COMMENT: An Ambassador of Freedom FROM religion?
Canada now has an Ambassador of Religious Freedom. By definition the basis of religion is in the realm of metaphysics, but metaphysics surely cannot be the focus for our newest Ambassador. How does our federal government define religion?
Are Taoism and Confucianism religions, or are they an amalgam of spirituality, ethics and philosophy? Is Christianity a religion? If so, what are Catholicism, Presbyterianism, Mormonism, and all the other variations of Christ’s followers? What distinguishes a religion from a sect, a cult, or an occult, and who is to draw the line that separates one from the other? And as it concerns our government’s latest endeavour, why single out religion? Why not an ambassador of freedom of thought, belief and expression?
Whichever way one defines religion, what all faiths have in common is a conviction among followers of the superiority of their particular faith, along with a capacity for extremism and fanaticism. A Catholic is unlikely to believe her faith to be inferior to Judaism, just as a Muslim is unlikely to consider his faith to be inferior to Mormonism. As to extremism, Islamism dominates the world’s attention today, but let us not forget that Christianity’s history is not without its own dark periods.
The federal government’s program appears to replicate the work of the century’s old International Association for Religious Freedom, a global organization headquartered in the United Kingdom whose core project it is to protect and promote the human rights of freedom of religion and belief. History substantiates the complexity of the task and the difficulties associated with it, but it does not relieve religions and their disciples of the responsibility to pursue inter-faith tolerance, acceptance, and respect. It is a daunting task, but it is not an impossible one as spirituality, truth, and love are common to most if not all religions.
If by freedom of religion the federal government means absence of discrimination and persecution of individuals based on gender, sexuality, race, health, and all characteristics by which a minority may be distinguished from a majority, its goal is laudable but its Office of Religious Freedom misses the mark. It would be a step in the right direction if a Muslim majority were to respect, without reservation, the unimpeded right of a Seventh Day Adventists minority in its midst to practice its faith. But it would be an empty gesture if, while respecting that right, the state would nonetheless require all women to wear the chador as it denies them the right to acquire a driver’s licence.
The state does have a role to play in the realm of religion, but it should not be concerned with inter-religious matters, it should be concerned with the relationship between state and religion. If the federal government wants to involve Canada internationally in religion-related matters, it should establish an Office of Freedom from Religion. The role of a Canadian Ambassador of Freedom from Religion should be to encourage states to remove rules of behaviour based on religious doctrine from their laws.
Freedom of religion, as it concerns the state, means that the state shall not use the force of law to compel Catholicism to appoint female cardinals. Freedom from religion, as it should concern the state, means that the state shall not use the force of law to impose Wahabbism’s dress code on women.
The connection between state and religion is overpowering in some countries. We should not forget, however, that the separation of state and religion is rather fragile in Canada. The promotion of principles based on religious doctrine is never far below the surface in Canadian political circles. Writing on the subject, contemporary French philosopher André Comte-Sponville has thoughtful advice on this subject: “Truth, not faith, is what sets us free.”
Andre Carrel is a retired City Administrator, journalist, author, and full-time grandpal.