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The return of God


The Georgia Straight
Shannon Rupp

Some say religion has no place in science. Proponents of theories like intelligent design are trying to negotiate a reconciliation.

On paper, the curiously named Centre for Cultural Renewal exists "to explain the importance of religions to culture and the importance of culture to religions".

But it might be more accurate to say that the 12-year-old not-for-profit society, based in Ottawa, is dedicated to returning religion to its former place in Canadian society. To that end, they've joined with Simon Fraser University's Institute for the Humanities and wrangled a dozen thinkers to discuss the role of religion in creating good citizens at a conference called Citizenship and the Common Good: Secularism or the Inclusive Society, on Thursday and Friday (May 19 and 20) at SFU's downtown campus.

And just why does a liberal democracy like Canada need more religion in its culture? The Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects minority rights, including religious freedom and the right of association. The nation's dedication to multiculturalism means that respect for other views, including a variety of religious perspectives, is built into both law and everyday life.

However, according to executive director Iain Benson, Canadians may think they live in a pluralist state-one in which minority rights are preserved-but, in practice, the country has become one that sidelines religious views and values. He points to what he calls "secular fundamentalism", the term he uses for the anti?religious sentiments he has encountered. And "metaphobia" is how he characterizes the aversion he believes people have to discussing the metaphysical questions of where we come from and why we're here.

"Have you heard the joke about the bland leading the bland?" Benson says at the mention of much-cherished Canadian values such as tolerance and respect (and ironclad legal protections) for minority groups.

What isn't quite clear is how, specifically, Benson believes that the religious are being marginalized. Religion is represented everywhere you look. This spring's death watch for Pope John Paul II, followed by the funeral and endless ink and air devoted to the Council of Cardinals blowing smoke, was capped off by detailed analysis of the new Pope's résumé. On TV, Joan of Arcadia gets lippy with the Almighty weekly, and on the box's longest-running show, The Simpsons, Homer regularly chats with God and most of the characters have religious lives. They even get points for diversity: bartender Moe is a snake handler and convenience-store owner Apu is a Hindu.

Benson himself notes that he has observed people turning to religions as an antidote to general angst. "More people are asking questions about transcendence and metaphysics. Look at the massive attendance to hear the Dalai Lama speak [in Vancouver]: what was that about?"

He points to a piece of smart commentary he saw in the National Post last month by Lorne Gunter ("Gay? Cool. Christian? Not so much", April 11). Essentially, it's a list of the many human- rights cases currently challenging the rights of Christians to discriminate-frequently against homosexuals-in the marketplace or the schools. Gunter argues that because these religious folks aren't being allowed to impose their values on the secular world, the guarantees of the charter's religious protection are not trustworthy. Obviously, though, religious views haven't been pushed off the pages of the daily newspapers of record.

One of the conference speakers, Cristina Alarcon of Pharmacists for Life, confirms that her refusal to dispense the morning-after pill is accommodated by both her employer and customers-all of whom are gracious about her need to act on conscience.

"Personally, I haven't run into any problems, but I'm very respectful to my customers. I explain that I don't judge someone else's actions, but if I dispensed it I would be the guilty one," the Vancouver pharmacist says, adding that everyone has been "very accepting".

Despite that, Alarcon, who is Catholic, has been trying to change the code of ethics for the College of Pharmacists of B.C. because it states that in the event that there was no other pharmacist to dispense a medication, she would be ethically obligated to fill the prescription.

"When I am practising, I have to encompass my religious beliefs-you can't tell people to leave their beliefs out of their profession; we're not robots," she says.

Realistically, it's unlikely that Alarcon will ever face the problem: the advent of on-line pharmacies means that even in the smallest town, a prescription can easily be referred to another pharmacist.

Brenda Osmond, deputy registrar with the college of pharmacists, says that to her knowledge pharmacists who refuse to dispense on issues of conscience have been accommodated and B.C. has had no conflicts over this issue. She says the association has only received a handful of letters in the past 10 years from pharmacists concerned about the code, and there is Alarcon's annual challenge at the college's AGM.

"But pharmacists always vote to retain the requirement to put the patient's need for care ahead of personal beliefs," Osmond says, explaining why the code hasn't been changed.

To an outsider, it appears that a balance has been struck between the rights of the public and right of Alarcon to act on her conscience, but she says she still believes it is unfair that the code remains as it is. "In practice, yes, I have been accommodated, but that code of ethics is written-I worry about that."

Benson worries too-particularly about the lack of religious thinking in the public schools, which is why he has been a driving force in the Centre for Cultural Renewal since 1994. Now a Catholic who converted to the religion in his 20s while studying theology and medieval literature at graduate school, he went on to practise law. Most recently, he worked as a lawyer on behalf of the Interfaith Coalition for Marriage, challenging the legal basis for same-sex marriage.

