We have been told that Mr. Harper’s new Office of Religious Freedom is a key pillar of Canada’s foreign policy. For the last several years I’ve not been able to figure out what our foreign policy is but at least we now have something to hold it up so it seems logical to inspect the Pillar itself.
At first glance it seems simple enough. We‛re already familiar with various other Offices – those of Auditor General, Parliamentary Budget Officer, Ethics Commissioner, Privacy Commissioner, and so forth. But these are all Offices, or Officers, whose primary function is to keep our rulers and their advisors treading the pathways of virtue – no easy task. They are Offices intended to protect us from the all too human sins of greed, avarice, pride, dishonesty and the lust for power.
The Office of Religious Freedom, we are told, is to promote religious freedom. But wait. Just as the Parliamentary Budget Officer protects us from rampant budgetary freedom will the Religious Freedom Office protect us from religious mind manipulation? I would like to think so but I wonder if Mr. Harper and his core constituency have that in mind.
Another problem I see is that although “Religious Freedom” certainly means the right to worship as one chooses — without let, hindrance or discrimination as the lawyers say – it surely also involves the right to spread one‛s beliefs. Ah, there‛s the rub.
The Pillar itself is erected upon a foundation of contradictions.
A case in point is the recent situation in which extremely anti-gay sentiment was hastily removed from a religious web in order to preserve taxpayer funding for aid abroad. Apparently a line was crossed. But I am not aware of any agreement to erase the expressed sentiment from the minds of the preachers and teachers of that particular sect, and funding has continued. The funding, of course, is for “good works” which nicely avoids the problem that aid money, say for water wells, frees up other money that can be used to contaminate minds.
But just last year federal aid money was withdrawn from the Kairos group that puts its efforts into helping peoples of the third world – including Canada‛s third world. I never understood where Kairos had transgressed. Perhaps the actions of member groups such as the Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, United, Mennonites, Catholics and so forth were too ecumenically seditious for the Harper government to tolerate.
Or, perhaps closer to the truth, maybe the Kairos fixation on its mission of environmental “Sustainability” combined with human “Dignity & Rights” was too threatening an idea for a government devoted to the rape of resources and the humiliation of the unemployed?
Our government has already demonstrated an aversion to Democratic freedom by brutalizing Parliament and even eliminating the agency “Rights and Democracy” which had been established to monitor human rights and to promote democracy abroad. And yet, paradoxically, this new key Pillar of our foreign policy has a mission to promote Religious freedom abroad. I ask myself, where in the name of Heaven is this going to take us? (And I don’t say, “in the name of Heaven,” casually.)
I surely hope the new Officer of Religious Freedom will take a look at some of the anomalies.
He is being called an “Ambassador”. According to Wikipedia, “An Ambassador is an official envoy; especially, a highest ranking diplomat who represents a State and is usually accredited to another sovereign State (country), or to an international organization as the resident representative of his or her own government.” Not this Ambassador. He is posted to nowhere but to everywhere. His embassy is the world.
So precisely what is this new Ambassador supposed to do ?
Well, according to the CBC (with files from The Canadian Press) —
Ottawa says the office will focus its activities “on countries or situations where there is evidence of egregious violations of the right to freedom of religion.”
The ambassador has been told to raise awareness of religious freedom and call specific attention to those violations, speaking out in Canada and abroad.
If the Ambassador does his job our government is going to find itself wading into quite a swamp. Gone are the days of the righteous Harper who was averse to trading with countries he deemed less saintly than our own. Now that he has been converted to the religion of Total Resource Extraction and worships at the feet the Supreme God of Economic Growth how is he going to direct his new Ambassador?
Will he ask the Ambassador to whisper into the Chinese ear the delicate suggestion that if they will please let up on the Falun Gong he’ll let them bid on another chunk of the Tar Sands? After all, leverage is the name of the game. We used to call it a “carrot on a stick”. In this case, oily sludge on a twig.
And how is the Ambassador supposed to define “Religion” let alone define “Religious Freedom”? Have any of our governments ever actually defined these concepts?
