There are two conflicting definitions of the phrase “religious freedom”. The correct definition is that a person should have complete liberty to believe as they wish – perhaps “freedom of belief” is a better phrase. The stupid definition is that people should be allowed to do whatever they want, so long as it’s licensed by their religion, and that the law cannot interfere with that practice. Of course it’s trivially easy to pick apart exactly why that second definition is so stupid – sincere religious belief can justify all kinds of illegal and immoral acts. Interpreting “religious freedom” in this way is dangerous.
Here’s a little factoid for all you Yanks about my great country: we’re really not all that different from Americans. I will probably lose my maple syrup license for saying so, but aside from some historical differences that continue to inform our national identity, Canadian society contains all the same elements that American society does. At the moment, this means that our version of the theocrats are in power. Now, to be sure, our theocrats aren’t nearly as terrifying as theirs are, but they’re into the same wacky stuff.
Oddly enough, whereas the USA has its vaunted (and currently besieged) Constitutional separation of church and state, Canada has a Charter that explicitly enshrines the involvement of religious institutions in federal law. I call this ‘odd’ not simply because I think it’s a bad idea, and I do, but because it’s rarely been an issue. Canadians have, for the most part, unconcerned with arguments over religious involvement in public life. This, however, is changing under our current Parliament, and has been steadily ramping up over the past decade or so. More and more, we begin to see nonsense like this:
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is hosting special closed-door consultations this week about the creation of an “office of religious freedom” at his department as questions swirl over its purpose and value. Prepared remarks posted on the Foreign Affairs website suggest Baird pledged that “whatever the circumstances, Canada will continue to speak out, and take principled positions. We will not just go along to get along,” Baird continued in the posted speech text. “We will stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient or expedient.”
Now, we are left to scratch our heads and figure out which definition of “religious freedom” the current government is using. I say we are left scratching our heads, because the Minister has decided to have closed-door sessions. What the need for secrecy is, especially in the design of an office whose duty will be to speak openly about religious freedoms, is not made clear to us. This is, for those who don’t follow Canadian politics, entirely typical of the Republican North Party, who have thrown off the shackles of the word ‘conservative’ and are trampling each other to kowtow to authoritarian policies. Zak over at Canadian Atheist poses a good question:
I don’t have a problem promoting religious freedom as long as it includes all religions and no religion but did the consultations this week include any atheist representatives? Nope?
That final question mark left there because, of course, we have no idea who is in the room. Considering the fact that they were elected by our version of the Religious Right, I’d imagine there isn’t much representation from the atheist community. Especially given what we know about the way this policy has been pursued in the past:
The CBC’s Louise Elliott reports that government insiders say the new office will be modelled to some degree after the United States office and commission of international religious freedom.
Janet Epp Buckingham of Trinity Western University says that when the Conservatives announced their plans for the office of religious freedom during last spring’s election campaign, the United States issued an unusual warning. “Interestingly, the U.S. commission on international religious freedom itself made some statements after the announcement [saying] ‘don’t make the mistakes that we did. This office should be multi-faith, multi-religious, representing many communities out there experiencing religious persecution.’ That is a self-criticism they would make,” Epp Buckingham says.
But, if our experience with our current government is anything to judge by, they will not heed warnings or evidence. They will instead follow their blinkered ideology, no matter what well-trod path over a precipice it might take them (and the rest of us) down. Which then raises further interesting questions. Namely, what will the Canadian response be to something like this?
The Archbishop of Canterbury has begun a pastoral visit to central Africa during which he will try to heal deep divisions in the Church in Zimbabwe. Dr Rowan Williams’ nine-day tour starts in Malawi, where he will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its branch of the Anglican Church, and ends in Zambia. In between he visits Zimbabwe, where there have been reports of violence between rival factions of Anglicans.
The Church in Zimbabwe has been bitterly divided since 2007, when the former Bishop of Harare Nolbert Kunonga separated from the Anglican communion amid rows over the ordination of gay priests and the policies of Zimbabwe’s government. Dr Williams expelled Mr Kunonga – a staunch supporter of [President Robert “Pigfucker”] Mugabe – but Zimbabwe’s courts ruled the ousted bishop should retain control of church buildings in the capital. Tear gas has been fired into churches which have remained loyal to Dr Williams, and churchgoers have been beaten as they have taken part in services.
Here we have the state-sanctioned church being given governmental authority to split from the overall Anglican communion. Over what, you ask? Three guesses. What right does the Archbishop have to tell the poor, persecuted Zimbabwean church from practicing their holy sacrament of Tear Gasification, as informed by holy scripture? What will be Canada’s response to the persecution of religious people by other religious people – particularly those who share the same denomination? Will they side with legitimate religious freedom, which gives all Zimbabweans the right to practice their religion, but not the right to commit crimes against each other; or will they decide that sincere belief in the sinfulness of homosex is sufficient to be granted religious freedom from prosecution?
Given the fact that the doors to these meetings are closed, and who is convening these meetings, I have no hope that this office will be anything other than a giant waste of time and money, and that its ultimate contribution will fall far more on the side of damaging Canada’s international reputation than it will on the side of advancing legitimate religious freedom. I’ve never wanted to be wrong more than I do right now.
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