If you understand it, it’s not God.
Augustine of Hippo, quoted by Bob Chodos, Inroads, Summer/Fall 2010

On what bases can one affirm the existence or nonexistence of some Supreme Being whose nature is beyond grasp? Whose, or what’s, existence is being asserted, or denied? Isn’t the affirmation, or denial, of an undefined being meaningless? Can either affirmation or denial of such a god’s existence be made with assurance? What would it signify? To recognize one’s inability to know is to acknowledge one’s agnosticism: aware of it or not, both theists, who believe there is a god of unspecified nature, and atheists, who believe there is none of any nature, are agnostics.

With few exceptions, however, believers profess more than plain theism. Some claim to have experienced conclusive divine revelation: the nature of their god is specified, if only partially, so their assertion isn’t meaningless. The faith of the masses, who follow without privilege of personal godly disclosure, springs from confidence in the witness of others; after the disappearance of the illuminati, it is based on trust placed in the testimony of their successors – or arises out of fear of retribution from authorities whom it would be foolhardy to challenge; compliance to rules of which the said god is allegedly the author is similarly based. Owing to the possibility of flawed translations of “revealed truths,” and of inadvertent or deliberate distortions and add-ons over generations, the reliability of mere hearsay is open to serious question.

Since Aristotle, there have been arguments in support of the existence of some Prime Mover, First Cause, etc. While such a Being could justify theism, it can hardly inspire worship or give rise to a code of behaviour and a set of ritual practices such as those commanded by, say, Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Moreover, not only do the dogmas, codes and practices of these religions diverge from one another, but are exist sharp differences within each between denominations and sects. To complicate matters further, there are many other religions, some with huge followings.

If the premise is granted that one may not disclaim responsibility for deeds directed from above, believers are responsible for actions harmful to others or disruptive of a fair and balanced social order, even if these are commanded by authorities who claim to speak on behalf of some celestial Being. As do all citizens, believers enjoy the right to insist that civil authorities take appropriate measures to cancel the offensive directives of religious leaders.

Faith operates in the realm of the unknown, if not the unknowable: no matter how seriously examined, it is nonrational and, sometimes, irrational. More often than not, a specific faith is given allegiance in childhood out of submission to one’s elders through affection or dread, not through reason; in adulthood, in matters of theology, morals, mores and rituals, it is perpetuated not by reason but by the remnants of that affection or dread and by a human tendency to comply with society’s prevailing views.

With rare exceptions, religious authorities strive to keep beliefs alive and to thwart deviance in dogma and behaviour. To this end, they often resort to threats of suffering in an afterlife and, in the here and now, to social or bodily penalties: shunning and ostracism, or – albeit rarely nowadays – physical punishment in the shape of incarceration, torture, even death.

In enlightened times, awareness of these circumstances should beget humility, stifle proselytizing and stiffen resistance to religion’s more aggressive forms. Where citizens of different religions live side by side, mutual respect is crucial. Ensuring social peace through equal justice requires that laws be crafted on grounds of reason and enforced uniformly. Bending rules to accommodate whimsical, benighted or, worse, fanatical religious beliefs opens the door to injustice; yielding to obscurantist requests leads to feckless government. There is considerable evidence to suggest that such awareness is lacking today.

The landscape of History is littered with victims of the determination of some to impose on others the worship of God, as they perceive God, and to subjugate them to God’s laws, as they interpret them. Wars have been waged not only between Christians, Muslims and Jews, but also between denominations of the same religion: Europe has been the battleground of fierce conflicts between “orthodox” and “heretical” Christians, between Catholics and Protestants. Aside from the atrocity of slaughter, what, from a Judeo-Christian perspective, is wrong with this picture?

In Exodus, God commands His people to worship no graven image, and not to take his name in vain. Yet, over the centuries, some Jewish and Christian religious authorities have called on the faithful to worship their particular idea of God – in other words a graven image. As well, they have laid down laws and ordered ritual practices unrelated to God’s will as expressed in sacred scriptures, thereby taking His name in vain. Having been raised a Christian, I shall confine my remarks to that religion.

The Crusades would baffle me were I not sure that, in sending naive and adventurous men out to kill – and be killed by – “the Infidel,” papal and royal authorities were moved by the desire to enlarge their domain and treasure as much as by religious considerations. Whatever the “official” reasons, conquering or maintaining control over land led to later religious wars in Europe. Like the Crusades, they are irreconcilable with the commandment of love for one’s neighbour. Not all Christian leaders have presided over similar horrors, nor have leaders of other religions been uniformly innocent of comparable misdeeds, but these abominations don’t shake, as they should, the trust of some believers, and unshakeable trust opens the door for charlatans professing old and new faiths to mislead and exploit the gullible.

