Religious freedom vs freedom from religion

Published March 1, 2002

THE DISCUSSION that has swirled around the remarks the primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, addressed to a New Year’s Day congregation in Ottawa actually reflects a malaise that goes much deeper than a concern over separation of church and state. It points to a vacuum in moral leadership that extends across the breadth of society and raises fundamental questions of where people might seek guidance in the face of life’s more difficult issues.As is often the case in such things, the primate’s remarks were amplified and interpreted through commentary, both in the secular press and on the Anglican Website. The argument Archbishop Peers actually made, using as an illustration the secular nature of the remembrance ceremony on Parliament Hill that followed last September’s terrorist attacks, was a cultural one. He argued that it is futile and nonsensical for a state to attempt to remove from culture its deeply ingrained articles of faith for the sake of ultimately giving offense to no one.”I think,” Archbishop Peers said, “there is at work a naive view of how our society ought to live. Secularism according to some contributors to this debate will bring unity and strength to our country by removing from its life the potential divisiveness of religion. This kind of thing, I think, would prove to be not only a suppression of the pluralistic reality but also a folly of the worst sort for society. If we think that we can achieve unity by suppression of knowledge of and respect for religious diversity, then we will never understand our world.” Nor, he might have added, will we ever understand our own needs in dealing with the complexities of the world, for to exist and to survive thoughtfully and sensibly at the dawn of the 21st century is something no one is equipped to do in a vacuum. The world is simply too fast and its rights and wrongs too muddled into shades of grey for that to be feasible. It does not require the age of Methuselah to recall a time when things were different and when guidance seemed much more readily available and much more palatable than it is today. Within the memory of many is a time when religion and religious leaders held much greater moral and political sway than they do today; a time when certain political leaders were so trusted and so regarded that they merely pointed a finger in a given direction and there, the people marched; a time, indeed, when newspaper editorial pages could go a long way towards influencing the results of elections. It is useless to decry the end of those things and it may be totally academic to debate, as many did in the aftermath of Archbishop Peers’ remarks, whether the world is a better or a worse place for their absence. But that the world is a different place for their absence is undeniable. Whether the difference is good or bad is the crux of the debate engendered by the primate’s sermon. One eminent social commentator offered the following analysis: “Christians and all others will in the end be better able to maintain their beliefs in freedom if the political world holds no religious views, ignores religious events and politely declines to embrace religious leaders – even by the limited endorsement of invitations to public events. Archbishop Peers may have it backwards: The world of 2002 has too little secularism, not too much. As well as freedom of religion, our form of society requires freedom from religion.” The statements made by this commentator and by Archbishop Peers represent two worlds, one which takes away and one which leaves alone. In defining the issue as a matter of freedom, the commentator quoted above had it right. Where he erred fatally was in defining freedom in terms of a removal of religious freedom. Nothing increases through the removal of some of the parts. Where we, as individuals, seek moral, ethical, social, political or even religious guidance is our own affair. What social and political systems are charged with is preserving the freedom to look where we please unhindered. Archbishop Peers did not, in his sermon, proffer Christianity as the only system worthy of attention, nor did he say that it holds all the answers, nor did he imply that it is superior to other faiths and tenets. What he argued, using the Parliament Hill memorial as an example, is that it is ridiculous for a state to foster the pretense that a moral force such as faith does not matter. What political leaders did on Parliament Hill was shut their eyes to a social, not a religious, reality that they felt uncomfortable with. Governments that do this underscore their inability to lead, and thus contribute to social malaise. Another political leader put the matter with stark simplicity. In Manitoba in December, Premier Gary Doer announced that the “multicultural friendship tree” that adorned the legislature would henceforth be called a Christmas tree. “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s not a flamingo,” Mr. Doer was quoted as telling the legislature. “We do not call the menorah that’s outside a multicultural candle holder. What we have in our legislature is a Christmas tree.” Sometimes it is good to acknowledge the existence of multiple realities, even when they conflict, rather than attempt to meld them into one thing that will offend no one and that in the end does not even really exist.


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