Sacred and Secular Belief: Can We Have Peace?
Sacred and Secular Belief: Can We Have Peace?

Sacred and Secular Belief: Can We Have Peace?

Are we on our way to a belief-free society now that we are educated and prosperous?

September 1 st 2014
Appears in Fall 2014

Re-Thinking The Secular

We are all familiar with the prediction that as societies become more educated and more prosperous, religion gradually dies. For years, Canadian and American scholars have told us that the percentage who identify with a particular religion is slipping. On census forms, more and more people answer "none" to a question about religious affiliation, and we all know about the growing body of those who are "spiritual but not religious."

But are these facts really the most salient features to capture what is happening to our landscape of belief? Examining the Canadian scene, we do not see a turn to more rational, less belief-based thinking. The "secular," if it means a "rational" society or even one neutral toward belief, appears to have vanished. Or perhaps we could question whether it ever existed at all other than as a cultural myth. But rather than a landscape of vanishing faith, I suggest, we see growing in strength a particular belief system, which is falling prey to the historical temptations of dominant religions: exclusion and repression. This so-called secular appears to be making serious efforts to drive out the traditional religious perspective of the sacred. The result of an open clash in beliefs, rather than of renewed efforts at mutual tolerance, has a high risk of causing serious social disruption.

Theories about the death of religion usually include the supposition that humans are rational animals who acquired religion to deal with natural phenomena they were unable to explain, or to provide an opiate against lives that were brutish and short, or as a mechanism of control imposed by the powerful who found religion a useful tool. Thus, once science reigned, disease and pain were conquered, and true democracy arrived, religion would die. Then we would return to our natural state where conflict would cease. "Imagine," sang John Lennon, "a world with no religion." And it would be a good world.

But with the decline of formal religious adherence in the West, do we see any signs that some ideal of rationality is gaining ground? We do not. On any look at our popular culture, we see rather an intense interest in the mythological (endless TV shows about vampires, werewolves, or demons); wide rejection of scientific evidence (anti-vaccination campaigns and wide acceptance of non-evidence based alternative medicine); emergence of prejudice-based judgments (assuming that voluntarily wearing the hijab violates women's rights); and a strong emphasis on emotion (such as characterizing any unpopular speech as "hateful"). None of this suggests a turn to rational thinking, nor does it eliminate conflict.

In fact, these non-rational responses in our society raise levels of conflict and incoherence. We abhor violence, but regard as en- tertaining the gruesome special effects of the horror movie. We obsessively pursue safety of our children, but we send them to school unprotected from common diseases. We want diversity, but only if the diverse accept our modes of dress and of thought. We judge public policy on the basis of harm created or avoided, so that subjective moral questions need not arise, but we allow privileged groups to claim harm on the basis that they feel offended.

As these contradictions and the conflicts they inevitably produce rise, it should cause us to re-think our understanding of the "secular." It would seem that belief is inescapable. Premises from which we reason are fundamentally shaped by and tied to a method of organizing our perceptions so that we can understand and interact with the world around us. That organizing method is a system of beliefs. It may not be "religious," if "religious" signifies a concept of the sacred or transcendent or eternal. But no belief system is purely rational; it is not subject to proof; it exists partly within our conscious lives and is partly a product of culture, evolution and social forces. And all belief systems encompass our understanding of ourselves, our place in the universe, our relationships with others, and our sense of what it is right or wrong to do or to think.

In short, the "secular" as we use it today describes not an absence of belief, but a kind of belief: that the universe is independent of the divine; that the sacred is irrational and must be ignored for purposes of forming social policy; and that regard for the sacred matters can be reduced to a private hobby. This confusion of what the secular has become with the neutrality it promised has serious consequences. The search for a neutral ground of moral and legal principle dominated legal philosophy for generations. Concepts of natural law that could not ultimately be sustained in both theistic and non-theistic versions were discarded. Legal philosophers such as John Rawls adopted concepts of equality that looked more promising. But as equality theory developed, it turned to dictating outcomes rather than mandating opportunity. In dictating outcomes, its proponents derived moral judg- ments from premises that excluded the sacred. "Substantive" equality, meaning equality of outcome, and its consequential moral and legal conclusions now dominate our law schools and our courts. And as this belief system permeates Western culture, it has begun to make use of the power of the state to withhold privileges from those who do not adhere to it.