Such is the perspective from which I approach the discussion launched by Arthur Milner, Bob Chodos and Gregory Baum.1

My disagreement with the friend who persuaded Bob that agnosticism was “an intellectually dishonest position” should be obvious. Nor do I find it be fair to assail agnosticism as slothful or fainthearted. Adlai Stevenson referred, fittingly, to having the courage of his doubts. There are fundamentalists and fanatics among nonbelievers as well as believers, as I understand Arthur to imply. Perils to peace arise not from belief or disbelief, but from the fanatical proselytizing that can accompany fundamentalism. And I agree with Bob when he writes that “most horrors … attributed to religion are actually the products of religious exclusivism of one sort or another” – with the twin provisos, which I would expect both he and Arthur could accept, that to religion be added secular ideologies (fascism, communism, etc.), and that to religious and ideological exclusivism be added religious and ideological imperialism.

Provided they are undertaken in a spirit of mutual respect, nothing ought to prevent fruitful exchanges between believers and nonbelievers. Let me briefly discuss three broad categories of issues.

1. Cosmological and theological

Since the conflicting dogmas of different religions, denominations, sects, etc., can’t all be true simultaneously, there is no point in interfaith discussions to reconcile contradictory, but adamantly held, cosmological and theological positions, any more than there would be in a debate between theists and atheists about the existence or nonexistence of God: they can only end in disagreement, even quarrel. Such discussions are best avoided.

2. Global and environmental

Having earlier mentioned “the maldistribution of wealth and power in the world, the conditions that force people of the South to emigrate massively, the limits of natural resources, the threat to the environment, the ongoing violation of human rights and the military interventions to ensure access to oil and gas,” Gregory writes, “The socioethical debates about these issues do not situate believers on one side and atheists on the other. Because the division in society today cuts across the difference between faith and atheism, believers and unbelievers should not quarrel; rather they should engage in dialogue to explore common values and lay the foundation for common action.” I agree.

In a 1975 article in the New York Times Magazine, the economist Robert Heilbroner made a compelling case for intergenerational responsibility.2 The arguments of economists leading to indifference about the longer-term survival of humankind outraged Heilbroner. He contended that they reveal the suicidal dangers of “rational argument” in matters calling for an appeal to a faculty other than “cool reason.”

While I can’t imagine the late professor having claimed his arguments were conclusive, they persuade me. By their respectfulness, they show that quarrels between believers and nonbelievers aren’t unavoidable, and by their civility they illustrate the possibility of engaging “in dialogue to explore common values and lay the foundation for common action.” In short, if one accepts Heilbroner’s reasoned approach, it lends realism to hopes for the discussion Gregory wants.

3. Religion and society, church and state, rule of law

Some thorny issues, although played out on a local stage, are nevertheless important. Because they affect the quality of everyday life, their discussion requires sensitivity. “Reasonable accommodation,” which bestrides relationships between religion and society and between church and state, is such an issue.

Societies existed ahead of states governed by monarchs or elected governments. Their members held beliefs and followed rituals before they were formalized and codified, and before the authorities of emerging religious structures enforced doctrinal and behavioural compliance. Religious structures vary in architecture. As well, however firmly they may proclaim them, religious leaders adjust doctrine and discipline to social and political realities; sometimes they even collude with temporal authorities in enterprises neither spiritual nor noble.

Over generations, the rule of law has emerged as a principle of sound government in the Western world, notably in countries of British tradition: because they are enacted for the common weal, laws are meant to be respected by all and, in the event of refusal, to be enforced without fear or favour. Another important principle in the West is separation of church and state: laws are enacted by parliaments for everyone, not on behalf of religious authorities (or other special interests). While religious authorities may set rules for their faithful, they ought not to enjoy the coercive powers of the state.

Given the increasingly wide variety of religions in the West, separation of church and state might better be termed mutual independence of civil and religious authorities. While this principle doesn’t require believers to repudiate their beliefs or to forswear their allegiance, neither does it exempt them from obeying laws.

Over generations, religious beliefs shape laws and practices: superiority or hegemony can’t be claimed for some over others, and imperialists are correctly berated for riding roughshod over the beliefs of colonials. No matter how taboo-laden, local customs aren’t sacred; still, they are dear to those they have shaped and, for this reason, deserve pride of place in case of conflict with those of newcomers. Each people evolves in its own way: accordingly it behooves newcomers to adjust.

But what about charter-enshrined freedom of religion? What about the right to live according to God’s laws? Some prior questions need answers. First, where does one’s understanding of God’s laws come from? What divine authority do the originators of that understanding carry? And if, to borrow words from Robert Heilbroner, “a hundred faiths contend for believers today,” can their clashing demands be reconciled? If not, what ought to be done?

