Judeo-Christian heritage? Hardly

I’m really tired of hearing people say “we are founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs” or “we have to remember that this country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles.” It is a phrase that often comes out of the mouth of Sarah Palin, that ridiculous walking ball of Silly Putty (who is so loved because she has no personality of her own and simply imprints the image of whatever is around her). Knowing at least a smattering of history, philosophy and theology, I know this not to be the case. While the country was originally founded by people who were Christian (that fact is not in dispute here, although many argue that many of the founding fathers of the United States were deist or agnostic), the principles that make Canada the country it is have at best coincidental resemblance to Judeo-Christian principles. At worst, they are in direct violation of biblical commandments.

The first thing I want to say is that this idea of Judeo-Christian anything is a complete farce. Jesus was a Jew who preached Jewish principles – nothing he said (including his famous “love your neighbour” bit) was a unique moral philosophy. Where Jesus diverged from the Jewish tradition is in man’s relationship with Yahweh, not in a person’s relationship with other people. Most of the rest of what we would call “Christian ethics” were written by either (the Apostle) Paul of Tarsus who had never met Jesus, or by Christian biblical scholars like Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas several centuries after the time of the gospels. The later Christian philosophers were influenced heavily by Greek philosophy (which predates Jesus by several centuries), which was in turn influenced heavily by the Egyptians, and so on back through the ages. The point is that so-called “Judeo-Christian” philosophy, at least when it comes to matters of ethics, does not come from Jesus at all, but from either the Torah or from non-religious, non-divine sources. Anything that Christianity has to say about ethics is either Jewish or Greek/Egyptian in origin.

The second thing I need to say as a pre-amble is that it is impossible to talk about the foundations of Canada without talking about the foundations of the United States. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is, for the most part, cribbed from the US Bill of Rights, which is in itself part of the Constitution of the United States. Say what you will about the Americans, but if ever there was a group of people who figured out a system of secular justice and a stable society without appeal to religion, it was those guys. You may compare for yourself, or you can take it from me that any discussion of the founding principles of modern Canada can be seen as comparable to the founding principles of the US.

It is also important to note that Canada was a part of Britain until 1867, and didn’t establish its own internal constitution until the 1980s. It is necessary then to distinguish between “modern Canada”, with its codified system of rights, and “historical Canada”, which is essentially England. There is a fair argument to be made that if England was founded on Christian principles, then Canada was as well. However, this argument falls apart in two important places. First, England’s system of rights was drastically influenced by the US constitution, and as such it bears little resemblance to the monarchist state it once was. Second, the argument can equally be made that the Constitution Act of 1982 was a codification of the founding principles of “the nation of Canada” – a recognition of those principles already held dear to Canadians; a retroactive “foundation”. Thus, whatever is in the Constitution, despite the fact that it came later than the British North America Act of 1867, can be reasonably called the founding principles of the country of Canada.

In order to evaluate whether or not Canada was founded on a Judeo-Christian ethical system (which is more accurately described simply as ‘Jewish’, since uniquely Christian teachings are theological rather than moral), it is necessary to establish a codification of these principles. It simply will not do to merely assert ‘these are the principles’ – they must be written down somewhere that we can all agree on. Luckily, Canada has the aforementioned Constitution (I will also, for illustrative purposes, refer to the US Constitution on occasion) as its codified principles. The Torah is the source of Jewish moral tradition, and there are hundreds of regulations and legal exhortations in that document. I think it is fair to use the oft-invoked passages from Exodus, colloquially known as the Ten Commandments, as a codification of Jewish principles. Sure there are other rules and regulations (almost the entire books of Leviticus and Laws, for example), but the Ten Commandments are the founding ethical document of the tradition, so presumably all others are reflections or developments of that document. Uniquely Christian ethics, which I have argued are adaptations of Jewish principles, are generally taken from Jesus of Nazareth’s Sermon on the Mount, which I will use as the “founding document” of Christianity.

The Constitution of Canada or, The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The part of the Constitution we really care about for the purpose of this discussion is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Sadly, the document starts with the following phrase:

Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law…

Religious Christian groups lobbied to get it in there, and Muslim groups were happy about it too since it doesn’t specify which God it’s referring to. I will assume they mean the Flying Spaghetti Monster and let it go. Clearly I’m about as wild about the inclusion of this passage as dogs are about the vacuum cleaner, but it doesn’t really matter. The listed rights are the important “meat” of the constitution, not the language of the preamble.

