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  • Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society: Essays in Pluralism, Religion, and Public Policy
  • William Closson James (bio)
Douglas Farrow , editor. Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society: Essays in Pluralism, Religion, and Public Policy McGill-Queen's University Press. xx, 201. $24.95

Arising out of a McGill University conference in October 2002, these nine essays propose to examine the role and place of religion in a contemporary secular democracy. Their actual subtext, as the late Claude Ryan states in the foreword, is that liberalism 'is a thinly veiled way of curtailing the freedom of expression of religious believers.' Religion, to judge from the [End Page 173] Muslim, Jewish, and Christian backgrounds of most of the essayists, and largely confirmed by their words, tends to mean traditional Western monotheism. H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr identifies a 'profound moral rupture' separating 'traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others who recognize that the universe has deep meaning and purpose from those who prefer to act as if there is no God and as if religious differences were merely matters of culture rather than matters of truth.' Engelhardt narrowly and normatively defines 'traditional Christians' as 'those who endorse the moral commitments of the Christianity of the first millennium and the seven initial councils.' No mention is made in these pages of Sikhs, Buddhists, Confucians, or Hindus, let alone (except slightingly) Wiccans. Douglas Farrow asks, 'If the state offers same-sex "marriage," does it not reject the judgment of the major religions about the nature of marriage and adopt that of certain fringe religions?' Whatever these 'fringe religions' might be, most contributors here share a conviction about what kind of religion is central.

What Tom Faulkner has elsewhere termed the 'vague public theism' of the Canadian Charter's acknowledgment of 'the supremacy of God' becomes for Farrow and other essayists a rallying call to a defence of moral principles. With Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, they share the concern that if there is no God, then everything is lawful. From a Muslim perspective El Hasan bin Talal rather minimally assumes that religion 'plays a determining role in developing and promoting an ethical perspective and code of conduct.' For him, religion has such a degree of relevance to good governance, human solidarity, and the moral and purposeful nature of human life that it must be 'a key component in any attempt to sustain our civilizations.'

For Rabbi David Novak, one of several essayists using a detailed analysis of political theory, members of any democracy based on a social contract have prior rights conferred upon their traditional communities by a transcendent source. These 'earlier social commitments,' Novak argues, especially those based on religion and the family, 'are not overcome ... in the social contract.' Traditional faith communities, then, have a role to play in the defence of human rights, especially in protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Similarly, Jean Bethke Elshtain believes that 'human dignity needs a guarantee,' asking rhetorically, 'Do rights require God?' Showing how Roman Catholic social teaching is grounded in the view that every person is sacred, she suggests, referring to Michael Ignatieff, that there is no secular basis for such a view.

Iain T. Benson, who along with Farrow and Novak publicly opposed Canada's same-sex marriage bill prior to its passage, argues that secular cannot mean non-religious because 'everyone has "belief" or "faith" in something, be it atheistic, agnostic or religious.' Accordingly, he objects that 'the sexual dogma of same-sex advocates' trumps 'parents with [End Page 174] religious convictions about their children's education.' The persistent topic in Recognizing Religion emerges as traditional religion and the traditional family, especially as same-sex marriage became its touchstone prior to the passage of Bill c-38 in July 2005. (Farrow is coeditor of another 2004 McGill-Queen's volume entitled Divorcing Marriage: Unveiling the Dangers in Canada's New Social Experiment.)

Though the topic remains life-cycle events and the family, Margaret Somerville is more balanced than her co-contributors in her focus on euthanasia and reproductive technologies. She points out that 'democracy is morally and ethically neutral.' Although religious or spiritual beliefs should not be excluded from deliberations, we cannot...


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pp. 173-175
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