Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Nutty Ex-Professor

(Hat tip: NealeNews.)

I've often wondered how CBC Radio picks the people who do the morning "Commentary" slots on their radio shots. I'm beginning to think the primary consideration is the willingness to appear stupid in front of a national audience.

Take, for example, this piece that aired July 18th, by Bob Ferguson, a retired professor from RMC Kingston:

Given the inertia of the Catholic Church, perhaps we could encourage reform by changing the environment in which all religions operate.

Couldn't we insist that human rights, employment and consumer legislation apply to them as it does other organizations? Then it would be illegal to require a particular marital status as a condition of employment or to exclude women from the priesthood.

Hold it. Is the professor that the government dictate how a religion should practice itself? "Bishop, you're under arrest for not making this lesbian a monsignor. The fine is two million dollars."

Of course the Vatican wouldn't like the changes, but they would come to accept them in time as a fact of life in Canada. Indeed I suspect many clergy would welcome the external pressure.

As stupid as this sounds, this does point out one of the bigger weaknesses of the mainstream churches, in the eyes of modern observers: societal apathy. We don't see a lot of people applying Catholic doctrines to their everyday living, so it's only natural to conclude that the Church teachings are generally ignored in Canada.

Bob's mistake is assuming that what afflicts Canadian society also afflicts the higher-ups at the Vatican. He also misjudges the precise influence of the Church in daily life: moral teaching from an older, more traditional perspective than what we learn from the governments of the day. (The idea of Paul Martin as a Cardinal only makes sense to me if I pretend to be a musketeer.)

And as for "external pressure," I can't think why a clergyman would welcome it. He already has two bosses to answer to: the congregation, and the Hierarchy. Answering to a Ministry of Religious Correctness would be a third unwelcome headache.

We could also help the general cause of religious freedom by introducing a code of moral practice for religions. They will never achieve unity so why not try for compatibility? Can't religious leaders agree to adjust doctrine so all religions can operate within the code?

What's being described here is Ecumenism. It's been going on for hundreds of years. Government imposition won't speed it up.

I am an engineer so the model I am thinking about is rather like the provincial acts regulating the practice of engineering. For example, engineers must have an engineering degree from a recognized university or pass qualification exams. They must have a number of years of practical experience and pass an ethics exam. The different branches: mechanical, electrical, civil and the like have a code of practice that applies to everyone. Why can't religious groups do the same?

Because differing religions have different interpretations of God, the relationship of God to the individual, and the role of God in society. The role of belief in our society is not one that can be regulated on a consistent basis, because it depends on individual practice.

I envisage a congress meeting to hammer out a code that would form the basis of legislation to regulate the practice of religion. Like the professional engineers' P.Eng designation, there would then be RRPs (or registered religious practitioners). To carry the analogy to its conclusion, no one could be a religious practitioner without this qualification.

If Bob is talking about governance in the church, well, these things already exist. In Christianity, they're called seminaries. All denominations have them.

But in terms of practicing religion, anyone can be a religious practitioner, because we all have ideas about God / Gaea / whatever, and to practice a religion means simply to exercise our ability to worship. No one's ever needed government permission to pray.

I won't try to propose what might be in the new code except for a few obvious things: A key item would have to be a ban on claims of exclusivity. It should be unethical for any RRP to claim that theirs was the one true religion and believers in anything else or nothing were doomed to fire and brimstone. One might also expect prohibition of ritual circumcisions, bans on preaching hate or violence, the regulation of faith healers, protocols for missionary work, etc.

Unfortunately, what this amounts to is the imposition of a so-called "liberal" humanism on a diversity of religions. These are modern, Western values of a specific temporal, nation-state, whereas religions tend to be beyond the temporal. Temporal values change over time; religions, being stable, do not.

Now what is the point of proposing this? I do it because I am worried that the separation between church and state is under threat.

Of course, he proposes to fix this by imposing the state upon the church, making the operation a success by killing the patient.

Religion is important in our lives, but it can become a danger to society when people claim that the unalterable will of God is the basis for their opinions and actions. Yes religion can be a comfort and a guide, but we cannot take rules from our holy books and apply them to the modern world without democratic debate and due regard for the law.

"Thou shalt not kill." "Thou shalt not steal." Our modern world, with its code of laws, evolved from the very same "holy books" that Ferguson disparages. Because organized religion, by its very nature, is a group activity, and since it evolved rules for worshippers to get along, it's one of the historical building blocks for the concept of community.

Separation of church and state exists because we have always recognized the difference between temporal and spiritual powers. To think that the government should impose itself on the Church is to suggest that the government is better at speaking for God. And somehow, I don't think many people believe that.