Secularism, keep our land glorious and free

The Plan documents the ongoing adventures that arise from living a truly alternative lifestyle: two people in love, no children, one works for an income, the other works to realize a secular utopia, and the unifying force is a shared commitment to radical activism in all of its many forms.

Earlier this month, I read an article in the Winnipeg Free Press about a Winnipeg School Division board of trustees vote concerning religious instruction in public schools. The vote itself was of little significance, as was the media-manufactured drama surrounding it. What is significant is that in Canada — in the year 2011, no less — children are still being religiously indoctrinated at taxpayer- funded public schools.

The fact that religious instruction is happening in public schools does not mean that we are living in a theocracy, and by itself, it is no real cause for alarm. This is especially true since parents must opt their children into the religious teaching and the instruction periods only take place before school starts and/or during the lunch hour.

However, when you examine the situation closely, you quickly begin to realize that religion and the state have a rather cozy relationship in Canada. “God” is mentioned in our national anthem. “God” is invoked in our Charter (“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law . . . ”). Some witnesses in court are made to swear on a bible. Meetings of many different governments — including Winnipeg’s city council — begin with prayer. Houses of religious worship are exempt from taxation.

Perhaps this reality is simply a reflection of the positive inclination that a majority of Canadians have towards a society where religion and government work hand in hand?

Not so according to an Ipsos Reid survey from November of last year. Only 36 per cent of Canadians agree that “religion provides the common values and ethical foundations that diverse societies need to thrive in the 21st century,” whereas the remaining 64 per cent believe that “religious beliefs promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions and impede social progress.” Although this poll was not specifically asking about whether Canada should be secular or non-secular, the distrust of religion and religious sectarianism expressed by two-thirds of Canadians leads me to surmise that that same two thirds would prefer to live in a secular society.

What exactly is secularism? Is it a religion? Is it a synonym for atheism? Is a secular society one where all public displays of religious symbols are outlawed? None of the above.

Secularism is the view that government and religion should be kept separate. Secularists believe that religion should have no influence on government and government should have no influence on religion. The citizens of a secular state are free to practise any religion they choose or practise no religion at all. A secular government is one that neither privileges nor punishes its citizens on the basis of religious affiliation or non-affiliation. The reasonable limit placed on religious freedom is that religious practices cannot break the law.

Nation states can be completely theocratic, completely secular or somewhere in between. For example, in a theocratic country, the government would give property tax exemptions to the religious buildings of only one particular religion. In a completely secular country, only organizations that can demonstrate that they are non-profit and work for the public good could obtain tax exemptions; religious institutions could be included, but not necessarily. In a country that is somewhere in between like Canada, all religious institutions are given property tax exemptions if they are affiliated with religions that the government recognizes as legitimate.

This in between situation leads to all sorts of absurdities. How does one decide what counts as a religion and what does not? Does it depend on how old it is? Does it depend on how many adherents the religion has? Does it depend on how closely it resembles familiar religious paradigms? Does its services have to entail a certain degree of solemnity? These criteria are obviously subjective and arbitrary.

A bizarre outcome of this pseudo-secularism is that in Canada Scientology is classified as a religious non-profit organization and its ministers can perform marriages, yet churches of Scientology are not tax exempt. I’m not defending the legitimacy of Scientology, but if they are deemed illegitimate due to the absurdity of their beliefs, I don’t see how they are any less worthy of tax exemption than “mainstream” religions like Mormonism or Pentecostalism.

Unlike the United States, Canada has no legally enshrined justification for maintaining a separation between religion and the state. However, this is irrelevant when the question at hand is whether Canada ought to be secular. In a pluralistic society like ours where there are nearly as many variations on religion as there are people, it seems obvious that the only fair way for government to interact with religion is to be completely neutral towards it.

Rob McGregor is an advocate for a secular Winnipeg.

1: 1. http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/religious-issue-splits-school-board-112924319.html

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