Thursday 10 May 2012
By Fiona Basile, Kairos Catholic Journal
“Everyone has faith and everyone is a believer,” according to Extraordinary Professor of Law, Prof. Iain Benson, who was in Melbourne this week as a guest of the Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty. He also said that we should stop using the term ‘secular’ as it only “confuses things”.
Prof. Benson, a Senior Associate Counsel at Miller Thomson in Toronto, Canada, and the founding member of Pluralism in Canada, gave public talks at Australian Catholic University and John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family on the topic of Religious Freedom in the Secular Age. He also met with academics, scholars, lawyers and judges during this first visit to Australia.
Prof. Benson said,
“It is important to discuss key terms of faith, belief and the public sphere itself in order to understand the situation of religious liberty in the context of contemporary culture.”
“The question isn’t whether people believe, but rather, what do they believe in? Not only does everyone believe in something, everyone has faith. Not all faith is religious faith. John Henry Cardinal Newman in the 19th century once made the observation that ‘to act is to assume, and to assume is to have faith’.
“This is a very important insight at a time when we have a whole group of new atheists—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris—writing in ways that they say, indicate they have no beliefs. They’re incorrect. They do have beliefs.
“The problem with contemporary secularism is that it does not tolerate any open declaration of
faith related to religious belief and as a result, faiths are driven into ‘hidden forms’.”
Prof Benson urged those religious people in the audience to refrain from using the terms ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’, and ‘communities of faith’ in contradistinction to communities that don’t have faith because “it’s another dualistic construction that is simply false; it’s an error.”
He also said the word ‘secular’ has often been used incorrectly, particularly in reference to a division between religion and the secular. “In this context, secular stands in for the public orders of things like law, politics, public education, medical ethics and so forth—these things are deemed to be secular, or non-religious.
“However, this is not the term’s origins. Its earlier form was used by the Catholic Church to divide clergy into two forms—secular clergy who were in parishes, ‘in the world’, and regular clergy who were mostly in cloisters dedicated to prayer. So we had secular clergy, like secular institutions, referred to in the Catholic Catechism; they’re religious conceptions.
“In contemporary society however, belief, faith, communities of faith, religion and secular are all being used in dualistic ways so that the ‘secular’ or ‘public order’ is stripped of religion. And this is done by both religious and non-religious people.
“What’s buried in this split is that the public order is then dominated by certain kinds of faith and belief—agnosticism and atheism. Because religion is driven out of the public sphere, what is left in is non-religious belief and frameworks.
“My advice is when using the term ‘secular’, really what you’re referring to is the public space in relation to religion, and not something secular.”
Prof. Benson provided examples of legal cases in which religious freedom had been discussed in the context of the public space.
“In Constitutional democracies of the sort that I’ve lived or worked in for many years, the cases dealing with the freedom of religion have all said something very interesting about religion. In 1985, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, in his key passage said, ‘The essence of the freedom of religion is the right not just to hold the belief in private, but the right to manifest it, teach it and disseminate it in the public; to be religious’.”
“So essentially, we need to sort out what the nature of the public sphere is and I believe the public sphere is a realm of competing belief systems; nothing more, nothing less. The public sphere involves all citizens—religious citizens and non-religious citizens.
“The difficulty at the moment is that we do not live in cultures that really tolerate debate the way we used to. In a civil society it is essential to maintain the open texture of debate; that’s what keeps civil society going.”
Extraordinary Professor Iain Benson is the author of numerous publications, his most recent being Living Together with Disagreement.
The Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty defends religious freedom as a foundation of human rights and as a strong, democratic and pluralistic society. For more information see, www.ambrosecentre.org.au
Photos by Fiona Basile, Kairos Catholic Journal. From top: (1) Mr Rocco Mimmo, Founder and Chairman, Ambrose Centre for Religious Liberty; Prof. Greg Craven, Vice Chancellor, Australian Catholic University, Extraordinary Professor Iain Benson, Faculty of Law, University of the Free State, South Africa and Senior Associate Counsel, Miller Thomson, Toronto. (2) Prof. Iain Benson (3) Rocco Mimmo welcomes the guests at ACU (4 & 5) Prof. Benson signs is latest book for guests (6) Rocco Mimmo meets a young audience member at ACU.