Rights and freedoms and religion - Macleans.ca

Rights and freedoms and religion


The CBC considers the government’s new office of religious freedom.

Other scholars are more blunt in their assessment that with its announcement the Canadian government is essentially entering an international policy minefield. Arvind Sharma teaches religious studies at McGill University who has just completed a book called Problematizing Religious Freedom. Sharma argues that the very concept of religious freedom has become an excuse used by proselytizing religions, particularly Christianity, to convert people. He says that was the clear goal of the U.S. model from the start.

“My concern is that this office will be used… by missionary religions, especially by Christian missions, will be interpreted by them as giving them the right to proselytize,” Sharma says. “I agree that the right to change one’s religion is a part of religious freedom but I don’t agree that my right to change … my religion is symmetrical with somebody else’s right to ask me to change my religion.”

Below, the text of John Baird’s speech on the opening of consultations.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to join you this morning. This is an opportunity to exchange ideas on a key priority for our government: establishing an Office of Religious Freedom.

We announced our intention to do so in the Speech from the Throne on June 3. And I repeated our commitment most recently at the United Nations General Assembly this past week in New York.

This office will be created to promote and protect freedom of religion and belief, consistent with core Canadian values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Most importantly, it will demonstrate that Canada truly is a free society.

Canadians enjoy the rights and privileges that come with living in a free and democratic society in which human rights are respected. We are also keenly aware of the struggles that religious minorities face around the world.

That is why, whatever the circumstances, Canada will continue to speak out, and take principled positions. As I said in my address at the United Nations General Assembly, we will not just go along to get along. We will stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient or expedient.

All human rights are essential, of course, but today, we come together for a special purpose.

History has shown us that religious freedom and democratic freedom are inseparable.

As Franklin Roosevelt observed on the eve of global war:

“Where freedom of religion has been attacked, the attack has come from sources opposed to democracy.

“Where democracy has been overthrown, the spirit of free worship has disappeared.

“And where religion and democracy have vanished, good faith and reason in international affairs have given way to strident ambition and brute force.”

Societies that protect religious freedom are more likely to protect all other fundamental freedoms. They are typically more stable and more prosperous societies. This view has been reinforced in consultations I’ve had around the world so far.

I honestly believe it is critically important that Canada is uniquely placed to protect and promote religious freedom around the world.

We are a country of many ethnicities and religions, but we all share one humanity—one of tolerance, one of acceptance, one of peace and security.

Canada has spoken out against violations of freedom around the world.

I’ve voiced strong concern about serious violations of the rights of Iranian citizens to practice Christianity, including those facing charges of apostasy. I spoke up for the Bahá’í community, which continues to face difficulties in Iran with its leaders being imprisoned on unfounded charges.

I spoke out on the discrimination by the Burmese regime against Muslims and Buddhists.

I stand with Roman Catholic priests and other Christian clergy and their laity, as they are driven underground to worship in China while their leaders are detained. And our government has raised the issues of Tibetans, Uyghurs and Falun Gong practitioners at the United Nations.

We stood in solidarity with Pakistan’s Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer, who were assassinated by extremists for speaking out against unjust blasphemy laws.

We have called for accountability for the violence faced by the Ahmiddya community in different parts of the world.

We were the first major country to speak out about the attacks against Egyptian Coptics following the events in Nag Hammadi, and we deplored the New Year’s Eve attacks in Alexandria.

And in Iraq, where al Qaeda has driven out many Christians and minorities, we implemented a program to resettle refugees.

This year, our government created an award, the John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award, to recognize individuals who show exceptional leadership in defending human rights and freedoms.

It was former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker who, during his time in office, championed human rights both in Canada and around the world. On the day he introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights in Parliament, he spoke these words:

“I am a Canadian, …, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and mankind.”

I pledge to continue this tradition. But I of course can’t do this alone.

And we as a country are compelled to get this right.

That’s why I’m glad each of you is here to share your expertise, insights and experiences.

I’m extremely pleased at the calibre of people gathered here.

I know this is a challenging task, but, then again, Canadians stand for what is right, not what is easy, so I have no doubt we here today are up to that challenge.

It is our common duty to defend the rights of the afflicted, and to give voice to the voiceless.

Our positions will not soften, our determination will not lessen, and our voices will not be diminished until all citizens can enjoy the freedoms and rights we hold to be universal and true.

Through our combined efforts, I am confident that the Office of Religious Freedom can help do just that.

Thank you all for being here.


Rights and freedoms and religion

  1. LOL they talk about govt waste and useless bureaucracy and ‘gravy’, and then they invent the Dept for the Protection of Mythology.

    Amazing we’ve survived 144 years without it.

