By Robert Joustra, Globe and Mail, February 22, 2012
Robert Joustra is editor of Cardus Policy in Public. (A Christian think-tank)
In a recent column, The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders tackled British Baroness Warsi’s concern for the place of faith in the public square head on, concluding that “the problem in public life isn’t Islam, it’s religion itself.”
It is possible to reach a different conclusion, however, with the understanding that excluding faith from society’s public square creates the emptiness that fuels the fires of the fundamentalism – both secular and faith-inspired – some would prefer to hide from view.
Secularism is not the settled, intellectually stable public project that many suppose. It is not at all clear that religion is poisonous to Canadian public order, or even not implicit to it. Our Constitution literally says otherwise, and it is questionable whether the stark secularism of a political order with no metaphysical bias about the nature of human kind is even possible in a democratic society.
Like Britain, Canada was founded on certain values and principles it still upholds in law and government, values that cannot be demonstrated by naked, rational proposition. Those values come from somewhere. Call it religion. Call it the veil of ignorance, the creator spirit or a consensual contract of cosmopolitan creatures. Still, we believe it. We can’t prove it, like a math problem. It’s just something Canadians believe – theists and atheists alike. Now and then, we actually die for these things.
We have, globally and historically, maintained highly contested, remarkably precise beliefs that are anything but straightforwardly secular, i.e. untainted by faith. The very word “religion” and the separation between the sacred and the secular in public order is itself an invention. The word religion – religio, in Latin – was rarely in use prior to the Reformation. More than a few thinkers have noted the irony of secularism as itself constituting a de facto “religious” system of thought, which defines how and why we can believe things, and where we can talk about them. As some might put it: a secular atheocracy.
Dear My Joustra:
Unfortunately, it is not a secular "atheocracy" that is the most frightening possibility. It is the formal requirement and request that specific political leaders, regardless of their religious affiliation, bring specific demands from their religion into the public through the generation of specific laws that promote and advocate for that specific religion's tenets. For example, in Texas, we have just learned that a woman contemplating an abortion must undergo an ultrasound, performed by a doctor, or licensed technologist, who must ask the woman if she wishes to hear the fetal heart beat, and then the woman must wait twnety-four hours before going through with the abortion. The law is clearly calculated to reduce, if not eliminate, the therapeutic abortion numbers. The law is clearly designed to support the tenet of faith that is at the core of the Roman Catholic church's belief system. The question of the rights of the woman to choose are reduced to the "right of the fetus to live" and that is an exclusively religious dogma.
And while our laws in the west, in countries like Canada, may have emanated from one of several interpretations of the decalogue, and those laws could be seen as an expression of some form of Christian belief system, the struggle for the public square by the various and vehemently held views of various religions has become in recent years, not a foundational cornerstone but a battlefield for control of the state by the various religions.
There is a serious question whether, like Pandora's box being opened and all evils escaping, religion in its most virulent forms of hatred, bigotry and literalism can ever be put back into the bottle. The struggle in the public square then, is not a fear of an atheocracy, but rather of a theocracy that consistently confronts another version of a theocracy, in a violent, and merciless form, deploying methods so toxic that no faith worth the name would recognize.
Standing firmly on a pillar of sand, built on the tenets of a single religious faith, one chooses in doing so, to eliminate the truths that accompany any other faith, without having to enter into that other faith's holy spaces.
It is a recipe for disequilibrium, and for entropy and erosion of that pillar, as the winds of time and change reduce the pillar to a small lump from which there is no vision of the whole truth.
Of course, children will grow up with their parents' advocacy for a religious faith, and they have to know that their's is not the last and only answer to questions of faith or spirituality, or the formation of laws for the state.
And it is the firewall at the entrance to the meeting place of the formal body politic that Mr. Sounders was advocating, and with Mr. Saunders, we concur.