Guest column by Geoffrey Cameron, Don Hutchinson and Victor C. Goldbloom. As originally published at thestar.com (Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd) on May 24, 2013.
The influence of religion on public thought and Canadian society reaches back to the origins of our country. And, today, there is still a place for religious and spiritual perspectives in our shared public discourse on the issues of the day.
Over three-quarters of those who participated in Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey — Statistics Canada’s voluntary survey that replaced the cancelled mandatory long-form census — reported having a personal religious affiliation. This alone illustrates the need to advance the ongoing conversation about the constructive and positive role of religion in Canadian society.
Canada has been shaped by its experience of religious diversity, which has been safeguarded by the historic protection of religious freedom. Religious liberty was formally protected as early as the Quebec Act of 1774, which upheld the rights of Roman Catholics resident in Quebec to practice their religion freely. In the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “freedom of conscience and religion” is identified as the first of our fundamental freedoms. Canada’s aboriginal peoples have maintained their spirituality and asserted its role in society, despite efforts made in earlier decades to eradicate these beliefs and practices. Today, changing migration patterns are altering the religious landscape of the country, enriching our country’s religious pluralism and prompting new questions about religion and religious freedom. Religion, in all its diversity, is here to stay in Canadian society.
Some people, in a more extreme form of secularism, promote the restriction of public expressions of religion. This perspective suggests that religion is exclusionary or divisive and should be permitted only privately; or that democratic civility is attainable only by restricting religion’s role to private belief, or at most to enclosed places of worship. This form of secularism limits the advancement of Canada’s public experience and discourse. However, Canadian public institutions are highly valued at home and abroad precisely because of their promotion of equal treatment for all people — including both the religious and the non-religious.
In a country that has embraced values of pluralism and religious freedom, the exclusion of religion from the public sphere would be inconsistent with our heritage and values. Our Canadian challenge is to foster a continuing spirit of civility and reconciliation within an increasingly diverse society.
Some from both religious and non-religious communities express uncertainty about how religion ought to enter into the spaces of public discourse. That’s a conversation we need to have. But the “how” is not so much about limits but the freedom of all Canadians to express ourselves — without fear.
The insights offered by religion, whether based on spiritual teachings or the experience of people applying them, have and can contribute positively to the clarification of shared values and thinking on issues of public concern. Religion stands equally as capable of informing reasoned rational thought as does the thinking of those who choose to reject religious foundations. One point on which the nine judges of the Supreme Court of Canada agreed in their decision in in 2002 Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36 in 2002 was, “nothing in the Charter, political or democratic theory, or a proper understanding of pluralism demands that atheistically based moral positions trump religiously based moral positions on matters of public policy.” Robust public discourse calls for both religious and non-religious participation, not either religious or non-religious.
Some religious perspectives have been expressed in the public sphere using remonstrative or sanctimonious (i.e., holier-than thou) language. These have not helped to improve the tone or content of public discourse. We aspire to a more moderate and gracious mode of deliberation, characterized by mutual respect and a search for shared insight and understanding, recognizing that still all voices must be welcomed in Canada’s public square, even those with whose tone or opinion we might disagree. Canadians must be able to speak openly together about our beliefs, values and principles and how they relate to our common good.
We are calling for a level of maturity in our public discourse where diverse religious perspectives are part of a rich and dynamic Canadian conversation. Civic institutions — including media, government and civil society — benefit from greater inclusion of religious perspectives, when shared in this manner.
This is part of an ongoing conversation, a conversation that has its genesis centuries in the past and more recently has included important initiatives in media, among faith community leaders and even elected officials in the effort to ensure a broad base of dialogue that includes all Canadians.
What unites these initiatives is more than an ethic of interfaith dialogue. It is a belief in the value of participation by Canada’s religions in the public life of our shared nation and the desire for a more robust and civil national discourse.
Geoffrey Cameron is principal researcher with the Baha’i Community of Canada. Don Hutchinson is vice-president and general legal counsel with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Victor C. Goldbloom is chairman of the Christian Jewish Dialogue of Montreal. All three are members of the steering committee for the conference Bridging the Secular Divide: Religion and Canadian Public Discourse being held at McGill University in Montreal on May 27 and 28. For more information and to register see www.bridgingthedivide.ca.