Guest column: What’s wrong with religious tolerance?

Editor’s Note: Vern Faulkner is editor of The Saint Croix Courier/Courier Weekend, which (like Halifax Magazine) is owned by Advocate Printing & Publishing. This guest column was originally published as an editorial in the Courier. 

A fascinating conversation in the newsroom Tuesday revolved around the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that government bodies cannot include a prayer in any formal public activity.

It’s part of the whole separation-of-church-and-state/freedom of expression/freedom of religion argument, of course. But at the same time those of Christian faiths feel like the Supreme Court decision has violated their own sense of religious freedom to some degree.

During the discussion Tuesday, I recalled that in northern Saskatchewan, public events were frequently launched by prayers—First Nations prayers, that is. Northern Saskatchewan has a significant First Nations/Metis community, and it has long been the tradition of many First Nations peoples to begin key events such as public meetings and other gatherings with prayers, be it a simple invocation by an elder, or a full drum-and-dance prayer song ceremony.

Will the Supreme Court now be sniffing out every Dene potlatch, every Haida or Mik’Maq village gathering, and saying “no prayer, please?” I think not. And even though I am not of First Nations descent, nor ascribe to First Nations spiritual beliefs, I would oppose any such move.

So should I not do the same here? Of course.

I have heard (and in truth, presented) the argument that freedom of religion should also mean freedom from religion. In other words, you don’t knock on my door urging me to follow your beliefs, and I won’t knock on your door urging you to follow mine. It seems fair.

At the same time, in the days when I was a long-haired philosopher studying comparative religions, I observed or participated in the faith-based ceremonies of many different religions including Buddhist, Christian, Pagan and First Nations. There can be no denying faith and religious belief crosses many sectors of society, many cultures. It is, like it or not, essentially universal. How can we acknowledge that?

Were a council meeting to begin with a different prayer, say Buddhist invocation this week, a devotion to the Aga Khan last week, a prayer to the Mother Goddess the week before, I would be delighted at the universality presented. Now, I am not a follower of any of those particular beliefs, so I would not participate in the prayers, but at the same time, I would not be offended by those devotions. I would also hope the devotees of those faiths would respect my non-participation.

That, to me, seems fair, reasonable, inclusive. Why can’t we live like that? (Some faiths do already: Ismaili Muslims, and several offshoots of Buddhism and Hinduism hold the general view other religions are nothing more than different guises of the same Almighty.)

I have seen public events begin with inclusive and/or non-secular invocations, aimed at including First Nations, Judeo-Christian and other traditions typical of the region (Mennonites, for example, are strongly represented in the Prairies). For that reason, I suggest councils of this or any other region to offer a universal “Before we begin, let us all look to our chosen guides—moral, spiritual and personal—so that we may conduct our affairs with grace, honour and the strength of will to serve our citizens as they deserve” kind of prayer or invocation. It would, in my mind, be universal, for it excludes none.

Another point raised in our Tuesday discussion is that the individual who launched the complaint that landed in the Supreme Court was, presumably an atheist. It must be noted a healthy core of atheists proselytize their point of view with just as much fervor and conviction as believers of any deity-based faith. But if freedom of religion also means freedom from religion, should it not also mean freedom from non-religion?

I am reminded of a lovely work, “The Trees,” from Rush, which is quite insightful in this regard. The song depicts trees who are unhappy with those who have other traits and want some degree of equality. The final line of the song? “The trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe and saw.”

And in this case, the Supreme Court could not see the forest for the trees.


This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

You have ? free views left this month!
Click HERE to login, or HERE to register.


Related Stories