Open Secularism–Required for Democracy
A true democracy, one that treats all of its citizens as equals and respects fundamental individual freedoms such as freedom of conscience and religion, can not exist when there is a top-down imposition of any ideology. The extreme Christianity of Adolf Hitler certainly did not foster democracy and neither did the extreme atheism of Stalin. There is no guarantee that total separation of church and state will guarantee democracy either. Napoleon’s efforts in that direction did not immediately create democracy; however, such separation is necessary if full democracy is to be achieved.
The democracy created by the authors of the American declaration of independence has come the closest even though they borrowed the structure of George III’s British government almost completely. The key to their success, of course, was that they removed the notion that their king was appointed by a god and insisted on selecting that ruler by election. They also formalized the checks and balances that were already evolving in the British system.
Here in Canada, even though we have a phrase in our Charter of Rights and Freedom that is virtually identical to the American freedom of “religion and conscience,” the essence of total democracy eludes us. Our head of state is still also the head of the Church of England and we still proclaim her appointment “by the Grace of God” on our coins. Even our national anthem is infected with the theism that has been imposed on us from above.
The preamble of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a particularly annoying theist statement. It perpetuates the myth that the best moral attributes of Canada are a result of religious influence. This concept fails so badly in three ways that it can be legitimately considered a desperate last argument from theist Canadians.
The first is that it is an argumentum ad antiquitatem fallacy–the assertion that since we have done something in history, it is good to continue doing so. If that argument held sway in determining the direction of society, slavery would still be prevalent in our society just as it was under the Christian dominated society of Canada until the early 19th century.
The second is that Christianity is all sweetness and light. With revisionist aplomb, this argument assumes that theism has always been a positive moral force in Canada. In fact, the best it has ever managed is a kind of benign tolerance. This has always had its limits, even within the Christian community that European settlers brought to Canada. James Secord and Laura Ingersoll had to be married by a justice of the peace because the only legal church in Upper Canada at that time was The Church of England led by, guess who, George III. They were Methodist and therefore not really Christian in the government’s eyes.
Even nastier was the conviction on the part of the Christians who came to the New World that Aboriginal belief sets were inferior and wrong. When over two hundred years of proselytization failed to erase those Aboriginal beliefs, the Christian dominated governments of the latter 19th and early 20th century sanctioned the kidnapping of Aboriginal children and their forced abusive confinement in the infamous residential schools. Like it or not, those practices were an integral part of the Christian heritage that theists claim as essential to our moral well being.
The third is that the values proponents claim can only be preserved with a theist influence on government are not unique to Christianity or any other theist sect. Rather than being of religious origin, they are, by and large, universal values that are present in any humane philosophy including Humanism.
When a regime insists that its head of state and all its human rights legislation be governed by theist values, true democracy cannot result. We atheists may be tolerated as long as we don’t object to having a theist national anthem forced upon us and as long as we don’t object to the favouritism shown to religions in the charitable regulations of the income tax act and in land tax practices in municipalities, but as soon as we ask for our rights we are seen as evil un-Canadians.
Yes, the Supreme Court of Canada has interpreted the phrase freedom of “conscience and religion” to mean that we have the right to be free from religion, but the official anthem of Canada is an open affront to that freedom every time it is sung in public.
Our current monarch is the head of the Church of England and “Defender of the Faith.” Her immediate successor, under pressure as a divorcee, has declared that he will probably not take the title of Head of the Church of England, but will become “Defender of Faith.” How will atheist rights fare under such a regime? Continued tolerance is about all we could expect.
The time has come to remove the theist influences in Canadian government and move to a system that will allow each of us to bring our ethical values and moral principles to our governmental institutions instead of having one religion’s (or another’s) perceived values forced downward upon us. Open secularism provides a reasonable path to such a goal.