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Meditation 37
Do we have a misplaced faith in religious belief?


This article is reprinted, with permission, from the 13 March 2002 Globe and Mail. Mr Gray has a regular column, Gray's Anatomy.

For non-Canadians, the Alliance Party was a Canadian political party (now an element of the Conservative Party) of which a sizeable proportion of the membership was fundamentalist Christian, and Mr Day is its onetime leader who was trying unsuccessfully to regain the position at the time the article was written.

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Suffering through the unusually hideous world events of the past couple of weeks, appalled by the role of religious belief in events as overwhelming as the atrocities in the Middle East and India, and as underwhelming as the Alliance Party leadership contest, I find myself becoming less sanguine about the place of religion itself in public life.

For some reason, we don't read about mobs of atheists stoning and burning alive human beings who do not share their non-beliefs. So far, no agnostics have blown themselves up in discos, taking someone's children with them. No scientific determinists have been kidnapped and murdered by supporters of chaos theory. Moral relativists are not organizing militias for the purpose of putting people in jail for possession of the Ten Commandments; nor are agnostics firing rockets at pantheists from helicopter gunships.

It makes you think: Given the events of the past half year, why do non-believers continue on the defensive -- in the Canadian Alliance for example? Why do relativism and secular humanism continue to have such negative associations, especially in the conservative mind? Why does the word "liberal" inevitably trail the words "elitist" and "hypocrite" in its wake? Who is an elitist, if not the Taliban? Who is a hypocrite if not a Christian who shoots a gynecologist over the "right to life"?

For some reason, despite all evidence to the contrary, we uphold a persistent conviction that people who haven't found religion are more prone to do evil; that a secular family is lacking in family values; that a pragmatic administration is a soulless machine.

True, up until a decade ago, one could point to godless communism as the dystopia to be feared. And yet, looking back, it seems obvious that Stalin and Mao did not want to eliminate religion so much as to become gods themselves; that Pol Pot had more in common with the believer Adolf Hitler than with the atheist Karl Marx.

More to the point, confronted on an almost daily basis with the dangerous capacity of religious belief to drive people off the deep end (to induce a woman to murder her children, for example), why does belief continue to be encouraged, protected and accorded a special place in North American society? Why is a given belief system worthy of public support, simply because a given number of people believe it? Why, unlike the arts -- which are similarly nonprofit, state-supported, non-materialistic activities -- are religious institutions exempt from having to explain themselves to non-supporters, to demonstrate that they are a benefit to the community with graphs and multiplier effects and all the rest of it?

I'm not saying that believers could not make such a case for themselves to a public forum or a jury of their peers (think of the music, not to mention Good Works). What puzzles me is that they aren't called on to make it at all, before they achieve tax-exempt status, before they start a school.

At minimum, when a believer runs for public office, is it unreasonable to expect him to explain his convictions to people who don't share them? Should a candidate happen to believe in a coming Apocalypse and final judgment, should she not explain to the rest of us how this might tie in with her views on, say, crime and the environment? If you believe in predestination, what are the implications for health care? If you believe in karma and reincarnation, what is the point of a social safety net?

After Sept. 11, can any political leader proclaim his beliefs to be "private"?

As North Americans muddle our way through the crises of terrorism and its aftermath, in which religion and a belief in the afterlife are demonstrably part of the problem and not part of the solution, isn't it a bit creepy to see the President of the United States spreading a religiously freighted abstraction ("evil" -- as in "axis of") whose purpose is to marshal support for an expansion of the war against terrorism to a level not unlike the Crusades? Why does the Commander-in-Chief have himself photographed in prayer, and not in discussion or thought?

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against belief. Even the atheist is a believer, being unable to conclusively prove his position; even the scientific method becomes a form of belief when it gets into quantum mechanics and string theory. Face it, we live in a universe that is either finite or infinite or both (depending upon which astrophysicist you talk to) -- only, all three alternatives are inconceivable to the human mind. As we dangle between impossibilities, belief becomes unavoidable.

But it seems to me that there is a crucial difference between believing something and believing it utterly. And regardless of his or her beliefs, it seems to me that in a democracy, every citizen has an obligation to recognize that just because you believe something doesn't make it so. We wouldn't want to go around beating on each other over a misapplied allegory, a misinterpreted metaphor, a bad translation or a mystical mistake -- would we, Mr. Day?