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Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Pandit Dabral, Michael Higgins, moderator Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman (Deborah Baic)
Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Pandit Dabral, Michael Higgins, moderator Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman (Deborah Baic)

Faith Exchange

From theory to theocracy Add to ...

The spectre of religious government has played a large role the past few weeks in the Arab/Muslim world, with autocratic leaders struggling to hold on as pro-Western secular alternatives to popular Islamic movements.

Iran's Islamic revolution has been invoked as a cautionary tale by observers, but a government doesn't need to be theocratic to mix church and state. Canadians might consider their own country's historical choice of official public holidays, state symbolism and the funding of separate school boards as realms where religion has touched the public sphere. Our panelists have joined us to discuss that role.

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Here are today's participants:

Lorna Dueck is an evangelical Christian and executive producer of Listen Up TV on Global TV, Sundays at 11 a.m. ET.

Pandit Dabral was born and raised in India in a family of traditional Sanskrit scholars and holds a PhD in yoga philosophy. Dr. Dabral, who resides in Canada, is a Hindu priest who teaches yoga philosophy and meditation.

Michael Higgins is the author and co-author of more than a dozen books, a biographer, a CBC documentarist and currently vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

Howard Voss-Altman has been serving as rabbi at Temple B'nai Tikvah, Calgary's Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He's a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.

Sheema Khan, who writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail, has a master's degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.

Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe and Mail's online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.

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Guy Nicholson: Thank you, panelists, for being with us - especially Dr. Dabral, who's joining for the first time.

That was a longer than usual introduction, but this is a giant and contentious topic that's not going away any time soon. So let's begin. As a non-believer, I've long felt that religion is a personal matter, best kept out of government as much as possible. Where do you stand?

Michael Higgins: Indeed, a close alliance of church and state can be hugely problematic, even if the perception is perceptual alone.

Howard Voss-Altman: As a member of the Jewish community, our lengthy history of persecution suggests that our people rarely succeed in nations where the state and religion are enmeshed. Sadly, religious authority is often absolutist in nature, and tends not to mix well with the give and take necessary for good government. State religions often lead to persecution of minorities who are not part of the established religious community.

Sheema Khan: I agree with you, Guy, in that religion is a deeply personal matter. Our cherished beliefs often shape our conduct in public and private.

Perhaps the overarching term is "personal morality," which we carry with us wherever we go. At an individual level, this is the essence of "freedom of religion" - provided this does not trample on the rights of others. The issue of state policy, however, is a different matter. State policy (or "government") reflects the ethos of the people. And so, official public holidays based on Christian beliefs merely reflect the historical reality of Canada. Similarly with public funding of Ontario's Catholic schools - it reflects a reality rooted in our history.

The challenge is what happens when the public ethos changes. How do the institutions evolve to keep pace with, or reflect, the population that they serve? We have had changes within the past few decades that reflect the evolution of religion in Canada: Sunday shopping, abolishment of confessional school boards in Quebec and Newfoundland etc. The key to these changes, however, is to make sure they are accomplished with input from the public. And to make sure no one feels coerced to abandon their beliefs in the process.

I guess the answer is that the government should be representative of the people it serves. If people are largely secular (i.e., no favouritism for any particular belief or non-belief), the government should reflect this.

Pandit Dabral: All religions of the world are derived from a deep spiritual experience. They are meant to create a foundation for humans so one can live life guided, protected with principles that a religion offers. In Hinduism, religion means dharma - that means a duty toward oneself, duty toward family, duty toward your neighbour, duty toward the world. The path of righteousness should be in each and every function of society. If religion is part of government and government follows the code of conduct that religion lays out for the individual, then we all will perform our duties for the sake of others, not for the sake of selfish purpose.

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