Friday, June 25, 2010

Atheists are people too

The religious apologists in Canada are still beavering away, honing their sophistry to a fine art.

The issue this time concerns a decision by the Quebec Superior Court in favour of Loyola, an old Catholic school in Quebec that did not want to teach the ethics and religious curriculum handed down from the Quebec government’s Education Department, unless the school could put a Catholic spin on it, declaring that the government was acting in a “totalitarian” manner by insisting the school teach the program exactly as set down in the curriculum.

The background to this is that the province of Quebec has pioneered a program to teach children at an early age – it starts in kindergarten and goes mostly to the end of high school – about ethical considerations and the approaches to those matters taken by various religions. In short, it amounts to a comparative religion course.

The course covers the full spectrum of world religions and belief systems, with an emphasis on Christianity, Judaism and aboriginal spirituality. Critics have said it promotes a moral relativism, in which all belief systems are of equal value. In its pleadings before the court, Loyola argued that this relativism trivializes the religious experience promoted in all facets of the school’s teachings.
See here for full news story.

Several parents and religious groups in Quebec are up in arms over it because they do not want their children to be exposed to the “truths” of other religious viewpoints, since, as they would see it, other religious viewpoints have no truth to them.

In a secular society you have two choices in a public school system with respect to the equal treatment of religions; either you simply do not have anything in your curriculum about religion, leaving it entirely in the hands of the parents to expose their children to the subject, or you introduce religion in a non-judgmental way, which requires you to bring many religious outlooks to the table for discussion.

What you cannot do, and maintain secularity, is favour only one religion to the exclusion of the others.

In the year 1901 the Canadian census disclosed that 99% per cent of the population identified itself as religious and 98% of those claimed to be Christian. This is not the Canada of 2010; Christianity is declining and Islam is the fastest growing religion. Furthermore, nearly 23% of the population is non-religious and, in the younger demographic (18 – 34), it is about 35%.

Three columnists in the National Post have tackled this news story, all crowing about the rightness of the court’s decision. I will get to them, but it is interesting to consider the words of the judge.

“The obligation imposed on Loyola to teach the ethics and religious culture course in a lay fashion assumes a totalitarian character essentially equivalent to Galileo’s being ordered by the Inquisition to deny the Copernican universe.”

He also said:

“Canadian democratic society is based on principles recognizing the supremacy of God and the primacy of the law – both of which benefit from constitutional protection.”

One might wonder why somebody with God's supreme powers would require constitutional protection, but that is a quibble about an oxymoron. It is worth reflecting, however, that God never seemed to need that protection until 1982 when he was introduced for the first time into Canada’s constitution.

The judge’s reference to the Catholic persecution of Galileo is telling. In that instance, the church was trying to shut down a competing worldview. Here it is Loyola trying to minimize alternative worldviews. Yet it is the government he accuses of being totalitarian! Go figure.

Columnist Barbara Kay tells us that, “The case was initiated by Loyola, a private, Anglo, Catholic high school located in Montreal.”

What she doesn’t tell you is that the school receives money from the government – it is not a “private” school in the strict sense of that term.

Kay continues:

Religiously committed parents and institutions such as Loyola High School, founded in 1848, believe “divergence and dissonance” and le questionnement — that is to say, creating doubt about one’s own religious and cultural identity — is the last thing a very young child needs to experience, since such a pedagogical strategy obviously undermines the serene internalization of the particular religious identity he is receiving at home.

Absorption of a particular identity does not preclude learning about other religions and cultures, and students at religious institutions such as Loyola do that already. But ERC goes further, obliging religious institutions to treat many ethical approaches as morally equivalent. Loyola High School would be refused the right to teach that, say, deferred sexual gratification and fidelity to one’s mate is a preferable ethical choice to hedonism and early sexual gratification.

Ah, disturbing the “serene internalization of the particular religious identity he is receiving at home.” What an elegant way of saying the child is being propagandized in the home by totalitarian parents. That is exactly why schools should be teaching courses in comparative religions. After all, it is supposed to be an “education” system.

And while it is true that the absorption of a particular identity does not preclude learning about other religions, I cannot see how it would preclude Loyola, which, after all, bills itself as a “Catholic” school, from also having extra-curricular programs in the Catholic faith. That is done by Catholic high schools in Ontario which are required to take students of all faiths or no faiths in return for public money.