It seems to me that before naming something an “Office of Religious Freedom” one might define some of the words, but it’s too late for that. But hey, let’s give the poor Ambassador a helping hand.
I’ll glance at “Freedom” later on, but let’s start with “Religion” and see where it takes us.
The online Merriam-Webster defines it as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural”. My desk Oxford says religion is the “Human recognition of superhuman controlling power …” These and other dictionaries carry on with sub clauses that tend to mystify more than illuminate.
But a more forthright definition was declaimed back in the 19th century by a great American orator, Col. Robert Green Ingersoll. (I‛ve mentioned him before. Like Thomas Paine before him he is difficult to dismiss. Full disclosure — I confess bias because of a play I have headed for Fall production based on Ingersoll’s oratory.)
Ingersoll defined “Religion” as “Superstition” and gathered huge paying audiences all across our continent to hear him expound upon his definition. He had the refreshing habit of saying publicly what he thought privately and people admired him for it. Confining himself to a critique of his own roots (his father was a Presbyterian minister), he explained that:
“Christianity consists of the miraculous, the marvellous, and the impossible.”*
He could cheerfully state that:
“All well-educated ministers know that the Bible suffers by a comparison with Shakespeare” — (it may be wise to notice the ‘well-educated’ qualifier) —
and then go on to compare the pulpit with the stage:
“There is this difference. The stage — the honesty of pretence. The pulpit — the pretence of honesty.” **
Even though Ingersoll was a lawyer (and the Attorney General of Illinois) his listeners could actually understand what he was talking about. And he had an advantage over dictionaries because he could use wit to embellish examples:
“Is there an intelligent man or woman now in the world who believes in the Garden of Eden story? If you find any man who believes it, strike his forehead and you will hear an echo. Something is for rent.” ***
Let‛s not go too far over the top here but let‛s assume that Ingersoll was at least 50% correct in defining Religion as Superstition. This permits us, for the sake of discussing the Pillar, to coin a clarifying synonym for Religion — “Religio-Superstition”.
How is our new Ambassador supposed to promote Religio-Superstitious Freedom? Is it simply a case of encouraging governments to accept all organized Religio-Superstitions as equal and free, and for all those organizations and their adherents to accept each other‛s Religio-Superstitions as equally valid? And for taxpayers to give tax exemptions to all and, provided their good works qualify, aid? If not, where do we draw the lines?
Of course if one follows this path of reason then one has to ask what are the aims of a Government that cancels Democracy and Rights, denies Climate Change, closes the 58 Lakes Environmental Laboratory, muzzles our own scientists and then launches an Office of Religio-Superstitious Freedom with an Ambassador to prowl the world making sure the adherents of all such groups are treated equally and fairly? Obviously, to maintain personal sanity, this is not a path of questioning one should follow lightly.
Given all this, it would be nice if Mr. Harper would tell us where his foreign policy is going because if this Pillar is supporting it — well, it reminds me of an old one from the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens. Beautiful to contemplate, holding up nothing. Of course if it’s simply a Prop it will no doubt help shore up Mr. Harper’s support with his core and reinforce false hope abroad.
As for Freedom itself — is there any concept more paradoxical? Freedom itself requires boundaries.
I understand that when Abraham Lincoln was questioned about the limits to personal freedom he said, “Your freedom stops at the tip of my nose”. I suggest to our new Ambassador that he consider the idea that Religio-Superstitious Freedom should stop at the outer edge of a child‛s mind, far away from a bread winner‛s wallet, and even farther away from a fertile woman.
Ambassadors tend to report in confidence to their Minister or to the PM himself so relax, we may never actually hear from this one. But we‛ll finance this “key pillar” of our foreign policy – for $5 million a year.
By the way, I understand that the annual cost of the internationally and environmentally invaluable 58 Lakes Laboratory, chopped because of austerity, was about $2 million.
*Quoted in The San Franciscan, San Francisco, October 4, 1884
**Quoted in The Truth Seeker, New York, January 14, 1888
***Robert Green Ingersoll, Orthodoxy (1884)