For the sake of argument

We’re being bullied by the Christians

DR. ROBERT W. BROCKWAY September 14 1957
For the sake of argument

We’re being bullied by the Christians

DR. ROBERT W. BROCKWAY September 14 1957

We’re being bullied by the Christians

For the sake of argument


When I was a student at Columbia University I became, for a time, a practicing Buddhist and joined a temple. Nearly all of my fellow worshippers were niseis (JapaneseAmericans) and many of them like myself came from the Hawaiian Islands. Nisei soldiers from Camp Kilmer used to drop in from time to time and several of them told us that the United States Army was doing everything in its power to persuade them to abandon their Buddhism and become Christians. "They order us to attend Protestant chapel services,” one of them told me, “and we go and sing the hymns and listen, but we’re still Buddhists.”

I do not know how general these experiences were. The American army is usually quite careful to respect religious beliefs, and, indeed, efforts were actually made to find Buddhist priests who could serve as chaplains to the nisei soldiers. The mere fact, however, that at least some attempt was made to pressure Buddhists into the abandonment of their religion is proof enough that religious intolerance is a live issue on the North American continent. What lies behind it, I think, is the assumption that this is a Christian society. People with religious beliefs which are other than Christian are usually tolerated, to be sure, but they are not accorded the respect they deserve, nor are their rights taken sufficiently into consideration.

I challenge this assumption that Canada is a Christian country and I also challenge the right of the Christian churches to impose their views and their ways of doing things upon all of us. I do this with all due respect to the Christian faith and to its adherents and without any desire to malign anyone’s religious convictions. The churches have every right to impose their beliefs upon the members of their own communions, but I question

their right to impose religious beliefs and practices upon society as a whole, by means of usurping the power of the state and using public funds.

To consider the first point, it is true that ninety-five percent of the Canadian population list themselves as being members of one or another of the Christian communions when the census taker calls. There is plenty of symbolic recognition of the Christian faith as exemplified in the practice of opening and closing parliament with Christian prayer. There is also the inescapable fact that historically speaking Christianity is an inextricable part of our Anglo-French heritage and that the Christian churches play an enormous role in our national life. Still, when all is said and done, none of these things actually proves that we are a Christian society in anything but name.

The huge statistical membership accorded the six major denominations by the census takers represents almost nothing by way of actual church membership and even this reflects only a most exaggerated picture of it, for, as every clergyman is only too well aware, a very large proportion of the members on his rolls are exceedingly nominal. By the time one has accounted for the vast number of people who join a church for no other reason than social prestige or business contacts the number of genuine Christians has diminished to a very small minority.

The practicing Christian who understands his faith and attempts to apply it in daily life is a rare bird indeed these days. I do not have the statistics of actual church membership (and am not sure that they exist) but it was recently stated at an annual meeting of social workers and clergy in Hamilton that nearly eighty percent of the people in


For other views on contemporary religion, see page 15.

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“Outside Quebec, Christianity seems too nominal to justify Canada being described as Christian”

that city are non-churchgoers, and I suspect that much the same exists in all of the cities of our country with the possible exception of certain communities in the pfovince of Quebec, which is one of the few remaining Christian societies in the world. Outside Quebec, however, Christianity seems much too nominal to justify Canada being called a Christian country in any meaningful sense.

What kind of society is it then? one mi»ht ask. It is certainly not Moslem or Hindu. I would say that it is a secular society in which the* Christian church is only one among many interacting social forces and influences.

Some notion of what I mean can he gained by comparing our modern culture in English Canada with the genuinely Christian society of the Middle Ages, traces of which still thrive in Quebec. As the English historian R. H. Tawney points out in his book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, medieval Christianity was a social organism in which the economic. political, aesthetic and social realms of life were all integrated under the aegis of the church. There was nothing in life that was not religious or directly affected by religion.

The church penetrated all spheres of

life and was virtually supreme. Its teachings were not always practiced: medieval people were not living in the Kingdom of God; hut everyone knew what these teachings were and was aware of them as the standard of conduct in all things. Life was regarded as a pilgrimage, or better, an interlude in the eternal pilgrimage that ultimately led either to the throne of God or eternal damnation, and all political, economic, social and aesthetic values were judged in the light of this perspective.

The medieval guild, for example, was a religious fraternity. Unfair competition, shoddy workmanship and usury were not simply bad business practices; they were sins and the medieval craftsman was eternally conscious of divine judgment and constantly reminded of it by the master craftsmen of his guild. The medieval church and state were closely integrated. Kings, barons and priests were mutually dependent. The state was the secular arm of the church, the church the secular arm of the state. Almost all medieval art and architecture was for the purpose of teaching Christian doctrine to the illiterate, and theology was queen of philosophy and the sciences. Medieval Europe was a Christian society.