There are many legal issues in the Constitution (the role of parliament, the rights of the PMO, judicial stuff, mobility rights, language rights, etc.) that speak more to making the country run under the rule of law rather than a reflection of moral principles. While these have literally nothing to do with the Bible (and thus I could score cheap points by saying “look! No Jewish anything here!”), that’s an apples and oranges comparison. What we’re after is the ethics and morals bits of the constitution, not the legal errata.

The Constitution lists these as fundamental freedoms:

  • freedom of conscience,
  • freedom of religion,
  • freedom of thought,
  • freedom of belief,
  • freedom of expression (my personal favourite),
  • freedom of the press and of other media of communication,
  • freedom of peaceful assembly, and
  • freedom of association.
  • As you can see, there is a great deal of overlap between this document and the US Bill of Rights. Many of the other ones that I haven’t listed here (unreasonable search and seizure, habeas corpus, etc.) are clearly direct rip-offs. Canada’s legal code, which would take about 50 posts of this length to explore sufficiently, is subject to the Constitution such that any law that violates this document are untenable. For interest, the main difference between the Canadian Constitution and the US Constitution is what is known as the “general limitation clause”, which abridges all of the rights if such violations are demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society. This is why we can prosecute hate speech here – a position that I do not agree with.

    The Ten Commandments

    So what do the Ten Commandments say about the Charter? Are the Commandment principles reflected in the founding document of Canada? Let’s first look at the (paraphrased) list:

    1. I (Yahweh) am the Lord thy God (violation of freedom of religion, belief)
    2. You shall have no other gods before me; you will not make and/or worship religious idols (violation of freedom of religion, belief)
    3. You will not blaspheme against the name of God (violation of freedom of expression)
    4. Keep the Sabbath holy (no violation, no endorsement)
    5. Honour your parents (no violation, no endorsement)
    6. Do not murder (or kill, depending on who you ask) (in accordance with the legal code, albeit with caveats)
    7. Do not have sex with someone you are not married to (no violation, no endorsement)
    8. Do not steal (in accordance with the legal code)
    9. Do not bear false witness against someone else (in accordance with the legal code)
    10. Do not desire or wish for anything that belongs to someone else in such a way that disregards the rights of others (violation of freedom of conscience)

    By my count, the Charter violates four of the Ten Commandments, is in accordance with three, and is completely indifferent to the remaining three.

    Let’s look at where the two documents agree (murder, theft, perjury/slander). These are regulations that are present and discussed at length in Plato’s Repulic, which is completely separate from the Jewish tradition. Without knowing in depth the moral codes of all of the world’s cultures, it is at least sufficient to say that rules against murder, theft and lying are not exclusively Jewish and do not require appeals to divine command to make them work.

    As far as the indifferent commandments go, Canadian law (with the Constitution as its ostensible source) does not expressly forbid adultery, nor does it require citizens to honour the Sabbath or honour their parents (to the contrary, the Canadian legal system allows for the courts to supersede the wishes of the parents for the best interest of the child). These are not equivocal “if you feel like it” rules in Biblical law, they must be followed and carry as much authority as rules about murder and theft. Canada chooses to completely ignore them.

    “Christian” Ethics

    The foundation of Christian ethics is the Sermon on the Mount, and includes the Beatitudes and other uniquely Christan moral exhortations (turning the other cheek, not resisting evil, etc.). The Beatitudes promise recompense to those that mourn, the meek, those who are persecuted, the pure of heart, and those who hunger for righteousness. It is more difficult to equate these vague prophecies with “rules” as such, but they can be seen as moral guidelines. There are other tenets of Christianity such as charity, care for the sick, and self-denial that are held up as moral guidelines. Like murder and theft, these are principles that are seen in other cultural and religious traditions that pre-date Christianity. It is entirely false to call them “Christian principles”; they are better identified as “merciful principles” that do not require a deity to be practical.

    Even allowing for those moral guidelines that are uniquely Christian, the Charter and the legal code of Canada is largely indifferent. There are no laws either rewarding adherence to or punishing divergence from ‘turning the other cheek’. Assault is punished, but the law allows for punishment to be mitigated by considering who initiates the offense. That’s not turning the other cheek; in fact it directly contradicts the idea of turning the other cheek. However, it is not a violation of common ethical principles nor is it a violation of the Constitution.

