Friday, June 4, 2010

Is religious faith the civic oxygen of our social ecology?

The Globe and Mail recently ran an excellent article by Ray Pennings -- a senior fellow and research director of Cardus, an independent policy institute –- in which he challenges the “secular pluralism” shift of the past 40 years. The topic most certainly relates to many issues VOM encounters in discussions about religious liberty in Canada and the existence of, as Pennings states, a  “growing number of Canadians who see faith not merely as a private good, but as a public bad.” You can see by the comments posted on the Globe's site that the article has generated quite an impassioned discussion! We would love to hear your opinions as well, including your reactions to some of the sentiments and opinions shared.

Religious faith is the civic oxygen of our social ecology

The secularizing experiment of the past 40 years has been a failure

Ray Pennings

Author Marci McDonald’s latest book, The Armageddon Factor, mocked for its sky-shouting alarm about a purported Christian putsch in Canadian federal politics, has been dismissed by its harsher critics as delusional rubbish being pushed through the public square.

And yet, Ms. McDonald’s face-off with public faith deserves a second look, at least for what it says about the suspicion and hostility many Canadians harbour toward mixing religious and political belief.

The Armageddon Factor may be, as its detractors argue, anti-theist fear-mongering. Yet the book’s publisher is clearly betting it will sell to the growing number of Canadians who see faith not merely as a private good, but as a public bad.

It’s hardly a reckless wager. Whether the discussion involves Muslims, Sikhs, Jews or Christians, it has become common to express uneasiness with any public expression of truth claims that might be considered exclusive to a given faith group. Such public claims are increasingly viewed as divisive or – mortal sin of the 21st century – intolerant.

Common expression need not translate into majority belief. However, 9/11 made us all profoundly aware of private belief’s public consequences. Since Canadians are committed to equality and pluralism, the thinking goes, of necessity we need great care in dealing with all religion in public.

Even granting the virtue in prudence, it’s critical to see such neo-squeamishness about public faith as itself undesirable for several reasons.

First, it’s flatly ahistorical and utterly ignores Canada’s founding nature. Second, it risks befouling the very “civic oxygen” that religious faith provides in superabundance to Canada’s social ecology.

While it is now standard fare to hear Canadian secular nationalists imitate their American counterparts by parroting phrases about separation of church and state, Christian faith and practice were essential elements in the construction of Canada.

Confederation involved the creation of a national polity within which two separate societies, French Catholic and English Protestant, could unite. In the constitutional protection for religious education, in the social gospel movement of the early 20th century, or in the relationship of the Duplessis government to the Catholic Church, we find the broad trajectory of forces that bound otherwise disparate Canadians together.

Yet our shift to the “secular pluralism” of the past 40 years has been possible primarily because of the social contributions of those who practice religious faith. There is, demonstrably, a civic oxygen on which Canadian social ecology relies, and it is generated by the nation’s churches, synagogues and mosques.

If Canada’s institutions of faith ceased to participate in our country’s public life, it would be the civic equivalent of the clearing of the rain forest. The social ecological implications would be far more significant than many comprehend.

Statistics Canada data on charitable giving demonstrates this. For example, parsing Statscan numbers, the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy calculates that the 32 per cent of Canadians who are religiously active contribute 65 per cent of direct charitable donations. Even in the secular sector, they provide 42 per cent of the $2.1-billion raised annually by direct giving.

Such statistics do not begin to factor in the importance of the institutional church in contributing to public and social infrastructural space. Institutional religion provides significant social cohesion to cities suffering fragmentation, isolation and disintegration.

Can we, reasonably and in a democratic society, demand the members of such institutions simply perform good works, give freely and then shut up? If public, political language can only exclude God, we are not just preventing believers from speaking about their faith. We are denying them the right to speak for themselves.

That is why the paradigm presented by The Armageddon Factor cannot be taken. It is not just injurious. It is not just false. It is unsustainable.

Historical, sociological, legal and philosophical evidence all prove that that the secularizing experiment of the past 40 years has been a failure. We cannot go on attempting to shape a public square in which God is neither met nor encountered.

1 comment:

  1. I did scan the comments to this article. So many of them express anti-Christian sentiments. I think Ray Pennings is dead on about anti-theist fear-mongering. We need to be praying for our governmental leaders, and be reaching out to unbelievers around us, to show them a better way.


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