I am not a man of faith. I’ve never been. I am not an atheist, not an agnostic, just a man of reason. Still, all my life I have been fascinated by religions. The religious mindset. Trying to understand how it is possible that something that is so obvious to me is so far beyond the grasp of so many. How is it possible that they do not see the contradictions? The moral ambivalence. The weakness of the psychological benefits.
At the same time I do appreciate many things about many religions, the greatest social organizations of human history. There is something fundamentally voluntary about faith, that is, of course, when it is chosen freely.
What I have a problem with is the dangerous notion of religious freedom. The notion in western societies that grew out of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that as long as you do something based on ideas rooted in your faith, then it is, or somehow should be, beyond rational debate.
No matter how silly what you say or do is, as long as you can claim that it is a matter of faith, there is a good chance that you can get away with it. If asked, most people would say that they support the idea of religious freedom. They’d say that Canada is a country of religious tolerance; it is good that it is that way and it should stay that way.
But then we have to ask: are they serious, or just lazy to think?
Tolerance is not an absolute.
If a remote tribe in Mexico, descendant of the Aztecs would move to Canada, as political refugees, of course, to escape religious prosecution, how much religious freedom should we allow to them? Should we let them build a pyramid? How about raiding a neighbouring town to collect slaves to be sacrificed on top of them?
Picture the followers of Kali who were said to have human sacrifices in living memory. Should we tolerate that? How about allowing in Canada what is legal in India, the ritual sacrifice of goats to Kali?
What if the Greeks manage to get out of their financial troubles and their relatives in Toronto want to celebrate it with a hecatombe on Danforth?
How about simple ones: Toronto has a growing Tibetan community. What if one of their monks chose to ask for a sky burial in his last will? Well, OK, we don’t have many vultures around, but would we allow it in the Rockies? What if they would compromise and settle for a grizzly bear-rial?
The Congo pygmies went to the UN for protection from those eating them. They are eaten because it is believed that the act will provide magic powers to the cannibals.
How about the religious rights of the Borneo Dayaks? Should we accommodate head shrinking practices?
I could go on with examples, but I hope you can see my point. Could you picture any of these practices in Canada today? From the deadly to the ridiculous, they are all out of the question. When it comes to real life application, the definition of religious freedom becomes quite narrow. Or does it? We can continue with examples from the clearly unacceptable to those that we are seriously considering if not already allowing.
How about the stoning of adulterers (or rather – adulteresses)? Or the death sentence on apostates and homosexuals? Clearly not acceptable, even though I don’t see many people standing up against advocating it. “It is ok to advocate it, as long as you are not doing it here, OK? This way we can stay nice; pretend that we are tolerant about your faith while also claiming that we care about women and homosexuals.”
How about mutilations? Let’s start with circumcision. We are OK with that, but then how about female genital mutilation that is not done for supposed health reasons like circumcision, but to deprive women of sexual pleasure? It seems that we are OK with that too, because we allow it to happen in several western democracies. We have a whole class of people in our world doing various forms of self-mutilation (mostly piercing) entirely on their free will. Can the same thing be said of teenage girls who are forced into it by their families?
I find it disgraceful how many would go to great lengths to explain it away. Performing the procedure in British hospitals is justified on grounds of safety: it is better to do it in a sterile medical environment than in back alley butcher shops.
How about forcing teenage girls and even pre-teens into arranged marriages that may be consummated way before the age of majority as defined by Canadian laws; sometimes even before puberty. Mohamed, the greatest example of a human being for a fifth of humanity consummated his marriage with his favourite wife Aisha when she was 9 years old. Muslims may see nothing wrong with following his example, while for us it is a clear affront to self-determination and individual liberty. Should it be tolerated? Should we crack down on underage arranged marriages? Wouldn’t that be intolerant?
Religion or culture?
Some moderate Muslims point out that contrary to claims otherwise, many practices such as honor killings and genital mutilations are not religious but cultural.