  2. This initiative really gives me the creeps. An office for Religious Freedoms? Doesn’t the Charter already cover this? Anything that mixes politics and religion sends shivers down my spine.

  3. I think Cons creating religious office is ridiculous and waste of money but Prof Sharma is going to have to come up with better reasons than he doesn’t want to listen to Christians. Sharma should just use his quasi right to free speech and tell the God botherers to bugger off and leave him alone. 

    Walter R Mead ~ Faith And Progress:

    This aptitude for capitalism has at least some of its roots in the way the British Reformation created a pluralistic society that was at once unusually tolerant, unusually open to new ideas, and unusually pious. In most of the world, the traditional values of religion are seen as deeply opposed to the utilitarian goals of capitalism.

    The English-speaking world, contrary to the intentions of almost all the leading actors of the period, reached a new kind of religious equilibrium in which capitalism and social change came to be accepted as good things. Indeed, since the 17th century, the English-speaking world for the most part has believed that embracing and even accelerating economic, social, cultural and political change fulfills their religious destiny …… 

    The idea that the world is built or guided by God in such a way that the unrestricted free play of extant forces creates an ordered and higher form of society is found virtually everywhere in the Anglo-Saxon world. It makes people both individualist and optimistic, and it has produced the “Whig narrative”, a theory of history that sees the slow and gradual march of progress in a free society as the dominant trend in not just Anglo-American history, but in all of history.

  4. Pragmatically, this is a waste of time and rife with potential pitfalls.  Ideologically, it may way well prove antithetical to conservative values.  But man oh man, what a brilliant tool for throwing symbolic bones to both Christian and “ethnic” constituencies.  

    I love how neo-cons, once in a position of power, almost always engage in a self-fulfilling logical loop that has us all agreeing that the scope of government should severely limited.  

    • Except that when it comes to religion, it is next to impossible to reconcile “christian” and non-christian/ethnic constituencies. That’s not throwing them a bone. That’s pouring gasoline on a bonfire

      • I’m not sure.  If the office’s mission is to selectively express outrage on behalf of, or assist persecuted religious groups around the world, I can see where there’s potential to avoid needless alienation of voting blocks at home (at least in theory).

        I’m betting the plan is to keep the mission bland and focus on relatively neutral situations that nobody could quibble with.   I’m not saying it’s a great idea, but I expect they want to focus on the low hanging fruit, and avoid scenarios that involve competing religious interests.

        So far, they’ve been astute and hard working in demonstrating, cultivating, and capitalizing on the overlap between small-c and ethnic/new/hyphenated Canadian concerns.  They’ve deservedly earned that vote.  A lot of the  criticism directed toward their forays too easily comes off as old-school, left wing politically correct think that all too often assumes they know what motivates many of these groups.  Which is partly why the Liberals deservedly lost that vote, I’d argue.  

        And remember, so long as the Conservatives can enjoy their lesser-of-evils or someday-they’ll-come-through status with the Christian voters, they don’t really need to worry about them too much.

        • If you are correct and that is their goal here, they are very much deluding themselves. There no such thing as “neutral situations that nobody could quibble with” when it comes to religion.

          No good can come from this. None!

          • Oh yes there is…votes for the cons…as Sean astutely notes, it’s brilliant, and completely inline with this govt’s mission: how to reduce everything to political calculus while convincing your core supporters that you stand for them. The recent celebrations of Byfield and the AR magazine is a case in point; Harper’s done nothing to advance their position, almost nothing, and yet they fete him – go figure. 

          • They do because the alternative is to see the Libs or (worse yet for them) the Dippers take power. I don’t doubt that the Harperites came up with this charade to appease their troop. I’m merely saying that they have, yet again, grossly miscalculated on that one. There is a reason why the State should keep its nose out of religious affairs. Leave that stuff to the Courts.

  5. A major aim of most religions has always been to separate people in one group from other groups. A second goal of most was, and is still, to restrict freedom, to force others to obey a hierarchical and dictatorial elite. Throughout history, religion and true freedom have been opposites. We should stay as far away from religion in our democratic institutions as possible.

    • “A major aim of most religions has always been to separate people in one group from other groups.”


    • You should read the New Testament sometime. St. Paul writes that the whole point of the Christian message is to unite peoples that were formerly hostile. See Ephesians 2:11-4 and Galatians 3:28. The book of Revelation describes a heavenly scene in which a great multitude of people “from every tribe, race, tongue and nation” are gathered together singing praises to God. Every sentence you write is simply historically inaccurate.

      • Whether they want to be or not. Which is where religious war comes into it.

        The bible is historically inaccurate.

