On Feb. 27, Iain Benson, left, and Leslie Rosenblood, right, take part in the Chesterton Debate Series, a lively, but friendly debate on whether religion should have a role in the political sphere. Lorna Dueck was the moderator. Photo by Ben Turland

Chesterton Debate tackles secularism in the public realm

By 
  • March 9, 2015

TORONTO - To Iain Benson, secularism in politics is comparable to a pair of yellow, spotted pyjamas.

“To (secularists), religious beliefs are like a pair of yellow spotted pyjamas that no one should wear in public office, but that they can wear in the privacy of their own home,” he said. “Secularism has a strategy and that strategy is to make the public dimension of religion private and the collective dimension individual.”

Benson made the comments in his opening statement at the second edition of the Chesterton Debate series at Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre on Feb. 27. The debate’s resolution was “Religion’s Role in Political Life.”

Lorna Dueck, host and executive producer of Context with Lorna Dueck on Yes TV, and a Globe and Mail contributor on faith and public life, was moderator for the night.

Benson, a Catholic legal philosopher and writer, took the position for religion in politics, while Leslie Rosenblood, founding member and policy advisor for the Canadian Secular Alliance, stood against.

Rosenblood argued that secularism is the most inclusive approach to politics because it is the basis of state neutrality.

“It would be foolish to suggest that a public of a particular faith would disqualify an individual from any appointed role in public office,” said Rosenblood. “Let us keep one religion and therefore, all religions, a safe distance from political institutions.”
Rosenblood said that state neutrality allows those with no religion to be included in the conversation with the religious. Political decisions should be made based on ethics and moral reasoning that is accessible to everyone.

The debaters agreed that theocracy has no place in society, but Benson argued that secularism in the political sphere will exclude religious opinions and convictions.

Benson argued that secularism itself is a belief system and is therefore not neutral. He also argued there are many notable religious figures, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi, who influenced notable changes because of their beliefs.

However, both agreed that not all moral decisions are directly derived from religious tradition and Rosenblood went further to say that ethics and religion are not the same.

“One’s politics cannot be determined by one’s faith or its absence,” he said. “Democratic nations where religion plays little role in political affairs fair much better on every sociological indicator of well-being.”

The debate was lively and each debater showed respect for their opponent. Both Benson and Rosenblood even joked together.

G.K. Chesterton would be proud. Chesterton, an English writer and lay theologian, was well-known for his cordial but spirited debates with his friendly adversaries, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. The Chesterton Debate Series continues the troika’s legacy.

“We want to show people that the Catholic Church isn’t afraid to talk about these things and that it’s actually important for us to talk about these things with others who have different points of view,” said Leslie Gyulay, events co-ordinator of the Chesterton Debate Series. “That is the true spirit of the debate series.”

More than 300 people, religious and non-religious, from all age groups, filled the theatre seats. The crowd listened intently while the debaters presented their arguments, but they also came alive in discussion during intermission and at the reception.

“We know that part of the success of the night was because of the audience participation,” said Gyulay. “We continued the discussion afterwards at the local pub. Christians and atheists sat with each other talking and we were there until the late hours of the night.”

The Chesterton Debate Series (chestertondebate.com) is initiated by the Office of Catholic Youth and the Archdiocese of Toronto.

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