Is Religion Worth your Tax Dollars?

Canada does not have a clear cut constitutionally defined separation of church and state, unlike our American cousins. This reflects our sense that a nation can be, or should be, more of a mosaic than a melting pot. It also reflects the history of our immigration, also rather different than that of the USA. There, Europe’s unwanted found new lives and often wished to dispense with the old ones. Here, disinherited second sons aped their European betters. More recently, there, marginal labor seeks to improve its lot, while here the developing world’s elites ramp up real estate prices.

And also start up private schools based on ethnicity and religious credos. What are we to make of the fact that the rest of us – the vast majority of us who neither send our children to elite wealth and network based private schools or to those ethnic or creed based – witness that the state helps pay for these institutions to exist? Without government funding, most simply would not survive. Those that are religious based have legal exemptions from certain basic human rights laws, which no other organization may flout. That apparently only ten of some 640 transparently use this exemption is beside the point. Or is it?

The article linked above seeks to explain this situation but in fact it merely describes it. Journalism doesn’t really have the mandate to explain things, because any explanation could be seen as being generated from a specific point of view. Even philosophy is grounded in both the experience of the tradition and our historical consciousness thereof and therein. It holds certain kinds of values to be inalienable much like religions do. And for those who send their children to private schools based on ethnicity and/or religion, this is the key issue. They want their values to be taught, alongside provincial curricula. It is interesting, to say the least, that while such schools have human rights exemptions they have no such out for curricula. One would think that the former supersedes the latter by some light years. This points to another kind of explanation, one that is only partly related to the cost-savings that private schools bring to the state. Indeed, one could see a rather simple solution to the face-value issue: absorb the added costs of those ten offending schools with the dubious policies, change the law and shut those ten down. The other 630 or so would be presumably unaffected, and the vast bulk of the 430 millions saved each year would be secure.

In fact this is not the essential issue. What of the definition of the state itself? What is it for? What does it do for its citizens? The mission of government in Canada is, as Dr. Weaver put it, not to favor one group over the other. No doubt he is thinking of Rwanda and many other such cases. Canada has at least a self-image of being a tolerant society, where one lives and lets live. We do not have overt ‘culture-wars’ here – the term has been quite rightly criticized by Sontag (2007) and others as being vacuous – and it is ironic that the constitutional separation of church and state in the USA has in part fostered this schism in that country’s social fabric. However smug we tend to be about comparing our land with theirs, the upshot of this current situation is that we show much of our vaunted tolerance to governments who, from some other vantage point, might appear nothing less than cowardly.

Though we are getting warmer, the needs of the state to preserve social tolerance by allowing various communities and other cultural groups to have some distance from the public education system and conveniently saving a lot of money while doing so, is also not of the essence. In fact private schools increase social division. Ethnic and religious based schools are not as dangerous to this regard as are the straight-up wealth-based elite schools, which, though they may receive correspondingly less public funding, nevertheless presume upon its continuation. Children are sent to these schools not for metaphysical or even cultural reasons but because they are the children of existing social and political elites. They need to find appropriate marriage partners so that the family and lineage wealth is not dissipated. They need to be ingratiated into networks so they can attain employment and thence authority suitable to their family status. Only in this way can both be maintained over the generations. Our tax system is supposed to mitigate the first, but nothing can alter the second, and it is through these networks that elites reproduce themselves over time, at our expense.

The credo and ethnic based schools attempt something similar, but insofar as it is a half-baked attempt they are not to be hoisted on the same ethical hook as are the class-based institutions. Given that private schools are essentially anti-democratic – simply due to costs; this is why we have a public system in the first place – the reality of general revenue tax dollars being used to officially ‘crowd-fund’ these organizations – also essentially helping the rich preserve their wealth and reproduce their networks at our expense – is yet closer to the key issue here. In turn, we must ask ourselves what kind of democracy are we content to live within. One in which class differences are exacerbated by publicly funded institutions which are not in fact public, or one in which there is a single system that teaches in its curricula everything one could ever want to know about ethnicity, religion, and class etc.. Wherein all children are given the same opportunity to develop and learn, funded by all tax-payers, share and share alike. This is my definition of a viable democratically inclined education system, and not one wherein social tensions due to wealth disparities, dissassociative trends due to social enclaving, and the simple issue of individuals existing in a society that is made up, not of their peers, but of a few superior beings and a great many inferior ones continues unabated. It is this final and fatal flaw of Western liberal democracies that allows for elites, or ethnicities, or soteriological acolytes to have the confidence – to express it diplomatically – to ask the rest of us to pay for their continued sense of betterness, of self-worthiness, of superiority, of elect status, not to mention the reality of better opportunities.

I have cited Paul Ricoeur (1993) on more than one occasion: ‘The love we have for our own children does not exempt us from loving the children of the world.’ Indeed, this is very much an ethic that descends to us via religion, specifically Christianity, but also Buddhism and Islam. That is, the historically more recent agrarian world systems. It is this idea and those like it which eventually led to democracy in the manner we idealize it to be. Caste-based world systems, ethnic based religions, social contract cosmologies, and cultures which maintained their wealth and limited citizenship through slavery – our much vaunted Greeks and Romans come to mind here – do not favor democracy in any essential form. You can do the math.

It is now time to respond to the question in the title: if the religious based schools are teaching about love your enemy, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, favoring the concept of the neighbour rather than that of the socius (the role based persona of modern society), and that all of us are children of some abstract creation whose actual cause can generally remain occluded, then the answer is perhaps a surprising but nonetheless resounding ‘Yes!’ Religious ethics in this form are invaluable, especially in today’s fractured world. So it may be rather than being concerned about social cohesion, the state is actually worried that if these radically democratic ideas get out into the public system and our young people are convinced of their ethical superiority, then everything we know and most of us suffer from would be altered. Now you can do the higher math: it is not the state being nice to the church in the way one would be kind to a defeated party or a victim of history, it is rather the state working, as surreptitiously as possible, to save its own skin.

G.V. Loewen is the author of three dozen books in religion, education, ethics and aesthetics, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the human sciences for two decades.