Legal scholar Iain Benson Photo by Ruane Remy.

Different faiths can all share the same world

  • August 11, 2014

Toronto - Legal scholar Iain Benson rejects New Atheism’s teaching that religion leads to division and violence. Benson, a lawyer and lecturer, spoke to an audience from the legal and Catholic community on how difference, including a difference in religion, can be a social good. 

Benson is a founding board member and member of the executive committee of the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. His talk on Aug. 7 was held on the final day of Faith in the Public Square, a three-day event organized by the Archdiocese of Toronto and St. Augustine’s Seminary that addressed the role of religion in civic life. 

Benson’s argument hinged on pluralism, the common good and the rule of law as he spoke about the challenges to diversity.

“Pluralism is simply the recognition that we live in different ways and that we shouldn’t be afraid of that. What we need to be afraid of are moves in law or politics that diminish the ability to live differently amongst our neighbours,” Benson told The Catholic Register. 

In his speech, he advocated for peace based on pluralism and not uniformity. He called not for a singular global government or global religion, but for a covenant. Benson referenced the South African government’s allowance for additional charters to be created by civil society, which made way for a variety of religious groups, academics, Afrikaaners, etc., to create a combined religious charter. Benson has been on a Continuation Committee to create the South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms. He says, when a culture is mature enough for such a charter, society should not wait for the government to initiate it, adding that we try to use government and diplomacy where they will not succeed.

“Using the language of diversity, sometimes people will try and force everyone to agree with what they believe rather than letting them live together with disagreement.  Now I think the task of law should be to facilitate co-existence, but also difference. So allow religious communities to maintain their place in the culture without forcing them into someone else’s moral viewpoints,” said Benson.

Hope is faith we can make things better, he said, but warned that there are different forms of pluralism and that each should be judged by their ends. Benson referenced Pope Francis who has said wishing neighbours well on their religious holidays is a wish to share in their joy and not an agreement to share in their religious beliefs. The Pope advocates that respect of another’s belief system is important to establishing dialogue. 

The common good, in addition to pluralism, is important because it is what we hold in common, such as respect for the other, that makes common life “doable and liveable,” said Benson. “We have to teach the young how to behave, how to respect people that they don’t agree with. And we also have to teach them the flip side of that, which is that disagreement isn’t the rejection of the person. You can be my neighbor and I can have a complete disagreement with you about things like religion or which government should be elected and that’s okay. It shouldn’t be considered an attack on your personhood that I disagree with you. Unfortunately, in Canada too often we fall into the viewpoint that disagreement is rejection. Well it isn’t.” 

Moving on to the rule of law, Benson warned that we need to guard ourselves against the utopian conceptions of the role of the law. He argued for the equality of difference, as opposed to sameness. When the word “public” is used in contemporary rhetoric, he said, it does not necessarily mean diverse.

“The rule of the law is to mediate, to be the thing that decides the scope and framework of how our disagreements should be dealt with. The law has to be careful it doesn’t squeeze us inappropriately away from the valid difference of viewpoint we should have in our groups and in our communities,” said Benson. 

In his speech, he referenced a human rights case called Christian Horizons that went to the Ontario Divisional Court where the Human Rights Tribunal wanted to limit religious charities to be able to only help those of their own faith.

“The tribunals and the courts sometimes don’t have a robust view of religious freedom. In other words, they don’t have a wide view of it. They want to limit the role of religion ’cause they don’t like it,” said Benson. The Catholic community intervened in the case. 

“They argued that the ruling of the Human Rights Tribunal would have effectively told Catholics they could only serve Catholics, and the Catholic charities — and there’s a huge number of them, in Toronto alone there’s 29 agencies — they were really concerned because they do their work in the world for everybody, not just for Catholics. It’s a very important part of their mission that they feed the hungry and they clothe the poor, they bring people in from the cold, like other groups do, and they don’t ask at the door of the church basement whether you’re a Catholic or not,” said Benson. “The decision of the Human Rights Tribunal would have limited religious recognition and protection really just to those groups that serve their own members. So this was a deep attack in a way on the vision and mission of the Catholic Church and other religions. They went to court and they managed to get the appeal court to see that problem and narrow the scope of the Human Rights Decision.”

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