The question for us is how do we know the difference? If the claim that a particular practice should be tolerated is based on calls to religious freedom we are expected to look at it differently. But Should we? The point of the appeal to religion is the implication that the subject is beyond the realm of rational discourse. Whenever such claim is made, it is an attempt to circumvent a dialogue, to disarm any opposition. What I am trying to argue here is that it shouldn’t really matter.
The limit of tolerance
The limits of our own tolerance are determined by our culture. Wow. You would not have guessed that one, I’m sure. Yet in this commonplace banality, there is an important question. What is our culture exactly? What are our values? When we are changing and expanding our understanding of what our culture is, where do we draw lines? Most of our culture (whether we like it or not) is based on religious values. Let me correct that….. most of our culture is based on values that were most likely expressed in a religious context. The world we live in Canada today is based mainly on the following ideas:
- The judeo-christian idea of personal relationship with God and its corollary, personal responsibility.
- Protestant work-ethics with a system of property rights
- The notion of individual freedom and the unalienable rights of the individual.
- The glorious idea that nobody is above the law and that everybody is equal in front of it.
Anything that assails these foundational principles should be confronted openly.
The line we do not draw
The problem with our approach to religious freedom is that we are NOT drawing a clear line between the freedom of religious conscience and the freedom of religious practice. We should all be free to think whatever we will, but that freedom should not be extended automatically to religious practice. Those can be too many and sometimes too crazy to even consider.
What you should be allowed to do in a pluralistic society should be decided in the context of that society, NOT in the context of your culture or religion. Religious accommodation should have clear limits.
I know that this line is sometimes very difficult to draw. Should Sikh students be allowed to carry their kirpans to school? Should we allow voting for women who refuse to remove their face covering?
Should we allow teachers in a classroom with a niqab? The answers to this particular questions are not that difficult to find, but I will have to get to it at another time. I can give you a hint: they have something to do with freedom.
Another line we need
Shortly after the 9/11 atrocity, I saw an interview with some Arab Muslims. They were outright flippant answering a question about the lack of tolerance in their culture in contrast to ours. What they said in essence, was this: “We never claimed that Islam is tolerant. We never claimed that we are tolerant, YOU CLAIM THAT YOU ARE, therefore YOU MUST TOLERATE OUR INTOLERANCE”
Our tolerance is seen as weakness by those who cannot understand its power. Unfortunately, many of us who grew up in this culture do not understand it either. The tone of the interviewer in the above story was “why can’t you be nicer to us when we are so nice to you?” “Why can’t you accommodate us since we are so ready to accommodate you?” There are many of those – mostly on the political left – who cannot understand the difference between nice and good. Between tolerance and appeasement. Between accommodation and surrender. What is lost in the mushy world of multi-culti is the recognition of the value of our own. The simple fact, that it is the best ever invented. Because it is not nice to say such a thing. It may hurt the feelings of those who are different. (daresay culturally inferior?)
We have to be clear with the message that although we are tolerant of differences, WE WILL NOT TOLERATE INTOLERANCE. That we will not celebrate certain differences.
We cannot afford the freedom and the benefits of tolerance to those who fundamentally oppose the notions of both freedom and tolerance. That is suicidal. That is handing the rope to those who want to hang us. Tolerance is not an absolute and we have to make this absolutely clear (pun intendedJ) to anybody advocating ideologies bent on destroying the foundation of the society that made the tolerance we enjoy today possible.
……..and yes, this includes the communists and the eco-Nazis as well, not just the Muslims.
Whenever we talk about these questions, what we are really talking about is ourselves, about our faith in our own values. As if the world we live in today was not enough proof that it is superior to any other culture or ideology that ever existed.
Tolerance is meaningless without faith in the value of our own culture.
Tolerance is not an absolute and we have to be clear about its limits
Tolerance, properly understood, is the ultimate value statement of our culture