I have to say, the childish credulity of the professionally faithful is kind of amazing. We all knew that the Harper government was creating the Religious Freedoms Office because his religious base would love it. I don’t think until this week that I realized how truly silly they are, how willing to accept even the most piddling and pointless of scraps from the master’s table. To wit: Catholic priest turned National Post columnist Raymond de Souza and Christian TV personality and occasional Globe & Mail columnist Lorna Dueck, who on previous occasions has claimed that God intervenes in court cases.
(He does not, however, intervene to prevent the crimes from being committed in the first place, which in my humble opinion would be rather more helpful.)
Anyways, this new office can be easily refuted. We don’t have offices to promote any of the other Constitutional freedoms. The new “ambassador” won’t have any power to prevent religious atrocities. It’s a safe bet the Canadian government would never jeopardize any real economic interest, for instance, in order to prove a point about freedom of religion. Yet Dueck happily lists several recent persecutions of religious people as though Canada’s new Religious Freedom Ambassador, if he were already on the job, would have instantly hopped on a military jet and flown off to rescue the people involved. This is at best an office which will be long on talk and short on substance. You know, like church.
But I don’t think anyone needs me to repeat the tired arguments about the pointlessness of this office. Instead I want to tangle something a little bit more fundamental, which is the fact that the legion of conservative Christians who have suddenly re-discovered their libertarian streak don’t actually believe in freedom of religion either. Not, at least, as de Souza defines it here:
Religious liberty is the first liberty… If a person is not free before God,… then there is no basis for his freedom before the state, and his property and other rights are of little avail. The state that claims the right to interpose itself between man and God is by definition a totalitarian state, even if should be a softer sort of totalitarianism, at least at first.
Let’s suppose — to take a story that in this context isn’t entirely random — that you believe God has told you to hold a human sacrifice to prove your loyalty to him. At this sacrifice, moreover, the victim won’t just be some unfortunate passerby you swipe off the street: it will be your son. Now, I don’t think de Souza or anybody else thinks that in this situation it would actually be wrong, let alone “totalitarian” for “the state” to “interpose itself” by arresting you and locking you away in jail.
I don’t imagine de Souza would find it totalitarian if we arrested people for practicing infant genital mutilation, either. Nor do I imagine that he, Dueck, or anyone else of their persuasion are troubled by the possibility that the new Religious Freedoms Ambassador will condemn, let’s say, the Saudis for arresting someone on the charge of converting to Christianity (to use one of Dueck’s examples), even though doing so would be our state “interposing itself” between the Saudi officials and their God.
We can continue with this list of examples as long as we like, but I’ll just skip to the main point: none of us actually support freedom of religion as a “first right” from which all other rights derive. At best freedom of religion is a derivative right — because we have freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, that means we must be free to believe things about the divine and to speak about those beliefs. The religious have it exactly backwards here: religious freedom flows from our other basic human rights, not the other way around.
Which is why the skeptical among us wonder why there’s an Ambassador for Religious Freedom and not an Ambassador for Freedom of Conscience, an Ambassador for Freedom of Expression, or even, for that matter, an Ambassador for Democracy.
Interestingly, the same Muslim legal interpretation which leads to the jailing of Christians in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere is also the basis of jailing and/or executing atheists. But that doesn’t seem to concern any of the religious who are so excited about the new office, and I don’t imagine it will concern the new ambassador as much, either. It’s not nearly as worrying when the Egyptians jail someone for refusing to believe in any God as it is when they jail someone for believing in the Christian God, is it?