Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Is Freedom of (Multiple) Religions Possible? Some Negative Evidence

John Rawls thought different substantive conceptions of the good -- religions, in a broad sense -- could co-exist in a liberal state. George Grant wasn't so sure. He thought that what Rawls would see as greater co-existence and a thin political liberalism was really the "religion of progress" seeking to displace normative Christianity.

The Pithlord -- unconvinced of both normative Christianity and its secular substitutes -- would prefer to think Rawls right. But the trouble -- as always with liberal ideas -- arises out of the fact that we have kids.

Atheist British philosopher Stephen Law hones in on the key issue: the schools. It isn't clear that a modern society can survive unless most of its citizens go to the same public schools. Just because it isn't clear, doesn't mean it isn't possible. Maybe 10% of us can go to madrasssas, and another 10% to bible college and so on, and we can all still live peacefully together as adults. But if this is possible, it is unproven.

On the other hand, if we have common public schools, then they must teach some "values." They must teach some history, or teach that history is unimportant. But to the extent that the common school system is compulsory, or even just heavily subsidized, then we cannot have some liberal truce about comprehensive values. The culture war must be fought. The trouble is that it follows that someone must lose these wars, and our politics will likely follow America's into shouting-matches between uncomprehending opposing religious zealots.

Law worries about the proliferation of religious schools and home-schooling, a proliferation which is far greater in Canada, especially western Canada, than in Britain. Conversely, though, anyone committed to a different religious perspective than the left-wing version of the religion of progress taught in the public schools can fairly complain that their children are being propagandized in favour of a vision no more grounded in empirical science than the doctrine of the Trinity or intelligent design.

Spending time in the blogosphere can only be justified as a way of getting back at exploitive employers. But it does show how irreconcilable the conflict is. The Galloping Beaver, for instance, approvingly links to an anti-Christian rant, which, apparently seriously, advocates the end of religious tolerance in Canada, so long as the Christian denominations persist in their traditional views of human sexuality. I don't think this is as isolated a view on the Canadian left as one might hope.

I would prefer to believe that Rawls was right, and therefore advocate the separation of school and state. Parents should decide where their children's share of public education money goes. I realize that this risks Balkanization if my liberal faith turns out to be wrong. But it may be too late to avoid that anyway: if the public schools are the prize, then whoever controls the Education Faculties and teachers' unions will decide what religion their enemies' children are taught. And we know who that is.

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