The integrity of the Conservative government's newly minted Office of Religious Freedom is already in grave doubt after 10 days of pointed criticism. It's a noble-sounding endeavour, but it suffers from too many unanswered questions, glaring incongruities and serious omissions.
Given that it's the right-wing Conservative government behind the initiative, it carries a high risk of being Christian-centric, with a primary focus on the persecution of Christian minorities. Another purpose may be to help ensure the government's future electoral chances by pandering to its Christian constituency, as well as a handful of other religious groups that were invited for consultation. Further, the new agency could divert attention and resources from other human rights issues. Why does the cause of religious freedom deserve its own office in a world filled with deep poverty, violence, discrimination against women, environmental degradation, and a host of other ills and human rights violations? John Moore points out: "It's all the more cynical when you consider that this government regards our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms as liberal puffery."
Confidence is not increased by the appointment of the Office's new ambassador, Dr. Andrew Bennett. Harper has hailed Bennett as a scholar even though he has virtually no published writings and his academic experience consists largely of being a part-time dean and teacher at a tiny evangelical school in Ottawa. A devout Catholic, Bennett subscribes to his college's Statement of Faith, which requires strict doctrinal adherence to a fundamentalist version of Christianity and the literal truth of the Bible, including the virgin birth and resurrection of the dead. I do not discount the possibility that Dr. Bennett is a great ecumenical guy who truly respects and values religious diversity, but let's not forget that devout Christians are taught that they are right, everyone else is wrong, and it's their god-ordained duty to convert all heathens and infidels before the imminent return of Jesus.
The very existence of an Office for Religious Freedom raises serious questions about the separation of church and state, and whether it's possible for a government office to be impartial. And when faced with the Hydra monster of religion, how can the Office possibly pick and choose its casework fairly, while satisfying its constituents at the same time? With a tiny budget and small staff, it's hard to believe that the new Office will have even a snowball's chance in hell at making a dent in the rampant religious persecution around the world.
The Office's website waxes on about countries and regions where "rights to freedom of religion or belief are being threatened," and how the Office will protect and advocate on behalf of "religious minorities under threat." But who is doing all this threatening? It's almost as if the Conservative government wants us to assume that tinpot dictators and evil atheist conspirators are behind attacks on religious believers. In fact, the culprits are largely theocratic governments or other faith groups: "Jon Stewart poses the problem with an economy of words: 'Religion. It's given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.'"(from Dawg's Blawg)
How will the Office of Religious Freedom negotiate the highly volatile terrain of religious strife and intolerance between competing groups, without seeming to favour one faith group over another, and without risking an angry backlash or even violence from the side doing the persecuting? Moreover, the understanding of religious freedom takes many different forms, especially in a culture with a religious majority. The protection of one group of adherents might lead to discrimination against another vulnerable group. Catholic schools in Ontario recently claimed that anti-bullying legislation violates their religious beliefs because it requires them to allow gay-alliance clubs in school, even though about 21 per cent of LGBTQ students are bullied compared to about 8 per cent of non-LGBTQ students.
What other religious "freedoms" might the new Office be urged to protect? The "right" to harass women outside abortion clinics? The "conscience" of hospitals that let women die if they need life-saving abortions? How about the "right" to teach creationism and attack evolution in public school science classrooms? Maybe the funding of a Christian anti-gay group in Uganda with its "kill the gays" law? Or the "right" of orthodox Jews to send women to the back of the bus?
Finally, let's not leave out the "right" of religious beliefs and holy books to be immune from criticism, as enforced through blasphemy laws in many countries -- which brings us to a final and major criticism of the Office of Religious Freedom. In most theocracies, religious minorities at least have some rights, but the Centre for Inquiry Canada (CFI) notes that, "In many parts of the world the very existence of atheism is outlawed, in some cases punishable by death."
Yet John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs and a key player in the formation of the new Office, ignorantly stated last September:
"We don't see agnosticism or atheism as being in need of defence in the same way persecuted religious minorities are. We speak of the right to worship and practice in peace, not the right to stay away from places of worship."
A report on global discrimination against non-believers was submitted to the US Department of State last year by several atheist and humanist groups. The report documents numerous prosecutions against non-believers in 47 countries, largely through blasphemy or apostasy laws. The following breakdown of countries is my own, derived from the report, and it illustrates what I see as the key problem:
- 21 countries give specific recognition and protection to Christianity, including 13 in Western Europe plus Poland, and 8 in Africa or Latin America.
- 20 countries are officially Islamic or have a largely Islamic population.
- Four have other religious majorities (Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish), and one has a roughly equal mix of Christians and Muslims (Eritrea).
- Only one secular country with broad religious diversity is cited (Russia).
Prosecutions of non-believers for their lack of faith or for criticizing religion occur almost exclusively in countries that favour one religion over another, or religion over non-belief. This points to the best way to protect religious freedom for all -- secular societies with laws that protect not only freedom of religion, but freedom from religion. The latter is just as much a universal right, because whether one has religious beliefs or not, we all need to be free from having the belief systems of others imposed upon us. In reality, most religious persecution is a product of one religion being intolerant of another religion, with both being equally intolerant of those with no religion. Unfortunately, the new Office of Religious Freedom seems to have no inkling of this, which does not bode well for its future success.
It wasn't until the press conference launch of the new Office on February 19 that the government suddenly declared that non-believers would be included too, after being challenged on the issue. "All people of faith and, again, those who choose not to have faith, need to be protected, their rights need to be respected," said Dr. Bennett.
As an atheist, I don't feel reassured by this last-minute hasty add-on, given the Conservative government's prior total ignorance of the often-horrific persecution of non-believers around the world. However, the Centre for Inquiry Canada has more optimism. The group (full disclosure: I'm a member) issued a joint statement with Humanist Canada applauding the efforts to include all religious perspectives, and offering to help the new Office with information and ongoing consultation on the challenges and persecution faced by non-believers across the world.
I talked to Michael Payton, CFI's Executive Director, who sees the potential for good in the Office's creation. He emphasized that there are many examples of extreme human rights violations because of religious beliefs. "If resources were there that could help stop that, I think overall the world would be a better place. And if there's an opportunity to protect non-believers too, we want to take it up." He acknowledged the potential for the Office to be abused, saying: "We'll be monitoring the Office very closely to make sure they stay true to their commitment, protecting freedom from religion equally as they would for freedom of religion." However, Payton was concerned about the total lack of consultation with atheist/humanist groups before the official launch. "We've been left out of this process. We were quite insulted that we weren't invited." He also decried the language on the Office's website, which still focuses solely on the right of religious minorities to practice their faith: "The language is wrong, it doesn't apply to us. Even to use that language is a back-handed type of discrimination," but adding that "this takes a backseat to people being executed for apostasy."
Time will tell whether the Office of Religious Freedom will fulfill its potential to protect both religious and non-religious minorities. But I wouldn't advise you to hold your breath -- or pray.
Joyce Arthur works as a technical writer and pro-choice activist, and is the founder and Executive Director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, a national pro-choice group in Canada.