For good or for ill this is not the state of affairs now. From the Renaissance onward there has been a marked process of secularization throughout the Western world, a phenomenon that has been much commented upon by both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians. The late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, has given us perhaps the clearest picture of it in his book Nature, Man and God.

“During the fifteenth century,” he tells us, “many things were happening which tended to arouse the critical spirit. All tradition and the assurance associated with it was bound up with the Church. There was a scheme of thought embracing Theology, Metaphysics, Logic, Politics, Ethics and Economics. It was in itself coherent and close-knit; but Theology was the keystone of its arch, and the guardian of theological doctrine was the Church.”

In the course of succeeding centuries this scheme of things disintegrated. The breach took place first in the sphere of politics. The kings asserted their independence of ecclesiastical control and accomplished it. Then the guild system broke down and was replaced by competitive capitalism, the principles of which were economic rather than religious. The Dutch and Venetian painters led a movement in art away from Christian themes and in the direction of naturalistic ones. Philosophers became bolder and, as Temple tells us. the mainstream of Western thought and theology separated after René Descartes, the seventeenth-century French thinker, committed the faux pas (from the archbishop's point of view) of making skepticism respectable.

What religion can hide

Whether all of this is good or bad depends on one’s own point of view. Liberals tend to approve of secularization because it has led to greater freedom for the individual. The orthodox, on the other hand, quite naturally feel that many of the secularizing developments of the past three or four centuries have been disastrous. Few want to return to the Middle Ages; most, however, want to restore the Christian gospel to its original prominence as a guide in political, economic and social life. The motive is understandable. A devout Christian quite naturally wants a Christian society. Some of the methods used to attain it, however, are extremely questionable.

Religion is oftentimes a cloak for what is in reality the crudest sort of bullying of the weak by the strong. Too often, the teachings followed (though not necessarily practiced) are Maehiavelli’s and Nietzsche’s rather than those of Jesus. Because they can often claim a statistical majority, the stronger religious bodies oftentimes arrogate to themselves special privileges, demand conformity to their ways on the part of the whole community and deny ordinary rights and freedoms to the members of religious bodies that are financially and numerically weak.

Part of the difficulty perhaps lies with the prevalence within some churches of what psychologists refer to as authoritarian personalities. By reason of early upbringing and conditioning a great many people have fixed attitudes and think in terms of black - and - white absolutes. Oftentimes, they feel that theirs is the one true faith and that anything else is error. Those who follow error are in need of correction and so the fortunate ones who see the light have a moral obligation to lead those who walk in the darkness. Truth, says the authoritarian, is one, and I know what it is. Quite logi-

cally. people who feel this way find it easy to impose their beliefs on others and, as Arnold Toynbee points out in his An Historian's Approach to Religion, do so with a perfectly clear conscience. They do it in the same spirit by which a loving parent corrects an erring child. Dissenters, of course, resent both the correction and the spirit of condescension that accompanies it and hence there is conflict.

The solution to the conflict. I think, lies in a better observance being made of our traditional British traditions of constitutional freedom and human rights. Surely, orthodox Christians should have every right to preach, advocate and work for a universal Christian society. Moreover. any church should have the right to impose upon its own members any restrictions upon thought, expression and conduct that it deems essential to its message and mission. If it is essential to a man’s religion that he submit to an authoritarianism that is repellent to others of us. we must permit him that privilege. To do otherwise is to risk the chances of an otherwise democratic society becoming totalitarian in the process of repressing authoritarians in its midst.

Where church rights end

On the other hand, no church should have the right to impose its will upon people who are not of its faith or to force them to subscribe to its doctrines or participate in its observances. No church has the right to use the power of the state or public funds in its sectarian interests.

All churches, in other words, have the right to regulate the conduct and thought of those who are of their faith, but none has the right to regulate the thought and co..duct of those w'ho are not of it. All churches have the right to persuade those who are not of their faith, but none of them has the right to coerce them. Before the law' all men should be equal in their lights either to worship in the church of their own choice and after their own custom or not to worship at all. These principles are essential to democracy. If these principles were observed by all churches most of the conflict over religion would disappear.

There is a further problem related to the first and this is the fact that some Christians insist that their religion is the sole source of both our democracy and our ethical values. We are told that without common agreement on Christian essentials freedom will be lost, order will vanish and morality will disappear. From the historical point of view the basis of this argument is very tenuous.

Orthodox theologians such as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr tell us that the ethical teachings of Jesus were neither original nor exclusive. The teachings of love, mercy and forgiveness had been preached by the rabbis and prophets of Israel for centuries before the New Testament was w'ritten and they were known and taught by the Greek philosophers long before the birth of Jesus.

