Most Canadians probably do not know what blasphemy is, let alone that publishing blasphemous materials is still a criminal offence in this country. But there is some irony here, because the Canadian government publicly defends the freedom to publish cartoons that mock a religious figure and looks abroad to protect religious minorities from oppression while at the same time punishing that at home.
Lots of ink has been spilled this week about the proposed Quebec secular values law that would prevent a large category of government workers from wearing "conspicuous" religious symbols. Like many others, I think the proposed law is deeply problematic. In reading and thinking about this issue, I've noticed some recurring questions. Below, I've gathered a few of them with my thoughts.
In the wake of yesterday's mind-boggling announcement out of Quebec, we must ask: Why is there the need to accommodate religion in this way? I have never quite figured out how someone else's attire affects my philosophy. Seeing a man wearing a kippa has never pressured me to consider Judaism as an option for my personal philosophy.
How can the adherent of any religion (or even the atheist) -- who believes that his faith (or lack thereof) defines the true reality and offers the correct perspective on what is ethically and morally correct -- even accept a value of freedom of religion when it permits behaviour that this person deems incorrect?
There is an interesting disconnect in our world today regarding religion. Being an adherent to a certain religion is simply seen, to most people, as a description of the way by which this individual achieves spirituality. This is not, however, the way that religions -- even more so, traditional religious systems -- actually view themselves.
Since Manitoba's religious schools receive over 50 per cent of their funding from the province, they are all being mandated to comply with the proposed legislation: Bill 18 -- required to implement an anti-bullying strategy that includes gay-straight alliances. Our rights cannot exist in a vacuum, isolated from the reality around them. Rights engage with other rights. Not only does our Charter have a built-in provision to permit the limiting of rights in certain situations, but also, the transactional nature of our public lives dictates that different rights will come into contact other rights. Those who oppose Bill 18 should read the Charter in its entirety; it doesn't stop at freedom of religion, nor is there a hierarchy of rights.
An 11-year-old Pakistani girl with Downs Syndrome might be put to death for blasphemy. Killing people for expressing negative and/or dissenting views on religion, for burning Qurans, for writing letters -- is this Islam? No. In Islam, a law that penalizes a person for challenging or disparaging the religion -- is blasphemy itself.
This week, a grade 12 student was suspended for wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Life is wasted without Jesus." Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects both freedom of religion and freedom of expression, but nowhere does it protect people from feeling offended. In a diverse and complex society, learning to disagree without being disagreeable may be a survival skill.