The fault line lies along moral rules that deal with the most fundamental questions of who we are. Religious visions of these questions are by no means dead and, in some cases, such as pro-life concerns, have shown surprising vigour. I would like to focus on three conflicts—clashes between those holding a belief that the sacred matters and those rejecting the relevance of this vision— that may point to the shape of things to come. I will then suggest some commonalities among these conflicts and, finally, turn to a discussion of why, faced with these trends, we must find a better way to deal with divergent beliefs.

Freedom Of Conscience In A "Secular" Age

The first conflict is illustrated by a National Post story that ran in late June, 2014. A woman attending a medical clinic was met by a sign stating that the doctor on duty would not prescribe contraceptives. The prospective patient expressed her outrage to the press. How could the doctor's beliefs supersede her right to receive a prescription for contraceptives? A similar-seeming incident occurred earlier in 2014 when Justin Trudeau, as leader of the Liberal Party, announced that to run as a candidate for that party, all must be prepared to support unrestricted abortion. At the time, he suggested "grand parenting" sitting members "to a certain extent"; it later became apparent that this extent did not permit pro-life members to vote their consciences even in a free vote on abortion issues.

At first glance, both these instances illustrate a common feature of Canada's prevalent belief system: equality demands that contraception and abortion services must be available to all without limit. But Justin Trudeau is the leader of a political party; no one is compelled to join it or to run as a candidate for it. It is, in that sense, a private organization. And, at least at the moment, if the issue of narrowing abortion availability is of importance to you, there is another party you can join. Indeed, if you wish, you can start your own political party and run on whatever platform you choose. It may not garner favour with the voters, but there is no prohibition on losing elections.

The case of the doctor is quite different. The state has a monopoly on who is admitted to the practice of medicine and the requirements are stringent. In each province, a governing body established by statute imposes not only educational, but ethical requirements. A doctor who could not follow the ethical requirements of her profession could not practice medicine. At the moment, medical ethics permit a doctor to follow his conscience. A doctor is simply obliged to inform patients at an early stage as to what procedures he will not perform. But whether this exemption will continue is uncertain. Complaints to the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Alberta echo the disappointed patient's view and argue that in refusing to perform abortions or sterilizations or prescribe contraceptives, a doctor is violating the law and cannot be protected by the code of ethics, which is equally illegal. The refusal is characterized as discrimination against women. Since it is women who bear children, a refusal to perform these services affects women differently and thus violates concepts of substantive equality contrary to human rights legislation.

Recently, the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons conducted an on-line poll in which they asked members of the public across the country whether doctors ought to be required to perform procedures or prescribe drugs even if contrary to their consciences. An overwhelming majority of voters agreed that they should. Several years ago, the Ontario Human Rights Commission had presciently warned that a doctor's conscientious refusal could be a violation of women's rights and that a doctor must be prepared to leave his conscience at the consulting room door. We face the very real prospect that doctors who oppose abortion, contraception, sterilization (or, soon, euthanasia) on grounds of conscience will be barred from the profession.

These incidents reveal a breathtakingly stunted view of the claims of conscience. Belief in the sanctity of human life from the womb to the grave cannot be excluded from one's public life in a number of professions. If we think that society will be better when Evangelical and Catholic Christians, Mormons, Muslims, and Jews (to name a few groups) cannot engage in these professions, we gravely underestimate the social problems we will experi- ence once those practicing these faiths understand their new career restrictions. But at the same time, new limitations on religious perspectives are being instituted in some schools and rights of private universities adhering to traditional religious doctrine are being challenged, all in the name of a secular moral code.

