Humanist Perspectives: issue 193: Humanism, Law and Tolerance

Humanism, Law and Tolerance
by Christopher DiCarlo (Guest Editor)


great deal has happened in Canadian politics this year which gives hope for greater secular values for all citizens and thereby, a greater sense of fairness and equity to those living within its borders. I’m referring to two Supreme Court decisions, the first of which deals with the use of prayers at the beginning of City Council meetings. On this, the Supreme Court maintained that Canadian citizens have voiced their concerns for a:

…concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs … [T]he state must instead remain neutral in this regard … [T]his neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief. It requires that the state abstain from taking any position and thus avoid adhering to a particular belief … [W]hen all is said and done, the state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others.

It is indeed heartening to see legislation of this type in action. It does not denigrate or in any way deny others their Constitutional rights to worship and believe in various deities or religious practices. Nor does it force others to comply with purely secular beliefs. It simply maintains a position of fairness that will treat all of us, as citizens, with the dignity, equity, and respect we deserve – as both people of faith and as secularists.

[Henry Morgentaler] was furious that in Canada it was possible for a professor to lose his job (at two separate institutions) simply because he was an outspoken advocate for free thought.

The second Supreme Court decision is, perhaps, somewhat more controversial. It involves the 9-0 Supreme Court decision in favour of physician-assisted death. Stating that people suffering from grievous and irremediable medical conditions should have the right to ask a doctor to help them die, the unanimous decision by the Supreme Court echoes what Conservative MP Steven Fletcher has been saying for years: “The vast majority of Canadians – 84 per cent – support physician-assisted death with appropriate caveats.”

The Supreme Court has given Ottawa one year to come up with legislation on the ruling. Towards this end, I have been doing what I can, as a professor of philosophy of science and bioethics, to weigh in on whatever committees may be currently discussing this issue. The Court maintained that “…by leaving people ... to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person.” This reasoning behind this decision reminds me of another landmark ruling that occurred in this country on January 28, 1988 – the Supreme Court’s 5-2 ruling to overturn Section 251 of the Canadian Criminal Code in its R v. Morgentaler decision, thereby making abortion legal in Canada.

After Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s death on May 29, 2013, I was contacted by his widow, Arlene Leibovitch, to deliver a eulogy outlining Henry’s contributions to humanism in Canada. Having been a friend and colleague of Henry’s for many years, I was honoured to speak at his funeral. Henry and I became quite close over the years when he witnessed the type of discrimination I was facing at various universities in southern Ontario. He was furious that in Canada it was possible for a professor to lose his job (at two separate institutions) simply because he was an outspoken advocate for free thought.

This both saddened and angered Henry – especially when he saw the toll it had taken and continues to take on my family and myself. Though saddened at Henry’s funeral, I had the great fortune of once again meeting Henry’s first son, Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, a physician who now lives in Boston. Abe’s eulogy was heart-felt and powerful. And when I contacted Abe to contribute to this issue, he was gracious enough to provide us all with greater insight into what it was like to be the son of such a famous Canadian Humanist. Thanks to Abe, we can now gain a better understanding of the humanist and family-man dimension of such a notable historical figure.

In relation to growing up secular, I have invited another well-known Canadian figure – Bruce McCulloch – to offer his perspectives not only as a famous comedian, director, and actor, but also as a humanist who, along with his wife, have raised their kids in a secular household. Bruce’s offering is an extremely honest and heart-felt consideration of the multitudes and complexities of the human condition. It was a wonderful experience working with Bruce who was quite busy at the time and was on a reunion tour with his comedy mates, the Kids in the Hall. Bruce’s success has now extended to creating and acting in his latest comedy based on his autobiographical theatrical show of the same name: Young Drunk Punk which appears on various media outlets throughout Canada.

In keeping with the theme of famous families and humanism, I invited Ralph Benmurgui to contribute to this issue. For many Canadians, Ralph was the journalistic golden boy precursor to both George Stroumboulopoulos (Strombo) and the now infamous Jian Gomeshi at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Ralph was a co-host on a popular noon hour news show called Midday with Valerie Pringle from 1989-1992 and then went on to host his own weekly evening show: Friday Night with Ralph Benmurgui, from 1992-93. He is currently the Advisor to the President at Sheridan College in Oakville, ON. Ralph admits that he is what some would say ‘religious’ – he practices the Jewish faith – while his wife, Cortney Pasternak, is a Humanist and an Officiant. In an article I’ve entitled: “I Married a Humanist,” I sit down with Ralph and talk about how he and his wife raise their kids in a multi-faith setting.

In the article “Humanism and Democracy,” my old professor, friend, and colleague, Jan Narveson, discusses how Democracy in and of itself is not sufficient for the establishment or continuation of human rights. The concept of Democracy does not necessarily contain the seeds of fairness and equity if majorities are corrupt. Can we think of any such majorities throughout history? Or even now? Hmmmm…. Instead, it is collaborative agreement and recognition of individual and collective liberties which will assure that the rights of others will not be abused; and this is more closely akin to what might be called ‘liberalism’ than ‘democracy.’ What is absolutely essential for humanity is the respect for all humans who can respect the rights of others. To Jan, this is one of the fundamental political principles to which all Humanists should be aware.

What is absolutely essential for humanity is the respect for all humans who can respect the rights of others.

In speaking further of Democracy, Alana Westwood provides a pithy account of the paramount importance of evidence for democracy. In her article: “Sailing without a map: The need for evidence-based policies,” she points out that with the Harper government Canada has seen considerable reductions in the communication of science and evidence, the erosion of science and evidence-gathering capacities, and a diminished role of evidence in policy-making decisions. What this amounts to, she believes, is frightening for democracy: without evidence-based facts to serve as a check on the political power, they who have the most power can do as they please. So not only is a liberal respect for human rights essential for equity amongst citizens, Westwood believes we must also acknowledge the importance of responsibly attained information in our endeavours to reach the type of democracy we envision to be fair and equitable.

And finally, in Zena Ryder’s paper, we find that there are those of strong religion-based world views who can understand that secular and humanist principles are important and relevant whether or not one possesses beliefs in deities or not. Ryder maintains that challenging specific terrible religious beliefs is more important than proving various faiths (like Islam) wrong. She is more interested in addressing real problems inherent within a belief system rather than trying to encourage people to leave their religion. In some ways, this echoes Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s categorization of world Muslims into three categories: The Medina (or fundamentalist) Muslims, the Mecca (or moderate) Muslims, and the Dissident (or critically thinking) Muslims. It is through the middle group – the Mecca Muslims – that a Muslim Reformation can emerge.

I have very much enjoyed my invitation as Editor for this Issue. I hope you enjoy the articles as much as I have had the pleasure not only of editing them but of working with the authors.

– Christopher DiCarlo