Here is what Loyola’s lawyer said:

“Faith is omnipresent in this institution,” Loyola’s lawyer, Jacques Darche, said following a news conference at the school yesterday. “Before football games, they pray. Before a press conference, they pray. It’s quite bizarre that in the one course that you would expect to be a part of a Catholic Jesuit school, the religion program, you’re not allowed to talk about God, you’re not allowed to pray.”

So the issue is that when they discuss world religions in the classroom they can’t pray?

Give me a break.

What really seems to bug Kay is that the curriculum gives equal attention to animism and Wicca, not to mention feminism, which has the audacity to claim 27 pages in workbook compared to the 12 allotted for Catholicism.

Shucks. That sounds like a problem. Not.

Here is what I think is the real problem for these religious apologists. It is the attempt by the Quebec government to alert students to the idea that you can be a moral and ethical person without espousing any religious belief.

In short, atheists are people too.

I liked the irony in Kay’s concluding paragraph, but I am disappointed at the gobbledy-gook from such a normally good writer.

This is an excellent decision and sends a clear, strong message that secular institutions should stay out of the business of instructing children in how to think about religion. That’s not to say schools shouldn’t teach the objective evolution of various religions or religious wars and so forth in their history courses. But scientifically acquired knowledge is one thing, the inculcation of belief another. In a secular state’s education system, evidence-based facts are welcome; in-your-faith brainwashing isn’t.

The program does not involve “how to think about religion”; it is aimed at thinking about religion(s). And how can you learn about religious wars unless you understand the differences in creeds that led to such bloodshed? How does eliciting other viewpoints from other belief systems become “brainwashing”? Brainwashing is presenting only one perspective. This is absolutely Orwellian language and Kay should be ashamed of herself for resorting to it.

Next we move on to Father Raymond de Sousa who writes

What happens to the credibility of teachers when they are forced to teach their students that their Catholic faith — presumably why they choose in teach in a Catholic school in the first place — is no more valid a path to salvation than witchcraft or atheism?

This is gross distortion of what is being asked of teachers, who were consulted before the program was formalized. What has salvation, a purely Christian conceit, got to do with witchcraft and atheism? And really, isn’t the issue that is bothering the good Father the matter of the credibility of the Catholic faith, not the teachers?

Pure rubbish, Raymond.

He quotes approvingly of this by Pope John Paul II:

“Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”

Leaving aside the conclusion that calls for an example; i.e. “as history demonstrates, etc.”, I can think of few institutions that more exemplify the truth of the statement that, “ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power” than the history of the Catholic Church, starting with the Popes who preached the Crusades, through Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition, and the Thirty Years War that devastated Germany in the 17th century. It was not for nothing that the Catholic Church was hammered by the Reformation and the French Revolution.

Finally we come to columnist Charles Lewis, who says:

It is the word “public” that is the trip wire. There is an assumption that “public” and “religious” are two separate things.

But public money does not mean secular money.

The origin of the money that ends up in the coffers of the government comes from all sorts of people, including religious people. That is because; as if this needs to be pointed out, that religious people pay taxes like everyone else. So when was it decided that those taxpayers are beholden to a superior group of non-religious taxpayers?

I might ask, when was it decided that the tax dollars of the non-religious could be spent proselytizing a particular faith? As a non-religious person, I have no objection to religious people maintaining religious schools on their own dime, but I do object to mine being used. I don’t mind my money being used for a curriculum of comparative religion, especially one that includes the idea of no religion.

He continues:

There will be an almost knee jerk assumption that the values transmitted by the state are always superior to those taught by those who hold religious values. But this is not an argument but rather a heavy-handed tenet of the state religion called secularism.

There is an assumption in society that only religious people can be intolerant and the state is always neutral. But that is beyond naïve. Secularism has become as much a theology as religious teaching. And in a fair society, there should be room for both, not just one.

Once again, Orwellian language.

Secularism is the antithesis of religion. It is the principle by which the instruments and institutions of the state perform their public duties without discrimination in favour of or against any particular religion. Parents and religious institutions are free in our society to impart religious values and teachings to their young people. Nobody is taking that away from them.

But the state has an obligation to provide an education suitable for the 21st century and I would say that the Quebec government has taken a commendable attempt at reforming the system to better reflect the demographic realities in that province and in the country.

The Quebec government has announced its intention to appeal the decision of the court.

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