Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Canadian Office of Religious Freedom

Nothing raises Canadian political ire more than a politician's reference to religion, any religion, but especially religion in politics. Not that everyone is going to condemn every reference. Certainly not. But you can be sure that every reference will be polarizing. Some will approve, and some won't. Those who don't approve will cite precedents for keeping religion out of politics. Those who do approve this time around will be citing the same precedents next time around.

Political conservatives and liberals both have their own way of doing religion, which they see as unproblematic. Even vocal atheists, who tend to be politically liberal, do religion. Some references will slip by as being harmless and not worthy of response. Other references almost seem to require a sarcastic response. Everyone is reaching for a moral high ground; but in the case of the violently derisive discussion about religion, it is unlikely anyone will ever reach it.

So naturally Twitter experienced a minor eruption as Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the name of an ambassador to head Canada's new Office of Religious Freedom. Commentary came mainly from the liberal end of the political spectrum. Comments were incisive and pithy. With only 140 characters to spend, they had to be. Here are a few of the choicer contributions:
CC ‏@canadiancynic

In a shocking turn of events, the new head of the Office of Religious Freedom is a Christian, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2013/02/19/pol-ambassdor-office-religious-freedom-announced.html?cmp=rss …
Herbert Pimlott ‏@Herbert_Pimlott

Proof #Harper has a sense of humour?! Setup Office 4 Religious Freedom & gag scientists, cut dissenting NGOs #cdnpoli http://soc.li/6lwm9id
collin grasley ‏@mode23

Theological Action Plan - harper opens office of c̶h̶r̶i̶s̶t̶i̶a̶n̶  religious freedom. #cdnpoli #FIVEMILLIONTAXDOLLARS
Secular types wonder why Harper has cut government funding everywhere else. Federal Liberals and NDP wonder, in a very predictable turn of events, why the new Ambassador is Christian. Atheists wonder why there is not an Office of Freedom From Religion.

As a religious studies student, and a Christian with an interest in the study of the so-called world religions and natural religion, it immediately strikes me that the cast of the objections are predictably Christian objections. Granted, the objectors may not individually profess the Christian faith. They may even despise everything about Christians and what they believe. But as long as they appeal to a manifest obviousness that actual religious confession has no place in the public square, they whole-heartedly identify with a basic Christian dogma about the separation of the separation of the powers spiritual and temporal (or civil). Render unto Caesar, etc. etc. The joke is on them.

As an idea, at least, an Office of Religious Freedom actually makes a fair amount of sense in a post-Soviet, post 9/11, post-Arab Spring, post-, post- world. The End of History came, pace Francis Fukuyama, but the Last Man turned out to be some variety of cleric: an imam, pastor, or priest. Critics of the Office risk exposing themselves for the cultural dinosaurs that anyone who still has in their head that a secular utopia is just around the corner must inevitably be.

Critics of the choice of a young Roman Catholic prof for the position of Ambassador risk exposing their ignorance about the difficulty of staffing the Office. The critics themselves demonstrate that secular types won't touch the position with a 50-foot pole, which means you are going to have to look for a committed believer, which means...some particular faith. We are told that two other people turned the position down. Which means Dr. Andrew Bennett not the first choice for what will inevitably be a controversial and thankless job. Whether he is a bad choice, however, will not be determined until  we have gone a little ways down this road.

The latest Twitter post:
Iain Harnish ‏@IainHarnish

Office of Religious Freedom http://cbc.sh/ckzNeVR How did a once forward-looking country come to this.
Instead of this sort of armchair quarterbacking, it's better to accept the Office of Religious Freedom as a fiat accompli. Our energies, if we care at all, should be directed towards what sort of issues exactly the office is going to champion at home and abroad. The one danger I see is that the Office very quickly becomes a lobby group for the protection of Christian missionaries abroad. If so, it will champion a very narrow conception of religious freedom, once comes dangerously close to equating religious freedom with the Christian freedom to proselytize. (Other religions proselytize; but only Christianity makes proselytization part of its raison d'etre.) That will undermine perceptions of the Office in Canada at large. It will also undermine, I would argue, genuinely Christian interests, which, I would argue, in the public sphere, ought to be directed towards the dignity of humanity. Beyond that the powers of the state are a honey-trap, which ought to be held at arms length.

