Debate: Ethics without belief is not only implausible, it’s impossible



March 15, 2011

The following article, by ARPA Canada board member Neil Dykstra, was published in the Calgary Beacon in response to an opinion piece by Janet Keeping, president, and Dan Shapiro, research associate, of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. You can find their response here.

Ms. Keeping and Mr. Shapiro, in their agreement with the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal decision that banned prayer in Saguenay’s city hall, describe a vision for Canada in which government policies are made without any influence whatsoever from religion. They invert “Freedom of religion” into its exact opposite – where only humanist ethics are acceptable in the public square, to the exclusion of all other belief systems. In so doing, they ignore the pluralist foundation of Canada’s constitution and history.

Religion versus reason

The false dichotomy between religion and reason is oft employed by those who want to eliminate the influence of religious people in public life.

Religion, they insist, must be pushed to the furthest reaches of the mind, where no sane person would ever let it influence their actions, much less their opinions on government policy. They maintain that freedom of religion still exists, constrained nevertheless by its opposite, freedom from religion. Any expression of belief that might reach the eyes, ears, or thoughts of another must be stopped.

This ignores, of course, that everyone’s thoughts, words, and actions are guided by a similarly comprehensive system of underlying beliefs, whether or not they have been written down in some ancient text or have any reference to a supernatural being. Defining the term “religion” is fraught with subjectivity anyway, and we would all be better served if we renamed it “freedom of belief system”. Human rights tribunals have been recognizing political beliefs, such as trade unionism, alongside religious beliefs as protected under human rights codes (MacEwan vs Hiway Refrigeration and Others, BCHRT).

Prominently displayed above the west window of Canada’s parliament buildings is a text from the Christian bible, Proverbs 29:18, that states, “where there is no vision, the people perish”. Putting aside the religious origin of the verse, this statement is a truism that spans a plurality of belief systems. Without any foundation of values on which to build, policy has no root and quickly withers. The human ability to reason, which the authors claim is antithetical to religion, is simply the ability to translate beliefs and values into action. Whether those beliefs are religious or atheist, Christian or humanist, reason is the conduit by which they are expressed in action and in policy.

So yes, one can have ethics without a codified religion, but it does not follow that those ethics are defined in the absence of a belief system. Reason and science cannot clearly define many of the underlying values necessary to develop policy or even to live in harmony with others. Take, for example, the question of when human life begins and when it should be protected; there are many conflicting stances that have been proposed, claiming to be solely on the basis of reason and science. Yet without defining these particular values, developing policy on abortion, murder, assault, euthanasia, and infanticide, to name a few, would be impossible.

Even if codified religion was completely removed from policy-making, no-one can claim that any moral stance was reached without the application of underlying beliefs and assumptions.

In the example of health care given by Keeping and Shapiro, there are considerable differences in opinion over whether disabled persons who were diagnosed prenatally should continue to receive public health benefits, since they could have been aborted. It would be impossible to form a position on this matter without firm pre-existing beliefs concerning personhood and human dignity.

Religion versus the State

The authors claim that the constitution seeks to exclude religion from the state. This is another common misconception about our constitution, and I invite Ms. Keeping to show me the text in the constitution which mandates that religion must be excluded from the state. We borrowed much of our constitutional structure from the United Kingdom, in which the monarch is also the head of the Anglican Church. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a separation of jurisdictions between church and state, but that is another topic for another day.

The sections of the Charter quoted by Keeping and Shapiro are consistent with pluralism, and lend no support to their argument to exclude religion from the state. In fact, section 2 of the charter could be used in Mayor Tremblay’s defence, while section 15 would insist that humanist or atheist positions receive no more or less weight than religious ones. All this doesn’t even mention the preamble to the Charter, in which it is explicitly stated that the underlying principles of the country are religious.

The Supreme Court unanimously recognized that religion cannot be excluded from public service in Chamberlain vs Surrey School District no. 36. First, they recognized that the word “secular” does not mean the exclusion of religious beliefs – quite the opposite, in fact. They wrote that the term implies “no single conception of morality can be allowed to deny or exclude opposed points of view.” The perception of Canadian government conveyed by Ms. Keeping and Mr. Shapiro is far from secular, as they seek to deny and exclude any conception of morality based on religion. Furthermore, the Supreme Court justices state that “nothing in the Charter, political or democratic theory, or a proper understanding of pluralism demands that atheistically based moral positions trump religiously based moral positions on matters of public policy”.

Indeed, it is the State, in the form of a Human Rights Tribunal, who is trampling over constitutionally recognized rights in preventing Mayor Tremblay, and in essence a plurality of the voters of Saguenay, from praying and displaying religious symbols during the conduct of his office.

Neil Dykstra is a board member of ARPA Canada and is the media spokesman of the Stand Up For Freedom Canada! campaign that advocates for reform of our Human Rights Commissions and Tribunals. He currently resides in Langley, BC.

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