Conflict In The Schools

The second conflict involves schools in Quebec. The Quebec government mandates the teaching in high schools of an ethics and religious culture course. The course does not attempt to teach the belief systems of any religion, but primarily deals with them as cultural artifacts. It demands that those who provide the instruction treat each religion discussed as being of equal worth. Two efforts to avoid the implications of the program have reached the courts. In the first, parents in a public school argued that the program taught relativism and therefore violated their religious beliefs as Catholics. Because it effectively taught that the Catholic faith was no better than any other religion, requiring their children to take the course infringed their freedom of conscience and religion contrary to the Canadian Charter. The Supreme Court of Canada held that the case had not been proved. Whether the court grasped the argument that teaching all religions as equivalent could violate the parents' freedom of religion is somewhat unclear.

However, the Quebec Court of Appeal went on to apply the Supreme Court's decision to a case in which a Catholic high school sought an exemption from teaching the program. Under the terms of the provincial requirements, exemptions were possible where the applicant could show that they taught an equivalent program. Loyola High School asserted that its course on ethics and world religions covered the same facts and principles as the provincial course. However it was taught from a Catholic perspective, not from the mandated perspective. The ministry of education in Quebec rejected their claim. Although at first instance, the judge found this to be a violation of Loyola High School's rights to freedom of conscience and religion, the Court of Appeal disagreed that this should give Loyola the right to an exemption. Whatever violation of freedom of conscience and religion the course created was, the court held, trivial.

The Supreme Court of Canada has heard the appeal from the Quebec court's decision, but no judgment has been released as this is written. The Supreme Court in its earlier decision commented that neutrality is difficult to achieve in the presentation of religions. What remains to be seen is whether the court will appreciate that "neutrality" about beliefs may in itself be a posi- tion grounded on a belief. The implicit message may be that all religions are of human creation and all are entitled to respect only insofar as they accept their status as such. Enforcing that perspective ought, at least, to qualify as a violation of freedom of religion if that phrase retains any meaning beyond freedom to worship privately as one pleases.

And In The Universities?

The third conflict involves the efforts of Trinity Western University—a privately funded, publically accredited B.C. university—to establish a law school. The objection to TWU's proposal stems from its com- munity covenant which includes, and is rooted in, a statement of faith. That statement includes a moral code that categorizes sexual activity outside marriage, religiously defined as between a man and a woman, as sinful and prohibited. The Federation of Law Societies and the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education have both approved the law program as meeting educational requirements. In addition, the Federation of Law Societies obtained legal opinions as to whether the existence of the community covenant provided a reason for denying the program's accreditation. The opinions given determined that adherence to a religious view of marriage was protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, by the Federal Civil Marriages Act and by provincial legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion.

Accreditation of a law school is a legal process: it is carried out by bodies created by law operating under delegated legal authority. The Charter and provincial human rights legislation require that the law be applied to everyone without difference based on religious belief. Moreover, a previous decision of the Supreme Court of Canada held that a statement of belief contained in the community covenant was not illegal discrimination. Law societies in Canada have divided as to whether to allow TWU law graduates admission to their societies and thus to the practice of law in their province. Despite strong legal arguments in favour of TWU's right to be treated equally in granting this accreditation, Ontario and Nova Scotia have both refused.

In British Columbia, after a lengthy debate and hundreds of submissions, the Benchers of the Law Society voted to accredit. They were then forced by petition to call a general meeting of the Law Society members to debate and vote on the issue. The meeting was the largest in the history of the B.C. Law Society. A majority of more than 75% of those attending voted in favour of refusing TWU's program the right to access to the legal profession in B.C. No reasoned or legally supportable arguments were relied upon other than a bald assertion that the covenant was discriminatory, violating the equality of gays and lesbians. The resolution is not binding on the Benchers and they will decide whether to follow it by the time this essay is in print. Whichever way it goes, the matter is bound for the courts.

