Saturday, March 07, 2015

Chesterton Debate: Question one and my answer

The format of the Chesterton debate allowed Dr. Benson and I to read each other's opening statements in advance of the event and to submit three questions based on them. Below is Dr. Benson's first question to me (indented), and my response. 
You say you are opposed to theocracy because it forces religious viewpoints on a diverse society and we don't disagree about this.  However, you  don't address the existence of what Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once described as "atheistic theocracy".  Your view, which would exclude religious influences but not non-religious influences in the public sphere, thereby privileges atheism and agnosticism in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in Chamberlain (2002) If all citizens are to be treated equally, how would you guard against "atheistic theocracy" if you don't allow religious beliefs in the public sphere?
This question, interpreted literally, contradicts itself. The definition of theocracy is "A government ruled by or subject to religious authority." One cannot be both an atheist - one who looks at the thousands of gods humanity has worshipped over its history, and does not believe any of them actually exist - and be ruled by religious doctrine. A direct answer to a contradictory question cannot exist.

Therefore I hope you will indulge me if I take a figurative approach to Mr. Benson's words, and address instead what I think is the intended spirit of his question. His concern is about a state dogmatically and inflexibly ruled by an unbelieving autocrat, who also demands strict adherence from all public figures to an anti-theistic ideology. Mr. Benson is worried about the possibility of an atheistic dictatorship.

However, tonight we are not talking about atheism. This was last year's debate topic. We are discussing secularism - and the two are quite distinct concepts. Equal treatment among all citizens means privileging neither religious nor anti-religious voices. Supporting government neutrality in matters of religion, where the government neither supports nor suppresses religious expression,  is the secularist stance. Secularists stand against government coercing people to abandon their religion as much as government enforcing religious dictates upon those who believe differently, or not at all.

Secularism does not privilege atheism or agnosticism. Secularism is the compromise position. Which Mr. Benson holds as well, since he has stated that he does not wish to force his (or anyone else's) religious viewpoints on society at large.

Let's examine the status quo in Canada, posit the secular stance, and imagine, for a moment, what a dystopian atheistic dictatorship would look like:

Today God is mentioned in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in our national anthem. A secular state would not mention God in either. An atheistic dictatorship would use both to promulgate the State's position that there is no God.

Today many legislatures and municipal councils in Canada start their official proceedings with the Lord's prayer, a Christian invocation, a generic theistic supplication, or with rotating orations from various faiths. A secular state would have elected officials spend their time doing their job, what they are paid to do - tending to the earthly interests of society. An atheistic dictatorship would have these governmental bodies start their proceedings with an explicit affirmation that God is an imaginary entity.

Today organizations whose only purpose and activity is to advance religious beliefs enjoy tax credits and subsidies of over one BILLION dollars per year. A secular state would grant no financial privileges to organizations promoting or discouraging faith. Charitable status would be granted to whichever groups perform charitable deeds, such as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. An atheistic dictatorship would grant charitable status and other financial privileges to organizations whose only purpose is to denigrate religious belief.

Today exemptions are granted from generally applicable laws on the basis of religious beliefs, but are denied to those who object on other grounds. Examples include working on the Sabbath or other religious holidays; nurses handling I.V. bags; and students carrying weapons in schools. A secular state would either a) grant no such exemptions, or b) permit them for all deeply held philosophical commitments, whether their source was from religion, culture, or personal conscience. An atheistic dictatorship would grant exceptions only for those who ground their objections in their atheism.

Canada is a nation of considerable religious privilege. Secularists argue for government neutrality in matters of religion. Should an atheistic dictatorship arise, Mr. Benson can depend on me and all secularist organizations to fight against these hypothetical discriminatory policies. For now, our efforts are dedicated to combating the very real injustices that exist today.

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