Given that he has an annual budget of only about $300,000 and just three staff, directing the CCR is clearly a part-time passion for Benson. And there's no doubting that he sincerely believes that Canadians would be better-more rigorously educated, moral, and happy-if more people were acquainted with the views and values of religions, plural. His association is nondenominational as well as nonpartisan. He's so convinced of the value of the CCR's mission of challenging society's "retreat from religion" that he appears to have discounted the people who are inclined to think that society isn't retreating from religion fast enough.

Photoconceptual artist Dan Siney, 25, is no fan of the saved who want to spread the good news. He got a taste of Christian enthusiasm in 1997 when he was a 17-year-old at Handsworth secondary school in North Vancouver and found that his art project, to paint a mural in the science wing, was going to be killed. Some Christian students, encouraged by a Christian teacher, objected to the piece because its subject was a stylized version of the classic man-from-ape image of evolution. As believers in the Christian creation myth, it "offended" their sensibilities. Initially, the school gave in to the lobby, but when news media covered the story, the school board overturned that decision, noting that science imagery was an appropriate subject matter for the science wing of a public school. Siney completed the project, which became part of his portfolio in applying to Emily Carr Institute, and went on to a career in art, but to this day he's still amazed by the relentlessness of that Christian lobby.

"There was a lot of flak from that. Long after the media coverage, I kept getting letters from people who took it upon themselves to convert me or reeducate me," Siney recalls. "That pissed me off more than anything. It was a sleazy thing to do, trying to convert a kid," He credits his mother with instilling "sober thoughts" in him, including a respect for his grandparents' religion, but he says his experience with the Bible thumpers left him thinking Christian was just another word for psycho.

And Siney is certain that it would be impossible to study religions in public schools. "A course that looks at religions in a critical context would be a good elective, maybe look at creation stories across different religions. But it wouldn't work: those [Christian] kids were brought up to believe it [creationism] was the only truth, and it's not debatable."

Dale Beyerstein chuckles on hearing about Siney's encounter with the faithful. In 1982, the Langara College philosophy instructor wrote a paper on creationism for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association-the BCCLA always researches and debates issues before taking a public position on them-and Beyerstein became the go-to guy for anyone wanting comment on the battle between myth and science. He refers to himself cheerfully as "the village atheist" (which Benson argues is also a faith).

"I get those kinds of letters and e-mails every time I speak at a panel or I'm quoted in the media," Beyerstein says. "The often say they're praying that bad things won't happen to me-which is suggesting that they think they're likely to."

Despite the proselytizing that for some makes fundamentalists of all stripes about as appealing as telephone solicitors, Benson manages to make a persuasive argument that religions, overall, are good for society. One of the speakers at the conference, Paul Reed, is a Statistics Canada analyst who has found that there is a connection between participating in an organized religion and the willingness to volunteer in community organizations.

Benson also has great enthusiasm for the role religions could play in moulding young minds if only the Centre for Cultural Renewal can establish a dialogue with the schools. He's preoccupied with the way science, specifically evolution, is being taught. "They [the schools] want to exclude essentials from the discourse: philosophy, metaphysics, theology. And what is the role of science culturally?"

He says that contemporary science is overreaching its area of expertise. "Science cannot answer questions about origins-so origins come from nothing?"

According to Benson, it's a foreclosure of thought to limit science classes to what the discipline knows about evolution: "How can you be giving them [students] the notion that there is no such thing as purpose in the universe?"

He argues for introducing so-called intelligent design into the curriculum. ID might be called creationism Mach II: it's a more sophisticated approach to spreading the idea of God that doesn't deny evolution, DNA, and other accepted science. The Coles Notes version of the argument is that because the odds of life occurring on earth were so remote, and human beings are such complex organisms, and science hasn't yet pinpointed the origins of life, then there must have been a God of some sort, an "intelligent designer" guiding the process. ("Creationism in the Science Curriculum?", an essay by retired Malaspina University-College instructor Ian Johnston, offers a detailed overview of the hypothesis; www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/ essays/creationism.htm.)

"This is usually referred to as a 'God in gaps' theory," says Beyerstein, who teaches logic and ethics. "Whenever there's a gap in scientific knowledge, religion rushes in with a deity to explain it."

Beyerstein says that proponents of ideas like ID just don't understand scientific thinking and methods. "As a scientist, you examine the facts as you find them; you set up experiments to measure findings. You work things out based on evidence from empirical observation, without reference to what a supreme being might think. Theological arguments consist of going back to old texts and reading meaning into them. It's a different way of thinking."

And that's just the sort of attitude that Benson's association seeks to overcome. Benson believes ID could be part of the science curriculum because there are a few scientists who accept the idea, and the "designer" is nondenominational. And what else could explain such complex life forms randomly evolving when the odds against life forming at all were so great?

