Anti-religious atmosphere is becoming oppressive

By  Michael Higgins
  • June 12, 2008

It is not easy being an advocate for Catholic schools. At one time the parallel existence of a parochial school system was seen ideally as a complement to its public counterpart; sometimes it was perceived as welcome competition and sometimes as a threat to the public system. Usually it was seen as exotic, a byproduct of a 19th-century political accommodation, a customary feature of the provincial landscape.

But now this has changed. The socio-political climate in which Catholic schools exist and flourish has been greatly altered by the post-9/11 world, by an increasingly bold and aggressive atheism that thinks nothing of maligning believers of whatever persuasion, by an uninspiring political timidity that reflects the growing consensus that faith-based “anything” is best marginalized in the interests of collective harmony, and by a serious misconstrual of what secularism means.

Broadcaster Carolyn Weaver in a review of American author Chris Hedges’s new polemic, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, underscores the dangers we face when writers like the ever-controversial Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris define the debate:

“Hitchens, a former Trotskyite, says, ‘I think the enemies of civilization should be beaten and killed and defeated, and I don’t make any apology for it.’ Harris believes that to ensure our survival, ‘a nuclear first strike’ will likely be necessary. He notes that ‘it would kills tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day — but it may be the only course of action available to us given what Islamists believe.’ Hedges notes that, to men such as Harris and Hitchens, there is no difference between Muslim terrorists and other Muslims. That should alarm us all” (The Globe and Mail, April 5).

No matter how one spins it, the readiness of America’s new apologists for atheism to expunge untold numbers with a cavalier concession to necessity in the face of a potential “Saracen onslaught” demonstrates only too clearly that the new Crusaders are not to be found in the sanctuaries of the Christian West but in the editorial rooms of the anti-god squad.

In fact, as Ed West of Britain’s The Catholic Herald neatly puts it: “In polite circles today expressing a belief in Roman Catholicism is a bit like admitting to working for a tobacco company’s child marketing division. Admit to it during a dinner party where the average age is below 35 and you will immediately be accused of supporting discrimination, prejudice and centuries-old persecution against non-believers, gays and women.”

We just can’t seem to win. Distrusted by many in the chattering classes for our native intolerance, genetic programming for violence and intellectual obdurateness, people of faith are deluged daily by sentiments, attitudes and opinions that encourage the wildly inaccurate perception that religious believers are held willing hostage to benighted notions, that in an earlier time would have been amusing and anodyne but in the current climate are revealed for all their anti-human and monstrous potential. 

Now, there are pockets of reason and enlightenment in this morass of prejudice and fear and I was reminded of that in March when invited to be part of a panel on TV Ontario’s Agenda.  The program was built around the notion of religious faith — why we have it, why some need it, what it means in terms of human interaction, whether it is a sign of human progress or a failure of nerve, its capacity to incite hatred and social divisiveness, etc. — and the panel was constructed in such a way that there would be three pro-faith voices and three atheists. The pro-faith crowd consisted of a classicist and spiritual director, a neuro-psychologist and me. The atheistic side was represented by an oncologist, a philosopher and a writer. The host, Steve Paikin, maintained an admirable neutrality (interestingly, as an observant Jew he sends his children to Catholic schools) and the producer, Wodek Zemberg, structured the questions in such a way that a highly stimulating conversation ensued that was provocative without being offensive.

One of the genuine epiphanies of the night occurred when the oncologist, Dr. Robert Buckman, opined that if the people of faith he met that evening were representative of religious believers as a whole he would have no difficulty with them in the least. In easy conformity with the view held by many, Buckman was persuaded that faith is equivalent with mindless dogmatism that in turn translates into religious frenzy. Such has been his view of faith. We didn’t shatter it that night but we shook its foundations.

Still, the stereotypes that prevail about religion in the public-at-large and the caricatures of religious people that predominate among many in the media are enduring causes for apprehension. And nowhere is this more in evidence than when it comes to Catholic schools now labelled as faith-based schools.

Last fall’s Ontario provincial election demonstrated only too clearly the fragile fault-lines that keep us civil and separate. But the terms of reference were wrong, the debate misguided, the information mangled and the end result — at least in terms of the future of faith-based education in general and Catholic schools in particular — unsatisfactory at best, and threatening at worst.

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