The New Shape Of Belief

None of these conflicts suggests increasing rationality in our society. Indeed, all of them are characterized by not only strong beliefs in particular moral positions, but by a desire to exclude and repress those who disagree. If your religion is not merely a matter of private practice but affects your conduct, then you may be excluded from the medical profession. Although you may believe your religion is true, your children must be taught at school that it is one of many with no more claim to belief than any other. If you will not approve a wide range of sexual conduct as equally moral, then you must not receive accreditation to teach law. In each, the rights of those who adhere to a traditional religious vision are excluded from the conversation and, indeed, from full participation in society.

So we are not on our way to a belief-free society. But what happens if it succumbs to the trend to impose one class of belief over another? Current Western beliefs purport to prize diversity. But that diversity has a very narrow meaning. It means observable differences in race or ability, asserted sexual divergence from heterosexual or male/female designations, or membership in groups designated as oppressed, such as women or aboriginal people. Otherwise, uniformity is expected in adherence to common moral and political beliefs.

But as the world grows smaller, immigration increases, and the "old" beliefs of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism refuse to die, the contrast between this narrow view of diversity and the reality strengthens. Irrational reactions against hijab- or burka-wearing women may be in part based on the growing realization that diversity in belief often follows racial and cultural diversity. Much of the hysterical reaction to Trinity Western University may also arise from a fear that the hegemony of legal education is about to be fractured. It is fear of the continuing existence of the sacred vision of human life as a competing social influence.

Where does fear lead? In the cases I have just discussed, it leads to the use of state power to dominate those who differ, which inevitably leads to anger, resentment, disengagement from our society, and, perhaps most significantly of all, silencing alternate views of reality that can bring renewal, creativity, and change. Societies that ghettoize particular groups rarely fare well in the end. In the short term, they become places where peace vanishes.

In Canada, we have the opportunity, with our Charter's vision of a democratic society, to end this exclusionary cycle. The Charter provides a unique structure under which a majority may make a political decision on a moral right, but insofar as is possible, the minority can continue to participate and advocate for their perspective. This is true democracy—open, participatory, and free.

Many national constitutions talk a good game, but fail utterly in their implementation. Canada's great contribution to the world could be to embrace the reality of this structure by protecting the first, fundamental freedom: freedom of conscience and religion. This protection does not eliminate the majority's role in making and enforcing through law its moral commitments; but it does preserve the participation in society of alternatives and gives those in the minority group both respect and a voice. This, in turn, may lead to a society where genuine peace among neighbours is possible, even among those whose beliefs diverge on the importance and existence of the sacred, which is, it would seem, the greatest divide of all.

But when I wrote those words "could be," I almost wrote "could have been." Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the theory that the spread of ideas reaches a "tipping point" where it becomes unstoppable. As I look at the seemingly sudden growth in secular beliefs that advocate forceful repression of the minority, I cannot avoid the heartbreaking thought that we may have missed our moment. And, therefore, so has social peace. There is no secular, as it was once understood. Rather, it seems, the wheel turns and a new dominant faith again proclaims that "error has no rights." Only if our courts and our institutions can understand the centrality of belief to human life and require both visions, with and without the sacred, to leave space for each other could we (or perhaps may we yet) break this destructive cycle of conflict.

Mary Anne Waldron
Mary Anne Waldron

Professor Mary Anne Waldron has been a faculty member in the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria since 1976. She has extensive experience in both teaching and administration. On the administrative side, she has served as Associate Dean and, later, Acting Dean of the Faculty and then served eight years as Associate Vice-President Legal Affairs for the University. Most of her teaching and research in the Law Faculty has been in the areas of commercial law, but she has also pursued her interests in teaching law to non-lawyers and in analyzing Canadian court decisions in light of their political, moral and ethical implications. Her recent book, Free to Believe: Rethinking Freedom of Conscience and Religion in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2013) reflects both those commitments.


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