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Religion, body scanners and the importance of public dialogue

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I must admit, I don't spend too much time reading comments posted to news stories. Beneath a cowardly shroud of anonymity, too many spew venom and hate and extraordinary ignorance. But there are times when I will scan a few pages worth of comments, hoping for an illuminating and pithy remark, a wonderfully unique approach to an idea, a few sentences that challenge me, a laugh. Most of the time I'm disappointed and eventually bored.

There are those who blow in bellowing and bloviating, without a scintilla of critical thinking or reading comprehension. Those who troll around for any opportunity to trumpet their confirmation biases.

And so, with a mixture of curiosity and minor expectations, I checked out the comments following a CBC story on Muslims avoiding airport body scans. The Fiqh Council of North America, supported by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the body scanners are "against the teachings of Islam, natural law and all religions and cultures that stand for decency and democracy". Rather, Muslim travellers are encouraged to choose a pat-down check.

What could have been an interesting discussion on the intersection of personal religion and public security devolved into a xenophobic hate-fest on the comment board.

While this was an opportunity lost, I do think it useful that our society engage in these debates; but if we're going to understand each other we have to yell less and talk more.

Let's look at body scanners, 44 of which will be installed in Canadians airports without the benefit of a political debate because Parliament is prorogued. There should be two key questions when considering security measures: do they make anyone safer; do they jeopardize civil liberties. There is a conditional "no" to the first question and a possible "yes" to the second when it comes to the myriad security "enhancements" implanted post-9/11. What is certain, however, is that the security and military industries have made billions playing on public fear.

And it seems that these industries show no sign of abating. Will Philip K. Dick's "The Minority Report" prove to be a prophetic piece of science fiction?

More people are killed in car accidents every year than blown to bits in an exploding airplane. More are killed by domestic partners. The chances of being in a terrorist attack are remote.

I'm not suggesting no security; rather I'm pleading perspective, an understanding of probability.

But where and how should religion figure into this question of public policy?

Religion should be debated and discussed and challenged; no different than having a dialogue on civil liberties and public safety. By talking openly about beliefs, by being able to respond to criticism, perhaps we can take xenophobia down a notch.

While the commenters on the CBC story were more incensed with Islamic proclamations rather than the impact of religion on public policy, talking about the religion-public policy interface is critical.

Let's ponder some of these questions: should seven provinces still be using public dollars to fund Catholic and faith-based schools? Does religion have a place when discussing abortion or same-sex marriage? How has religion affected government funding for non-profit organizations? How concerned should we be with the influence of Canada's right-wing evangelical movement (Charles McVety et al) on our current government? Was Harper's evangelism at the crux of his decision to cancel a national child care program? What happens when our federal science minister puts his religious beliefs ahead of science policy? Is Canada's position on Israel the result of reasoned analysis or an evangelical belief in hastening the return of one of their deities?

These questions (and there are many more) demand that we consider the impact of religion in the public sphere; an impact that some would argue has been deleterious to Canadian domestic and foreign policies. I wonder if those in a lather over Islamic groups' opposition to body scanners would entertain the questions I ask -- questions that probe the role of Christianity, and more specifically, Christian fundamentalism in our federal and provincial governments?

For many, religious belief is a private matter, but when those beliefs influence public decisions should we not talk about them with civility, and openly?

Without entering into rational and measured dialogue, we risk tyranny of the majority and a misunderstanding of the minority, the imposition of ideas, politics, policies, beliefs; we lose sense of what our society is comprised of and where we're headed.

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