I suggest Jewish and Christian fundamentalists take another look at Exodus 20:7: “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Many claims for accommodation are based not on scriptural commandments, but on the elaborate, convoluted inferences of rabbis, theologians and clerics, or on their peculiar interpretation of traditional beliefs based on neither the Old nor the New Testament. To yield to their unreason is to trade the rule of law for that of obscurantism. While fundamentalists of other religions turn to sources other than the Bible, their obscurantism isn’t preferable to Jewish and Christian varieties.

When freedom of religion is interpreted extravagantly, its unfettered exercise can curtail, even eradicate, the rights of others. Notwithstanding a signed contract, the Supreme Court of Canada narrowly overruled both the Quebec Superior Court and the Quebec Court of Appeal in determining that, for the eight-day festival of Sukkot, Orthodox Jews in Montreal had the right to erect individual huts (sukkahs) on their balconies at Le Sanctuaire, a luxury high-rise complex.

In the course of proceedings, the co-owners produced a letter from a senior underwriter stating their insurer’s refusal to cover any liability resulting from the building of huts (balconies serve as a horizontal and vertical escape route in the event of fire). As well, the co-owners had offered to build, at their expense, a communal sukkah on condominium grounds, an offer the appellants turned down.

Writing for the majority of the Court, Justice Frank Iacobucci held that, under the Quebec and Canadian charters,

Freedom of religion … consists of the freedom to undertake practices and harbour beliefs, having a nexus with religion, in which an individual demonstrates he or she sincerely believes or is sincerely undertaking in order to connect with the divine or as a function of his or her spiritual faith, irrespective of whether a particular practice or belief is required by official religious dogma or is in conformity with the position of religious officials … A claimant need not show some sort of objective religious obligation, requirement or precept to invoke freedom of religion. It is the religious or spiritual essence of an action, not any mandatory or perceived-as-mandatory nature of its observance, that attracts protection … Because of the vacillating nature of religious belief, a court’s inquiry into sincerity, if anything, should focus not on past practice or past belief but on a person’s belief at the time of the alleged interference with his or her religious freedom.

Laws ought to be designed to govern actions, not beliefs – much less vacillating beliefs. At issue here is the right to take a particular action, not to hold a particular belief. In a powerful dissent, Justice Ian Binnie wrote,

There is a vast difference, it seems to me, between using freedom of religion as a shield against interference with religious freedoms by the State and as a sword against co-contractors in a private building. It was for the appellants, not the other co-owners, to determine in advance of their unit purchase what the appellants’ particular religious beliefs required. They had a choice of buildings in which to invest. They undertook by contract to the owners of this building to abide by the rules of this building even if … they accepted the rules without reading them.

This Supreme Court ruling vividly illustrates how, beyond impairing contractual rights, farfetched interpretations of religious freedom can weaken security, and even endanger lives.

There are few religions that do not require the profession of implausible and contradictory beliefs. Why, then, do presumably critical thinkers refuse to dispute absurd dogmas? Why do they refuse to rebel against out-of-place and outdated rituals, or to display outrage against serious abuses, even depravity, in high places? Could it be that they haven’t, in fact, the ability to think critically? Is joining a religion not as free as some imagine?

By resorting to intimidation to prevent questioning in areas they deem their exclusive preserve, religious leaders gag the conscience of the faithful who dutifully submit. Accordingly, when in the name of freedom of religion, courts overrule sound laws and regulations to accommodate compliance with “sacred” yet farfetched directives, they not only condone irresponsible observance but also collude in stifling freedom of conscience. When they accommodate the current version of a “vacillating religious belief” by granting undue weight to some ephemeral, albeit sincere, whim, they foolishly equate passing fancy with thoughtful conviction. Governments and local administrations that, for similar reasons, choose not to enforce existing laws do likewise and thereby undermine the rule of law.

It is essential to add that, in backing governments guilty of crimes, religious leaders and theologians tarnish their spiritual authority, shame the faithful and cast discredit on the moral principles they claim to defend (e.g. the Roman Catholic Church’s support of military dictatorships in Latin America, most recently in Chile and Argentina in the last third of the 20th century). It is equally essential to note that religious leaders and theologians (e.g. Dietrich Bonhoeffer) who endanger their freedom and their life to condemn government transgressions brighten their spiritual authority, honour their faithful and raise the credit of the moral principles they profess.


1  Arthur Milner, “The Offence of Atheism,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2010, pp. 9–13; Bob Chodos, “In Defence of Religion: A Response to Arthur Milner,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2010, pp. 7–11; Gregory Baum, “Needed: A Foundation for Common Action,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2010, p. 6.

2  Robert Heilbroner, “What Has Posterity Ever Done for Me?”, New York Times Magazine, January 19, 1975.