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Canada's tolerance conundrum Add to ...

Is it possible to embrace both secular Canadian society and evangelical Christianity? Probably not.

Which is why we should avoid attempts to reconcile one with the other.

The September issue of the Literary Review of Canada contains a thoughtful but provocative essay by Janice Gross Stein, director of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. Prof. Stein is worried about the contradiction between Canada's commitment to racial, gender and sexual equality and certain religious and cultural traditions that encourage inequalities.

Whether you are Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Hindu or whatever, if you hold to a strict interpretation of the tenets of your faith, you will not accept the full equality of women in society, or of homosexuals, or perhaps even of unbelievers.

The world's major religions were founded in barbarous times, when women were chattel, homosexuals were reviled, and anyone outside your faith, or even clan, was alien and threatening. To the extent people insist on a literal interpretation of the tenets of their religion, their worldview reflects that barbarism.

Ms. Stein argues that we must deepen and broaden communication among the various ethnicities, cultures and faiths co-existing within Canada. And, she writes, "we have to make explicit the contradictions between cultural and religious traditions and the rule of law in Canada, when such contradictions exist." While the goal must always be to achieve balance, "if we cannot find that balance . . . we need to make clear that the conflict is real and serious."

We could. Or we could just let the dogs sleep.

A fundamentalist Christian (or Muslim or Jew or whatever) might believe that, say, homosexuality is an abomination. But provided that person does not refuse to rent an apartment to one, or do anything else that violates the Charter or various human-rights statutes, the state would do well to simply leave the bigot alone.

Europeans are engaged in a passionate debate over the limits of multicultural tolerance in their societies. Many of them agree with the American writer Bruce Bawer, author of the alarmist -- actually, hysterical -- book While Europe Slept, which claims that a fundamentalist Muslim subculture has entrenched itself in Europe, threatening the very future of liberal democracy on that continent.

But their debate does not need to become our debate. Here, there is no disagreement among the Liberal leadership candidates over the wisdom of Canada's high immigration rates or multicultural policies, nor fears that the Conservative government might undermine those policies proved justified.

So long as Canada continues to bring in immigrants from a broad spectrum of races and cultures, which limits the danger of any one group emerging as an alienated underclass, the risks of Canada replicating Europe's cultural cleavages are minimal. (In fact, our biggest priority in immigration right now should be to boost the intake from Latin America, to counterbalance the huge numbers coming in from East and South Asia.)

There is a necessary hypocrisy embedded in social tolerance, in that the tolerance extends to religious fundamentalists, who are themselves not tolerant. Prof. Stein wants to confront that hypocrisy, in order to strengthen the respect for diversity and equality that is intrinsic to Canadian society.

But what, specifically, is the threat? And how should it be confronted? Don't we risk polarizing the debate, and fomenting ill will where none now exists?

Every now and then, issues emerge in which elements of the left and the right coalesce. We saw it in the temperance movement (social activists and conservative Christians), and we see it today in the fight against pornography (feminists and conservative Christians), in controversies over foreign interventions (pacifists and isolationists) and in debates over women wearing burkas (feminists and racists).

Such coalitions, often with the best of intentions, invariably seek to take away freedoms, to diminish diversity. Always, they would limit tolerance in order to preserve it.

jibbitson@globeandmail.com

 

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