Time to acknowledge the participation of Canada’s living faith traditions: Primate

Web manager’s note: The future of any civil society is grounded in a continuing conversation about the values and convictions that underwrite participation in that society, writes the Primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, in this latest article on secularism, printed recently in the Globe and Mail newspaper. The article expands on the Primate’s New Year’s Day sermon at Ottawa’s Christ Church Cathedral, in which he decried the growing suppression of religion in the public arena. The sermon garnered a great deal of news coverage and reader response.


The human toll of recent events in India and Palestine have brought into sharp focus the role of religion in the world. Crusades and inquisitions of all sorts constitute a profound scar on history, an ugly and insistent reminder that religion and temporal power are a dangerous combination. All the same, we need to examine the assumption that freedom from such religious conflict requires us to remove religion entirely from public life in Canada. Such a course may seem reasonable and prudent. In reality, it is a dangerous folly.

In nineteenth century Upper Canada, two powerful leaders, Egerton Ryerson and John Strachan, struggled for the soul of what is now Ontario. Strachan represented the forces of religious establishment. Ryerson opposed special advantages for any religious group. Ryerson prevailed, and we live in a society largely defined by the egalitarian religious landscape that he championed.

What we have today, however, is something more sweeping. At a public memorial service for Swissair victims at Peggy’s Cove, the government barred Christian clergy from invoking the name of Jesus. On Sept. 15, those responsible for expressing collective grief of Canadians on Parliament Hill, made no reference to any of the religious traditions to which the majority of Canadians turn in their own times of grief and loss.

This is not the non-establishment Ryerson advocated. This is the establishment of non-religion as the official religion of Canada.

Fear and forgetfulness have driven us to this state. We see religious conflict in the Middle East, in India, in Ireland, and want no part of it. However, the current de facto solution — of sweeping aside the spiritual traditions that illuminate the lives of Canadians — is itself fraught with risk.

The most obvious danger is that the best effects of religion are swept away along with the worst. The same traditions that can degenerate into conflict also share a commitment to service, compassion, and generosity. We forget that hospitals, schools, and social services were originally grounded in religious convictions about human worth and dignity. We forget that the father of medicare, Tommy Douglas, was a Baptist pastor whose social convictions were inseparable from his faith. Many great social visions and practical social initiatives have been visions of the spirit and initiatives of faith.

When we lay aside the agenda of the spirit, others will rush to fill the gap. Do we really desire a nation guided only by the competing interests of individuals in a utilitarian marketplace? Our governments have already narrowed their accountability from the democratic “citizens” to the economic “taxpayers”. Are we ready for a world in which the defining agenda is that of shareholders? Who will bear witness to human dignity if the voices of the spirit are stilled?

In Canada we celebrate a pluralism of cultures in which none has special privileges and all share in shaping our common life. But as cultures come together, they bring with them the apparently unwelcome “baggage” of religion. Sensing the potential for conflict, we opt to pretend that the cultural life of peoples can somehow be shorn of its “outmoded” and difficult religious dimension. Martin Luther King Jr. galvanized a nation by championing the social implications of a religious vision shared by the two visible faiths in America at that time – Christianity and Judaism. Finding a shared vision that will honour the plurality of living faiths in Canada at the beginning of the twenty-first century will be a more complicated and difficult task. But the difficulty of a vital task is no reason to abandon it.

Moreover, ignoring the place of religion in contemporary pluralism will not only deny Canada the spiritual resources that can strengthen our common life. It will also contribute substantially to the very thing we fear — the religious and cultural balkanization of Canada. Suspicion of those who are “other” thrives on ignorance and generates fear and distrust, the ominous legacy of a society that shunts religion to shadows.

The future of any civil society is grounded in a continuing conversation about the values and convictions that underwrite participation in that society. Our current practice as a society is to insist that questions of life and death, of purpose and meaning, of vocation, values, and community must be decided without reference to the very terms in which those questions are grounded. Our leaders’ response to the events of September 11 — “Shop! Buy! Consume!” — unmasks the impoverished state of public social thought in our country. Such banality is increasingly inevitable, because the common good cannot be understood — much less served — without reference to the fact that the majority of Canadians ground their sense of “the good” in the living faith traditions of which they are — by their own definition – members. While proportion of census respondents claiming no religious affiliation has risen to 15 per cent, that means that fully 85 per cent of Canadians do identify themselves as affiliated with one of the living faiths that make up the lively religious mosaic of our country, traditions that hold out the possibility that we hunger for something deeper than a competitive edge in a dispirited economy.

These faiths are not simply versions of one another. They differ, and are sometimes at odds. Each of them has a fanatical edge. But when Anglican Archbishop Terence Finlay and Muslim Imam Abdul Hai Patel walked side-by-side from a memorial service in Toronto to sign the book of remembrance for victims of Sept. 11, we caught a glimpse of an interfaith future rooted in respect and companionship. There is no spiritual health in mutual ignorance, suspicion, and hostility. There is no social health in ignoring the human spirit and the traditions that attend to it.

It is time to acknowledge the legitimate participation of Canada’s living faith traditions in addressing our common life as Canadians. Such participation will mean hard work for our religious and civil leaders, and for us all. Only serious consideration of the alternative — continued aimless plodding towards a spiritually vacant, sterile and balkanized society — can convince us to do that work together.

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