    Concluding Thoughts

    These “think pieces” are getting longer and longer each week, and perhaps I should be apologetic for that. It is my hope to generate thought and consideration with these essays, rather than accepting bold statements like “We are founded on a Christian ethic” as fact – it could not be further from the truth. Most of our laws either defy or are completely indifferent to any kind of Biblical prescripts. But none of that is important, the most important part of these Biblical exhortations is the question of why they are right or wrong. Religious regulations are built upon the foundation that they are the will of God. Even those rules and laws that agree with the Jewish and Christian moral exhortations do so coincidentally, not because the country recognizes a deity – in fact these coincidental agreements are seen in other societies and cultures that have no Jewish or Christian heritage. We don’t have rights and freedoms because God says so, we have it to preserve a lawful, just and democratic society. The good of the society (and, by extension, of the people) is the source of right and wrong, not YahwAlladdha.

    Of course, all of this is to say nothing of the fact that many things in the Bible are contradictions of its own rules: murder is wrong but there is capital punishment (stoning) for blasphemy or adultery; we must turn the other cheek but Jesus destroyed the money-changers’ tables at the temple. The fact is that any number of Biblical passages can be used to justify any number of acts. Taken in its full context the Bible reads like a book of fables coupled with the oral history of a nomadic tribe. Considering the number of minor things that are capital offenses, I’m really glad we aren’t founded on Judeo-Christian principles.

    Even the most pious amongst us don’t bother to follow all religious rules. It’s wildly impractical to do so, and anachronistic in many cases (if you’ve ever had a cheeseburger or a taco you’ve broken Biblical law, and how many of you still plant or plow fields?). We all make judgments of right and wrong that are entirely external to scripture on a daily basis. To assert that religious text or tradition are the source of these judgments is simply not supported by any evidence. Our standards of right and wrong are references to secular and not religious values. Our codified laws recognize this fact and not only don’t force us to obey Biblical laws, but allow us to directly violate them with no repercussions. Canada was founded on rational thought and consequentialist ethical deliberation, not the ancient words of an invisible being in the sky.

    Belgian bid to ban book is bad… uh… bdecision

    My alliteration has seen better days, it seems.

    It’s tough sometimes to see how the disparate interests on this blog (religion, free speech, race and critical thinking) fit together into an overall picture. Religion and free speech are often at odds, so that’s an easy fit I suppose. Religion stands opposed to critical thinking, so again it’s not a major stretch to tie those two individual elements together. But where does race fit in? I often find myself scratching my head asking myself the same question: are my discussions on race simply an outlier to an otherwise pro-secularist blog? Does my ‘skeptic hat’ clash with my ‘black man waistcoat’?

    Thankfully, sometimes I see things in the news that help tie the whole ball of wax together:

    A Congolese man is trying to get a controversial Tintin book banned in the cartoon star’s home country of Belgium. A court is to rule on whether the book can be sold in Belgium and, if so, whether it should carry a warning.

    The Tintin book in question concerns an incredibly-offensive depiction of African people as stupid and primitive, as the (white) main character does them a good turn by teaching them important things about the world. Of course, it’s the world from the point of view of the European colonizers, which brings up a whole host of auxiliary issues. This man, Bienvenu Mbutu, is seeking to have the book banned on grounds that it portrays an appallingly racist view of black Africans.

    I was initially torn over this issue. As a victim of the negative portrayal of black people in popular media, I applaud any decision to ameliorate the damage done by such propaganda. However, while I am a black man, I am first and foremost a Canadian. One of the things that comes with the territory of living in an Enlightened democracy like Canada is defense of the right of free speech. Banning books is the infringement of free speech, which is wrong. It didn’t sit right with me, and the cognitive dissonance bothered me.

    After giving it some serious thought, I arrived at a realization. Far from being a negative portrayal of black Africans (although it is that, too), this book is a shocking revelation about the history of white Europeans (I guess, in this case, Belgians). This is a real piece of history that shows how intellectually and morally bankrupt the paternalistic society of European colonial powers was. These types of images, which rightly shock and appall us today, were seen as either harmless entertainment (for children, no less) or as accurate depictions of reality. The colonial powers thought nothing of taking land from people who they saw as little more than human-like animals. The aftershocks of this perverse racist attitude are still felt today in Africa, parts of Asia, the Caribbean and South America (to say nothing of the United States and Canada).

