“I have concluded that this case is essentially about harm; more specifically, Parliament's reasoned apprehension of harm arising out of the practice of polygamy.”
So wrote Chief Justice Robert Bauman of the B.C. Supreme Court in last week’s ruling on the constitutionality of Canadian polygamy laws. The central plank of this ruling was harm, particularly harm to the women involved in the practice.
Chief Justice Bauman isn’t the first or last to invoke the safeguarding of women while speaking against religious teaching. Nearly every faith has struggled with this issue, a situation our Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss.
Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary’s Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.
Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and host of the TV program Context with Lorna Dueck , seen Sundays on Global TV at 9:30 a.m. ET and Vision TV at 12:30 p.m. ET.
Vettivelu Nallainayagam is an associate professor of economics at Mount Royal University. He is Hindu, originally from Sri Lanka, and has been in Canada since 1984. He has served as president of the Calgary Multicultural Centre and the Ethno-Cultural Council of Calgary, and has arranged multifaith panels to talk about religion to students in the residences at Mount Royal.
Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She 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’s online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to secure the participation of a Mormon panelist for this discussion. A number of people we approached referred us to their U.S.-based church, which would only state that “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no affiliation with any group or organization that practises polygamy. Church doctrine rejecting plural marriage has been in effect since 1890. You can be sure that anyone practising polygamy is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Nevertheless, “religious teachings and harm to women” is a sprawling, complicated topic. I’m interested to see where this goes.
Let’s start at the macro level. What are the issues in your faith? How have its teachings (or interpretations of those teachings) done harm to women? And how have they saved women from harm?
Howard Voss-Altman: Let’s begin with the foundations: the narrative of the creation. On the sixth day, when God creates human beings, God makes them “male and female.” God creates them together, as equals, just as the other animals were created male and female (for obvious reproductive purposes). Sadly, even though men and women are equal in the first biblical account, Western religions tend to emphasize the second creation narrative, where Adam is first, and then Eve is created as Adam’s “helpmate.” Accordingly, the position of women in society has been one of subordination, instead of equality. Reform Judaism has tried to change this reality – with some success – but we still have a long way to go. It is up to our clergy and teachers to emphasize the first narrative, God’s first creation story.
Vettivelu Nallainayagam: Hinduism accords equal status for men and women. This is the basis for the worship of Shiva (male) and Shakthi (female) and their presence in temples. Hence, there is no religious basis for mistreatment of or violence against women. What harm takes place, such as bride burning or giving women lower status in society, arises from cultural practices, which are confined to a few.
Sheema Khan: I think we should make clear at the outset that religious teachings, in of themselves, should not be the source of blame. Rather, let’s place the responsibility for an individual’s choices squarely on the individual. Too often, those who commit wrong will blame something or someone else, rather than take responsibility for their own deeds. That is also enshrined in the Koran – namely, one must take responsibility for one’s actions.
Furthermore, the Koran is literally an open book, in that no two people will come away with an identical experience, simply due to the individuality of each person. If someone has a demeaning view of women, and chooses to maintain that view, then when he reads the Koran, he will interpret verses to conform to his view. On the other hand, if someone approaches the teachings with humility, he will be open to re-evaluating such views.