Again, Beyerstein notes that this sort of view is typical of the confusion that occurs when science is regarded through the lens of religion.

"The laws of nature are not random. Evolutionary mutations didn't occur randomly. Everything that is not designed by a god is not automatically a random event just because we don't know what is going on."

The Centre for Cultural Renewal first discussed intelligent design at its 2001 conference at UBC called Biology, Religion and Origins: How do we introduce extra-scientific topics in the science classroom?

The short answer to that question, according to John Russell, is that you don't-at least not in the public schools.

"In science they teach science, not religion," says Russell, a political-philosophy instructor at Langara College and one of the conference speakers. He'll share the stage with Benson in a session called "Two Versions of 'the Secular'". Russell, a former president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, notes that he and Benson have "locked horns" many times, beginning in the early '80s, when Benson was a member of the BCCLA board.

Russell dismisses as simply illogical Benson's inference that if an "intelligent designer" is not responsible for our origins then life must have no meaning.

"It just doesn't follow that if we are the product of chance that we have no purpose or that we don't have distinct functions as human beings," Russell says.

But rather than another fruitless debate about creationism, what Russell would like to see is the high schools educating students about the philosophy and principles underpinning Canada's liberal democracy, so there are fewer of these conflicts.

"I think some of these discussions show the depth of misunderstanding between religion and the state, and it's because of this that groups like Iain's feel aggrieved when they have, basically, formed a misunderstanding about the role of the state in the modern society," Russell says.

The biggest confusion, he finds, is about the phrase "separation of church and state".

"I think they [religious people] think it implies they are second-class citizens," Russell says, adding that nothing could be further from the truth. The phrase originated with philosopher John Locke (a devout Christian) at a time when Christianity was splintering. The goal was to prevent a monarch of one faith from persecuting citizens of another-it was intended to protect churches from abuse by the state. (Ironically, these days the phrase is most likely to be heard when someone feels the religious lobby is encroaching on the rights of others.)

Other philosophers, who also happened to be Christians, developed ideas about human dignity. "Kant argued that our capacity for self-direction and reasoning give us dignity, and when we lose control of our autonomy and our choices, we're robbed of dignity," Russell explains. "The liberal state is designed to preserve individual human dignity."

Russell agrees with Benson that there is confusion over the term secular. Benson finds that people interpret secular to mean anti- religious, or at the very least a place in which religion is not permitted. Russell provides an accurate description: "A liberal society is neutral; it maintains the dignity of all. It provides the means for living the good life but it doesn't promote specific ways of life. So it ensures equal rights to liberty, due process in law, security of person-but none of the these things defines a secular or a religious approach to life."

Because the secular society respects all outlooks but doesn't advocate any of them, something like the Christian creationist myth couldn't be taught as fact in science classes at the public schools. That would be a form of advocacy, although comparative-religions classes are taught in some humanities courses.

For all his thoughtful comments about encouraging dialogue and his reasonable approach to championing religious thinking-which, as Benson rightly points out, is among the bricks in western society's cultural foundation-it's hard not to wonder if Benson and his members aren't just engaging in a kind of nostalgia for a world that is disappearing.

In an e-mail outlining his professional background, there was this almost wistful comment about why he plans to give up the law. "Preparing and arguing marriage cases (same-sex marriage challenges) over the past four years was tiring and, ultimately, dis-spiriting as one realized that constitutional law is now a branch of politics and not really about law at all as we were taught it. How else could changing common law marriage recognition from male/female to same sex possibly be considered merely an 'incremental' change to the common law?"

Although Benson is undoubtedly sincere in his belief that religions have been marginalized, Russell says that from his point of view as a political philosopher and a parent, Canada is a healthy democracy with immense diversity-as is reflected by this conference.

But Beyerstein thinks the Centre for Cultural Renewal is a reflection of the fact that religions no longer hold an unfairly dominant position in the western world.

"These people used to have all the political power and all the power in the community-there are still blasphemy laws, although they aren't enforced. Now they have less influence and less backing for their views in the law," Beyerstein explains. "I think this is their response to finding themselves on a level playing field."

But it's a reassuringly Canadian response. Despite Benson's contempt for the blandness of the national character, there's something delightful about a conference of mostly religious intellectuals gathering, in the early 21st century, to build persuasive arguments for why they should be allowed to introduce their beliefs to the mainstream.

The public can catch the discussions at SFU's downtown campus. For more information on the panels, go to www.culturalrenewal.ca/events.htm. The conference will also be selling copies of the papers that came out of its 2002 conference in Montreal, Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society: Essays in Pluralism, Religion and Public Policy.

19 May 2005