    Banning this book would only serve to attempt to mask history. These types of publication are emblematic of a time in our world where everyone believed the lie of white supremacy. Now that we are trying to extricate ourselves (and by ‘we’ I mean everyone, white people included) from the deep entrenchment of this false ideology, we need to examine our own past to see how it affects our present. Sweeping the nasty parts of our history under the rug of contrived ignorance will only serve to prolong the issues of race and racism. Furthermore, we will lose the opportunity to use artifacts from our (recent) history to learn from our mistakes.

    I think the book should be allowed to be sold, but with an introduction that highlights the context in which the book was written. Talk about the predominant attitudes of the day, admit that work still needs to be done, but while you’re at it, make mention of the amount of progress that has been made in a relatively short time. It’s only by acknowledging our past and incorporating it into our present that we can reach the long-sought future of racial integration.

    Dorothy Height, civil rights leader, dies at 93

    Dorothy Height, a prominent civil rights leader for both racial and gender equality has died at the age of 93 of natural causes.

    I thought it was appropriate to counterpoint this story with my post earlier today. There are a great many parallels between women’s struggle for civil rights and the black struggle. Both of the women mentioned here had feet in both camps. It seems inconceivable to us today that women and non-white racial groups should not be allowed to have a say in how their country is run, or even be considered full citizens of that country. It’s important to remember how recently it was inconceivable that they would be allowed these human rights.

    Let us never lose our zeal for fighting injustice and prejudice in all its forms.

    “Nova Scotia’s Rosa Parks” gets apology

    This is a neat story.

    Nova Scotia has apologized and granted a pardon to Viola Desmond, a black woman who was convicted for sitting in a whites-only section of a movie theatre in 1946. Premier Darrell Dexter apologized to Desmond’s family and to all black Nova Scotians for the institutional racism of the past.

    I have to confess I’d never heard of Viola Desmond before this story. It’s an important part of my heritage, both as a black man and as a Canadian. I think sometimes we forget that racism was alive and well in Canada, and continues to this day. Obviously, the maritime provinces have been reminded of that fact recently. This apology is more than simply acknowledging the culpability of the government and people of Nova Scotia (although that’s an important and positive step); it is also bringing an important story to the surface. It serves to remind us that segregation and officially-sponsored racism isn’t a problem of hundreds of years ago, or something that only happened in the South. 1946 is in the living memory of many people.

    Of course if you flip through the comments (which I do, because I am a goddamn addict) you’ll see the usual knee-jerk response of “why live in the past? We have to move on and let things go.” It’s a nice fantasy to think that we can just ‘get over it’, but denying history is not the path to progress. The apology should not serve (and I sincerely hope it doesn’t) to make white people feel guilty for being born white. As Canadians, we should all be aware of both our strengths as a country and, in this case, our weaknesses and mistakes.

    How inaccurate Nazi comparisons fuel anti-Semitism

    It will definitely not be among my most controversial statements to say that Adolf Hitler was a bad person. It will similarly be unobjectionable to say that Nazi-ism is and was a deplorable and horrifying philosophy and practice. No-one aside from the handful of anti-Semitic nutjobs who deny the Holocaust believe that Hitler or Nazis are a positive force in the world.

    However, in colloquial parlance, Nazis and Hitler are bandied about so wildly inaccurately that we’ve lost sight of why they are bad. Let’s take a look at the philosophy of Nazi Germany under Hitler:

    • Totalitarian regime
    • Advocated the mass slaughter of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Catholics, mentally and physically disabled
    • Practiced ghettoization of ‘undesirable’ members of society
    • Preached a doctrine of race chauvinism, with the intent of the destruction of all but the racially “pure”
    • Attempted to spread this doctrine by force across the entire world

    This is not good stuff. Nothing on this list can be counted as a positive trait. Any movement that seeks the mass slaughter of people based on a doctrine of chauvinism and is spread by force of arms should rightly be compared to Hitler and the Nazis. It is absolutely right to draw comparisons between such practices and the horrors of the Holocaust.

    You know where it’s not right? When talking about health care.