      • I’m not a Christian, but sfdint is absolutely right about the history of the New Testament and early Christianity there.  That was one of the truly revolutionary things about early Christianity, compared to other religions and belief systems at the time — it purported to be a universal religion that anyone, anywhere could belong to.  Historians have noted that an innovation in Christianity was its use of what we would now call “social networks”, the fact that a Christian travelling to another town or even another country could — and was given a means to — make contact with Christians at his/her destination.

          • That wouldn’t surprise me if it’s true.  I was talking about the history, spread and development of Christianity, which is a separate, though related, topic.

          • Ahhh…well other religions did the same thing, so I didn’t know why christianity gets the credit on spreading like that.

        • It is important to keep in mind that Revelations also talks of separating out the sheep from the goats; wheat from chaff and so forth; there is an element of judgement attached that shouldn’t be glossed over by fairy tales of all good peoples being one happy family. The Christianmessage was intended to be a revolutionary one. It differed noteably from Marx in that it did not proscribe a human or political solution to mankinds ills. I happen to think Christianity was intended, and indeed has been in many respects a revolutionary force for good in the world. However, there has been a dark side that should always be kept in mind. Men for their own base reasons have used and abused this message for personal power, self agandizement and, most ragic of all,  in order to subjugate , indoctrinate and in some cases destroy indigenous cultures. It is also true individual priests have done their best to defend and help those same cultures. It is a very complicated and multi-layed story and almost imossible to sort out in terms of overall good. One thing’s for sure, i doubt Christ would have been happy with the way his message has been distorted and abused.

      • St. Paul writes that the whole point of the Christian message is to
        unite peoples that were formerly hostile

        Sure, St. Paul wants to unite people who were formally hostile, which is great, but isn’t he planning to do that by making them all Christians?

        The book of Revelation describes a heavenly scene in which a great
        multitude of people “from every tribe, race, tongue and nation” are
        gathered together singing praises to God

        Again, sure, but they’re all singing praises to the SAME God aren’t they?  And isn’t that the case because by that point in the story, everyone who worshiped a DIFFERENT God is dead?  It’s not that meaningful for people of all races, languages, tribes and nations to gather together to worship the Christian God if it only happens after all the people who worshiped other Gods have been eliminated.

        It’s entirely possible that peace would reign for a thousand years if there was only one religion, but not everyone’s going to convert.  A whole heck of a lot of people need to die to make the dream of one universal religion a reality.

  6. I really don’t know what to make of this.  I’m personally anti-religious, so I must temper my personal opinions with my strong support of everyone’s right to believe whatever.  But we aren’t adding something to everyone’s right to believe whatever.  We are going to tell the world that it isn’t their right to believe whatever, if whatever is a single religion.  They can only believe whatever, as a group, if they believe the way we say, which is not as a group.  I mean, just the mind-boggling inconsistencies of the fundamental principle has me shaking my head in confusion.

    So, I’ll opt for being against it because it will cost us money.

    • I’m with you.  I see nothing particularly evil about this, but in the middle of a program review, with so many existing and worthy government programs needing money, I just can’t see the strong justification for this.

      • Unless the justification is just political and mainly domestic at that. That’s a worry whatever the political stripe of the govt. I can’t shake the feeling that this govt while decrying all the many errors of its liberal predecessors is bound and determined to use the same methods to achieve their agenda…i much preferred the 2006 version of SH to this one[ even if i never would have voted for him]. Do we really want a younger,less funny, meaner but otherwise near clone of Chretien in power for a dozen years or so? 

  7. Arvind Sharma’s concern that Christians will use the pretext of freedom of religion to convert others to their faith is profoundly illogical and inconsistent with our basic freedoms. Freedom of religion allows me to freely practice my religion, and part of my religion is to tell others about Jesus. I believe my freedom to tell others about Jesus is also covered under the protection of free speech. As long as I am only using a verbal appeal, rather than coercion or threats, I just don’t see the problem. If using verbal persuasion to convert people is wrong, then so is giving a political speech that says “vote for me”, or making any ethical argument that seeks to persuade others to agree with you. Sounds like the end of free speech and freedom of thought to me!

    • Perhaps other people don’t want to hear about your personal beliefs…in which case they’ll either tell you about their religion…or tell you about Evolution.

  8. Evangelism is both an expression of a religion and a form of speech, and thus government prevention of it is a violation of both the right to freedom of religion and the right to free speech / freedom of expression.  I’m surprised you find this controversial.

  9. What about the group in Bountiful, BC, who believe that the way to heaven is multiple wives for each man? The RCMP are already worried about laying charges because freedom of religion usurps the concept of equality.
    There are other religions that also allow for multiple wives.
    And, aside from charitable Christian missionary work, there are some other religions that give people the “choice” of conversion or death.
    There are groups in Ontario that have been demanding that their religious law be incorporated into provincial law.
     How does all this fit into Canadian democratic secular life and law?