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The Cardus Daily

Freedom of Religion includes the Freedom to Proselytize

Brian Dijkema  |  October 6, 2011  |  Justice, Religion

Well, let’s hope that Arvind Sharma isn’t appointed as Canada’s first ambassador for religious freedom.

In an interview with the CBC on the topic of Canada’s imminent federal office of religious freedom, Sharma offers a confusing conception of the office and the religious freedom which it is intended to promote:

My concern is that this office will be used . . . by missionary religions, especially by Christian missions, will be interpreted by them as giving them the right to proselytize. I agree that the right to change one’s religion is a part of religious freedom, but I don’t agree that my right to change my religion is symmetrical with somebody else’s right to ask me to change my religion.

So, it’s okay to have a set of beliefs and practices which you understand to be the most conducive to the good life, but it’s not okay to try to convince others that your beliefs and practices are most conducive to the good life? Not even if you do so in peace, using words and peaceful actions rather than guns?

Sharma highlights some practices which he rightly suggests are disgusting—forced conversion in return for food or medical aid, for example. But those shameful practices are really descriptions of religious coercion, not religious freedom. Conversions in return for food and aid are more in line with the practice of Charlemagne circa 804 or, say, the Taliban today. They should be condemned.

The ability of all religions—Islam, Judaism, Christianity or, for that matter, the Marijuana church—to peacefully persuade people using ethos, pathos, and logic is fundamentally tied to religious freedom.

Sharma is simply wrong to suggest that there is an assymetrical relationship between the right to have religious belief and the right to persuade others of the validity of that belief. If he was correct, individuals would not be free, but would be confined to keeping their most fundamental beliefs private. To say otherwise is to ask people to act without integrity (i.e. to believe one thing in private and another thing in public). Such a conception necessarily bifurcates religion.

The freedom to proselytize should be protected. Strictures on forced conversions? Absolutely. But to suggest that religion is okay only as long as you keep it to yourself? Doesn’t sound like freedom to me.

In Canada, religion is and always has been a public matter—this is one of the great strengths of our constitution and our nation. It is a strength which should be shared with the world.

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