Most orthodox theologians of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths tell us that the chief significance of Jesus is that He is a self-disclosure on the

part of God and the supernatural means to the redemption of sin. He restated and reiterated the moral law that had already been revealed to the Jews and added to it the power of His own redemptive love. This, as 1 understand it. is the central belief of orthodox Christianity, and I do not see that it detracts from Christianity in any way for it to be admitted by Christians that the moral values they follow are. for the most part, shared by the adherents of Judaism, Buddhism. Hinduism and other religions. Even the most superficial study of com-

parative religions will quickly reveal this to be the case.

The Golden Rule, for example, is one teaching that is common to almost all of the eleven higher religions of the world. Furthermore, nearly all of the church fathers such as Justin Martyr. Origen and Tertullian were men who were steeped in Greek philosophy and a great deal of their moral teaching can be traced to that source. The ethical ideals of our Western civilization are not exclusively Christian. They are a continuous and evolving stream which began with the

Egyptians and has been fed by many brooks and rivulets.

This is also true of democracy. The oft-repeated notion that democracy is of Christian origins is without historical foundations. Western democracy was developed first by the pagan Greeks and most of our democratic principles have come down to us from them. Democracy disappeared in Greece after the Peloponnesian Wars and was not revived again until such idealists as John Locke, in the seventeenth century, and JeanJacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson, in the eighteenth century, began to expound its principles. Nearly all of these idealists were steeped in the Greek classics and were, for the most part, deists and religious liberals rather than orthodox Christians. In any case, it has thrived most successfully where church and state are separated and where people are free to choose their own religious convictions or none.

Who makes the rules?

Too many churchmen insist that all must conform to their particular brand of Christianity as a social duty and too many of them identify religious orthodoxy with good citizenship and decency in an exclusive way. In the name of Christianity and entirely contrary to the teachings of the Founder, members of religious minorities, non-practicing nominal Christians and those who prefer no formal religion at all are forced to make observances that are contrary to conviction and conscience.

This belief that democracy and morality are dependent upon Christian convictions underlies the program of religious education in the public schools followed by Ontario and certain other

provinces. Those who support religious education in the public schools usually insist that Christianity and morality are inseparable and that the one cannot be had without the other. As a consequence of this mistaken belief they use public funds and public facilities to work a travesty on Jewish children, JapaneseCanadian Buddhist children, Unitarian children and the children of parents who do not subscribe to any particular religious creed but who are very responsible in their ethical attitudes and conduct.

Even aside from the gross unfairness done to non-Christians is the injustice done Christians themselves. How does one find material that will be acceptable to Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, Quakers, Mormons, Christian Scientists and Christadelphians? Beyond certain basic ethical principles common not only to Christians but to people of almost all religions, there are vast differences in belief and interpretation in all of these denominations which are necessarily done violence to by any common program of religious instruction however nonsectarian its intention. If there was this much unity among Protestants there would not be two hundred and fifty-four Protestant denominations.

The rights of both child and parents to religious beliefs of their own are entirely ignored under our Erastian school system and the child is left with the psychologically impossible alternative of leaving the classroom during religious instruction and suffering the consequences of insecurity and social isolation.

The Lord's Day Act is another example of the kind of public coercion, which takes place because of authoritarians who wish to impose their own beliefs and customs upon society as a whole. In spite of the fact that thousands

of Canadians loath the puritan Sabbath with all of its grim associations, all of us outside the province of Quebec are forced to observe it. Under the lame pretext that, the rights of the workingman are being protected, but for the real purpose of imposing a particularly sectarian brand of Christian morality upon all, practically all places of amusement must remain closed, concerts cannot be held and newspapers may not issue Sunday editions. Because of the Machiavellianism of an overzealous minority all of us are forced to subscribe to something that is obnoxious to many of us if not positively contrary to conviction.

There is also the kind of bullying that was exemplified in a recent resolution adopted by the Canadian Council of Churches and that contained the insidious proposal that the children of Jewish parents be evangelized since their elders had proven stubborn in their refusal to embrace Christianity and since all “Jews are potential children of God.”

One could cite many other examples. One could make mention of the occasional attempts at book censorship inspired, for the most part, by religious bodies that persuade law-enforcement agencies to intimidate book dealers and newsstands into removing from the shelves reading matter that they disapprove of. One could also make mention of our antiquated divorce laws, which are based on sectarian morality and which force thousands of Canadians into common-law marriages every year. One could deplore the way the Social Credit governments of Alberta and British Columbia mix religion with politics, and volumes could be written about theocracy in Quebec.

Surely with the world in turmoil and our secular society groping about in the dark there is much need for the light that all religions can shed. Must we all conform, however, to the beliefs of those who happen to be numerically strongest and financially the most powerful? Surely this is inconsistent with democracy, unjust and unfair. In a country like Canada where people are of many faiths there must be fair play on the part of all if any are to enjoy the rights of free men. Jesus said, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God's.” Surely we can respect that distinction. -fa