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.

Past Lives I have Loved and Lost, part 1: on mixing one’s metaphysics

If you have ever felt like you are living more than one life at the same time there are reasons for this. The usual suspects include social role conflict, serial relationships both at home and at work, and the transitions between life phases. But there is a deeper structure to our diverse sensibilities, and this has to do with the structure of consciousness, no less. Structures, plural, should we say, as there have been three types of metaphysics known to human existence. Their appearance is associated with the kind of social organization and subsistence pattern followed by respective human groups.

Transformational metaphysics hails from the period of ‘social contract’ societies; small groups, intensive hunting and gathering, pastoralism, and horticulture. Here, humans and animals interact intimately in a spiritual realm. One’s ‘animal spirit’ is a commonplace idea. Forces of nature and other kinds of objects also embody spirits. The level of abstraction and metaphor is low. Such relations are to be taken more or less literally. Upon death, one’s soul cycles back into the group at hand with little delay. Time is static and thinking practical.

Transcendental metaphysics is the hallmark of large-scale intensive agrarian societies. It is familiar in the doctrines of the religions that survive from that historical period. The gods are either personifications or abstractions, their communications with us are metaphoric and upon death, the soul is evaluated, either returning to embody some unlike form or never coming back, destined to dwell in some other realm. Time is cyclical and thought mythical.

Anti-transcendental metaphysics is the dominant mode of consciousness at present, and its recent advent is associated with industrial states and the rise of science. It is literalist, ‘realist’, and rationalist in its outlook. There are no gods or other realms of being, and no soul. Upon death, it is one’s material form that returns to the cosmos but it does so most modestly. Time is linear and thought ‘logocentric’, or linguistic.

All of this is old hat, but if you reflect on your own personal beliefs, which ones hail from which of the three forms of metaphysics? Often enough, each of us harbors an unquiet mix of unkempt beliefs and passions. One of many examples would include the sectarian person who is a creationist but drives a vehicle based on the same science that states evolution as a fact. We don’t generally even attempt a cohesive and coherent world view at the level of the individual, and we probably shouldn’t. More on this later on.

But at the cultural level it is a different story. Witness, for lack of a better term, the ‘naked kidnapping’ case from Alberta, where four sectarians abducted their neighbours, hoping to save them from the apocalypse. What next, you say? The two teenage daughters were arrested but not charged, which was reasonable. Indeed, if a church were to send naked teenage girls to our homes to ‘save us’ I wonder if many men would not in fact go rather quietly. But the prelude to paradise, perchance? That aside, such an event was inevitably interpreted by the psychopathology of the day as an aberration, and that the family suffered a rare form of shared delusion, in other words, something diagnosable.

No, no, and no. What occurred cannot be so simply dismissed at such a personalist level. This, and other less piquant episodes, are rather the symptoms of a conflict of metaphysical narratives. Transcendental metaphysics initiates the idea of history, yes, but also the end of history, the end of time. This event, the most important in this version of human consciousness, translates what already occurs to the dead into the world of the living. We are to be judged as we stand before a god; and naked, by the way. What occurs ‘after’ this is neither history nor time, but some other form of Being to be announced in its detail to those worthy of redemption. The naked family’s intents, by their own normative rubrics, were of the very best standard. They do not suffer from a mental illness, shared delusion, or criminal passion.

What they are, are anachronists, real ones, unlike the thespians who dabble in Renaissance fairs and the like, and cannot by definition be considered to be like most of the rest of us in any important way. They have, in fact, managed to construct a more coherent set of beliefs and intents – though they drove their unwilling victims off in a BMW SUV no less – than the average ‘normal’ person. But for this feat of self-coherence they pushed themselves so far off the spectrum of the everyday they cannot but be shunned and now, medicalized as well. Fine, we might say to ourselves, the rest of us have to live in the real world so also should they.

This reaction too is incorrect. Like a Pauline figure, the anachronist asks us ‘what is our world, after all’? What is the ‘everyday’ made of, and why? Why do we expect that the future is not only open-ended but also indefinite? How can human judgement be objective when the world is so diverse? How can one know what the right thing is? In a word, such a person questions both our metaphysics and our ethics and is, ironically, kindred to the thinker and culture critic. Now the philosopher does not abduct people, let alone doing so in the buff. Nevertheless, the questions themselves remain and they cannot be dismissed by mere psychologism, even if such persons appear to be so.

In anti-transcendental metaphysics right and wrong, good and evil, are irrelevant. Correct and incorrect, and perhaps even good and bad, yes. The first is based upon the mathematical sciences and the second on an humanistic ethics. These are the foremost tools of human reason available to us as moderns and they are impressive. Even so, the questions they allow us to ask of ourselves are quite different than those someone hailing from another metaphysics would ask, and indeed, would have us ask. Just so, we cannot know with certainty the outcomes of our ethical actions, nor is infinite certitude available to our evolutionary cosmology. We live in a godless, finite world of often cynical politics and self-absorbed hedonism; a world not entirely unlike that which Paul imagined himself confronting.

Which brings out both the sense and sensibility of the sectarian line: If the world seems threatening, then why live as we do? Why not change the world, why not save ourselves? This question has its origins in eschatological thought, that which promotes a self-understanding in the light of divine reason and the end of history. A ‘Kairos’, or arbitrary and yet decisive starting point, a moment where the world ends and a new world commences, is at the heart of the environmentalist, peace, women’s and subaltern movements. These quintessentially recent social critiques seek to both save us and begin a different kind of world. They are also immensely practical, for the end of life on earth seems to be a most impractical development. So how ‘modern’ are they, after all? The same question may be asked of ourselves as human beings.

In fact, these recent ideas are as mixed a bag as almost everything else human history brings to the table each morning. Their presence and their diversity argue forcefully that we should not attempt to be overly and overtly consistent within any one of the three metaphysical forms. The hard-nosed rationalist misses the mark existentially, the sectarian finds pragmatism incomprehensible, and the practical-minded communitarian forgets the larger picture and thus as well cannot accede to the cosmic question. If it is true that human consciousness has undergone three sea-changes over a period of some half a million years or so – its very origin, its shift into agrarian thought, and its recent upshift into that technical and scientific – it may be equally true that we as living human beings carry bits and pieces of all three around within our just as living and present consciousness.

So I am going to gently suggest that we remember to ask the questions a being from some other guise of ‘human nature’ would ask. Just so, those few who remain amongst us but appear as anachronistic must be introduced to the questions we moderns have invented and must, with increasing and dramatic urgency, respond to. This last is the metaphysical underpinning to any psychotherapy the two daughters from Alberta will no doubt now undergo; likely years of it, given that they stated they thought the RCMP officers were demons attempting to drag them to hell. No doubt as well, Freud and his followers have been called the devil often enough. However that may be, and whatever the outcome of such ‘rehabilitation’, unless we take seriously the critique of consciousness that emanates from the entire history of that self-same consciousness we may well be doomed in a much more literal manner than any sectarian had ever the literary flair to imagine.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books on ethics, religion, aesthetics, 

and social theory, as well as metaphysical epic fiction.