And rather than mock the new Ambassador of Religious Freedom, I think it more appropriate to extend the poor bastard my sympathies. We are watching you. And by we, I mean all of us Canadians. And we don't agree on very much at all.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

The great thing about religious freedom is that it encompasses so many basic human rights besides free speech and assembly. This Office has the opportunity to make a great contribution to the continuing work in the human rights field on what it means to protect the right of people to practice their religion in the full range of its respective practices.

Anonymous said...

The left wonders why religious people ally themselves with right-wing parties. Duh..when you alienate people's deepest beliefs, no amount of common ground on social justice, peace, etc. is going to draw religious people to parties that they percieve to be hostile to their deppest principles. Stephen Harper's Conservatives realize this and will use this to their advantage to build and maintain a diverse, ethnic minority base, 99% of which will be religious, to maintain power in years to come. Who would've thunk that immigration and diversity would be the lifeblood of the Conservative Party!

Anonymous said...

There should be freedom "from" religion. This is wrong. Besides that, they're hypocrites, in that they're only advocating freedom for religions that the Harper government recognizes. Wicca is a religion recognized in the United States, certainly in the military - yet Vic Toews will not allow a Wiccan chaplain to go to prisons. How about if they re-name it "Freedom for Religions We Approve Of"? You know very well they do not mean freedom for all religions.

Waste of money, some personal indulgence of Harper's. I don't belong to any organized religion, and I am not an atheist, because that involves a label, and apparently organization as well. I'm one of the lucky ones whose parents said "you can choose your religion when you're 21", and gave us the freedom to think.

Richard Greydanus said...

Oh how I wish people would leave their names, so I would know who I am talking to...!

The counterpoints 'religious freedom' and 'freedom from religion' actually point to an ambiguity in the definition religion.

What do you mean by religion? Do you mean beliefs? Do you want freedom to believe what you want? If religion means beliefs, then it would seem to follow that an Office of Religious Freedoms covers everyone, including atheists.

Do you mean freedom of communal association for the purposes of religion? Admittedly, there is a conceptual dilemma here, since non-religious tend not to associate for the purposes of worship, and religious minorities tend not to be as institutionally connected as well-established religious communities.

So, I take it you're a 'None' who thinks the label 'None' misses the point...

Anonymous said...

Religious freedom means - you're free to practise your religion. How you practise that religion, and how it might impact other people who are not and don't want to be in your religion, or how it infiltrates governmental decisions - are not at this point clear.

Freedom for religion - to do what, exactly? Forgive me if I don't trust the religious to have the best interests of all humanity at heart.

Freedom FROM religion, means that the above-noted, the religious, in their freedom to be religious, cannot infringe upon the rights of the non-religious, interfere with the laws of the land, insist upon school curricula that go along with their spiritual notions -- that is freedom FROM religion. It's like freedom from persecution. Or freedom from taxation, if you will.

Why do you need to know people's names? The idea is what's important, not identity. That's such a religious thing.

Richard Greydanus said...

It's interesting that you think revealing one's name in a more or less public place for discussion is a religious thing. I rather think it a secular thing, and very important. It why in places like Canada and France the wearing of the hijab is so contentious. The very secular idea is that, subject to the protection of the law, you can represent yourself in the public square.

The idea that the idea is what is important, not the person, also is anti-secular and quasi-fundamentalist in nature. Ideas for the sake of ideas end up killing people. Nazism was an ideas: the German Volk. 11 million, 6 million of them Jews, in concentration camps. Soviet Communism was an idea: the classless society. 20 million people died, most of them in the Ukraine. Contemporary religious fundamentalism feeds off ideas, with little or no reference to persons. And people die.

Your description of what freedom from religion is sounds very American. At least it sounds like it is informed by the contemporary 'cultural conflicts' in the US.

Whatever the case may be, I don't trust people who think ideas matter more than the people who have ideas to have the best interests of humanity in mind. I also don't trust American perceptions of the way things are. No offense.