow us to go extinct, so we may as well strip mine the earth. Others with a religious bent see themselves as stewards of Creation and therefore feel a moral obligation to protect the environment. Conversely, those with an entirely materialist viewpoint may believe their financial self-interest lies with the continued development of Canada's tar sands and so vehemently argue against global warming. And many non-religious people view rising sea levels as an existential threat to several island nations, and are therefore impelled to advocate for a strong global carbon emissions cap. One's politics cannot be determined by one's faith, or its absence.

The same can be said of morality. I often hear that religion and ethics are one and the same - indeed, that the source of all morals is religion, or that an ethical life is impossible without the values spelled out in some holy text. Though commonly repeated, it is easy to see this is not the case.

It is undeniable that many deeply religious people commit abominable acts such as covering up child abuse or detonating suicide bombs in public areas.

It is also true, as most of you likely know through personal experience, that most non-believers lead decent lives. I find it interesting that statistically, atheists are significantly under-represented in prisons throughout North America.

The point is one's morality says nothing about the extent of their belief, and one's piety implies nothing about their basic human decency.

And though many with deeply held religious convictions are highly moral, the same cannot always be said of religious institutions. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, was sharply critical. On racial segregation and discrimination, the most prominent and important social issue of the time, he wrote: "In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church."

Perhaps the declining political influence of religious institutions is not a bad thing. University of London professor Stephen Law observed, “if declining levels of religiosity were the main cause of…social ills, we should expect those countries that are now the least religious to have the greatest problems. The reverse is true.” According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, those states in the US with the best quality of life are among the least publicly pious (such as Vermont and New Hampshire). This generalizes globally. Democratic nations where religion plays little role in political affairs, such as Sweden, Norway, Japan, Australia, and the Netherlands, fare much better on just about every sociological indicator of well-being.

All individuals, including those who are active in political affairs, have the right to make their own choices, but not to demand that others do likewise. If you think homosexuality is wrong, don't have intercourse with someone of the same sex. But criminalizing gay relationships or opposing equal marriage is an affront to equality, justice, morality, and human rights. Enforcing one's own religious strictures upon others breeds societal ills.

That is why a politician should set aside religious dictates when acting as a representative of the government to shape public policy.

As a thought experiment, let's examine the consequences if religious beliefs truly dictated the laws of the land.  

A parliament legislating according Catholic doctrine, for example, would ban the sale of condoms to men and the prescriptions for the pill for women. If orthodox Jews were in power, they would outlaw the consumption of all pork and shellfish. Jehovah's Witnesses would make life-saving blood transfusions illegal. A Hindu regime would outlaw eating beef, while a government legislating according to Muslim morality would criminalize the consumption of alcohol. Most of these would forbid working on the Sabbath, though there is some disagreement between them on when the Sabbath starts, and indeed on which day of the week it falls.
Can anyone genuinely argue that life would be better with no birth control, no steak, no lobster, arbitrary restrictions on life-saving medical procedures, a return to the days of Prohibition, or no bacon? (Please, let us at least keep bacon.)

But one need not resort to hypothetical situations. Where religion and politics meet, tragedy and injustice often follow.

In Ireland in October 2012, Savita Halappanavar was pregnant and gravely ill with a serious infection. Doctors refused her request for a medically justified abortion because of a religiously motivated law that forbade removing even a miscarried foetus, no matter the risk to the mother's life. As a result, both mother and foetus died. This egregious violation of a woman's basic human rights, and other recent examples, are the direct result of religion's influence in politics.

In a secular democracy no Church can dictate legal, social, or educational policy - and in return government does seek to control the practice of religion, so long as those practices do not interfere with the rights of others. As my father often said, "My right to swing my fist stops at the bridge of your nose."

The principle of equality is evident when there is one law for all. Injustice inevitably follows when the laws of the land are subject to a theological veto, or when they apply one set of rules to the religious (or to those of a particular sect), and another for everyone else.

Mohandas Gandhi rejected the principle of tonight's resolution. He said, "If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody's personal concern."

To maximize freedom for all, let us not inject politics into religion. Who here tonight wants the government to be ever more involved with the Church? Does anyone want legislators or judges, whose expertise typically resides outside of ecclesiastical matters, to be the final arbiter on difficult religious and theological questions? I certainly do not. Do you?

To maximize freedom for all, let us not inject religion into politics. Because most of us have chosen at some point to use condoms or go on the pill; because chances are someone you know is better off because they obtained a divorce from an abusive spouse and are now happily remarried; because there are those who have access to medical benefits from their same-sex partners; because Professor Benson and I are able to publicly debate the role of religion in the political realm with neither of us fearing any social or legal reprisals; for all these reasons, let us all breathe a sigh of relief we do not live in a country run on the basis of religious dogma, where any of these might not be possible or could lead to incarceration. Instead, let us be thankful that our laws and government are largely based on secular principles of human experience, objective evidence, reason, and human empathy and compassion.

Therefore join with me this evening. Maximize everyone's freedom and social well being - Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, and non-religious citizens alike. Advocate for our collective human interest instead of for narrow sectarian preferences. Ensure responsible government and demand evidence-based public policy.

Finally, there is a word to describe when religion dominates politics: theocracy. I would like to give the last word to Professor Benson. From his 2013 article: "Theocracy seems to corrupt religious proposition by using the instruments of coercion that are essential to law in service of religions." I agree wholeheartedly - and therefore urge you, as well, to prevent the corruption of religious faith by rejecting the proposition that one's religious convictions should play a significant role in how they conduct themselves in political affairs.

Thank you.


  1. Very clear and concise opening statements Leslie. A few questions:

    1) What if certain tenets, mores, or creeds found in all religions are being suppressed in favour of secular choice and autonomy? Are we really free in that regard?

    2) Why do secularists advocate change to long held traditions (i.e. reciting scripture and the Lord's prayer in Parliament) in the name of "freedom". Doesn't it recognize that it could set a tone of acknowledging the source and power of the foundations this country is built under?

    1. Hello, Conrad.

      1) What tenets, mores, or creeds are found in all religions? They disagree on just about everything - how many gods there are, what they want us to do, what is forbidden, what we must do, and so on. And let's be fair - secularism does not suppress religious expression. It merely does not allow for one religious group to impose its rules upon others. We are, and should be, free in this regard.

      2) Secularists advocate change to long held traditions because many traditions are unjust. Whether it is slavery (which the Bible regulates, and therefore implicitly endorses), emancipation for women, recognizing same sex relationships, and many other areas, there are many long-standing traditions that have rightly been set aside. Reciting scripture in government is wholly inappropriate, if for no other reason than it actively excludes those adhering to other faiths. Would you be in favour of regular readings from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh) or the Vedas (Hindu)? Why or why not? Furthermore, your premise is wrong - the foundations of Canada are neither scripture nor prayer. Please be assured - I support the right of all politicians to adhere to the religion of their choice, and they can pray or read their holy texts on their own time as much as they like. But it is wrong to for the government (explicitly or implictly) to endorse any particular (set of) religion(s).