    President Hitler signed a shockingly similar bill with similar tactics used to get it signed….threats,  harassment,  false promises,  intimidation, invented crises.  Gee….did Obama take lessons from Hitler?

    Excuse me, WHAT? Dr. Laurie Roth seems to think that using unethical political tactics (and I’m not saying I agree even with this characterization) to sign policies into law is tantamount to being in league with Hitler.

    First of all, understand Hitler was a brilliant, charismatic speaker who said things in style, lied through his teeth and manipulated whatever he had to, to get a vote and power…

    Obama also seduced 60% of the nation, congress and most the media into not asking real questions and just believing his countless lies.

    Hitler wore black socks. Obama has been photographed WEARING BLACK SOCKS! The similarities abound.

    The question here that must be asked is as follows: is Obama similar to Hitler in any of the characteristics that are important? Namely, is he (openly or covertly) advocating the mass murder of a group of people based on ethnic or political affiliation? Is he declaring an expansionist war agenda in order to accomplish said mass murder? Is he jailing and shipping off political dissident groups to internment camps? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then I think your trial separation with reality has gone on long enough and you should just file the divorce papers already. If you answered ‘no’, then the question becomes whether or not the comparison to Obama is a fair one, or if you’re just using the spectre of Hitler and the Holocaust as a cheap and frankly tactless way of manipulating the emotions of your audience.

    And before we get too smug here on the left side of the aisle, shall I remind you of the anti-Iraq-war protests of only a few years ago? Ringo remembers.

    It seems as though we’ve taken the above description of Hitler and the Nazis and boiled it down to the first bullet point: Nazi = totalitarian regime. While nobody would suggest that totalitarian regimes are good, that’s not the only reason why Nazi-ism was so horrible; it’s not even the primary reason why Nazi-ism was so horrible. Look down the list – forced imprisonment, genocide, unjust war-making, all fueled by an underlying racist doctrine. The atrocities committed by the Nazis under Hitler were the worst that the developed world had ever seen, and possibly the worst in all of history.

    It does disservice to the memory of the millions of people who have died at the hands of the Nazi philosophy to trivialize its inherent ugliness as mere totalitarianism. Most feudal monarchies were totalitarian, but many positive things came out of them. There are admittedly few examples of totalitarian regimes that were good for the world, but much fewer are the examples that can be aptly compared to Nazi-ism – perhaps Russia under Stalin, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan, and even these last few are not at the hands of totalitarian rule but of brutal military rule.

    Taking a handful of characteristics, out of context, from the Nazis or Hitler, finding similarities to modern events and then forging specious equivalence between those events and the Nazi philosophy is belligerent intellectual dishonesty. Worse than that, however, is the fact that as the word “Nazi” gets applied to everything under the sun that one person or another doesn’t particularly like, the real meaning and context becomes diluted. The consequence of this is that we begin to forget the dark scourge of anti-Semitism that allowed such a philosophy to propagate on a global scale. As I showcased recently, anti-Semitism is still alive and well both internationally and here in Canada. It doesn’t need to be helped by down-playing the horror of its history.

    It seems appropriate at this point to say something about anti-Semitism. I have no particular allegiance to any religious group; I find them all distasteful at best, and destructive at worst. I fully recognize that Jewish people, and the Jewish faith is no better or worse than any other, except insofar as its adherents tend to be less militantly violent and intolerant than Christians, Muslims, or Indian Hindus. I highlight this particular race chauvinism (anti-Semitism) not only because it’s topical but because it’s pervasive. I am not claiming that anti-Semitism is philosophically better or worse than any kind of racist philosophy (although it has the longest history and is perhaps the most widespread). I am opposed to the idea of group identification based on religion, since religious expression is highly varied and is almost entirely based on superstition and nonsense. However, I am more opposed to the idea of violently exterminating a group of people based on group identification or shared belief. I am also opposed to intellectual dishonesty and the degradation of history to serve the agenda of the forces of stupid.

    So the next time you hear someone compare Obama or Bush to Hitler, or call someone else a ‘grammar Nazi’ or, in the case of one friend of mine, receive the fascist salute from a student because they don’t like your teaching style, I’d invite you to remind them that totalitarian as Nazi Germany was, that’s not the biggest criticism to be levied at them. I’d also invite you to offer to slaughter their families if they want their characterization to be more apt.