Getting the Facts Straight about Religion

religion-books
Mark Skalny

The CBC’s Neil Macdonald embarrassed himself this past week by letting loose on all things religious under the guise of a warning about new Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. “Andrew Scheer says he won’t impose his religious beliefs on Canadians. We’ll see,” says his headline.

In the meanwhile, however, we can worry about the likes of Neil Macdonald imposing his views on us instead.

Mr. Macdonald starts badly by claiming that he is rigorously committed to facts while “religion, though, is something else. It is by definition not fact-based. It is a pure belief system.”

As a scholar of religious studies, I am unaware of any reputable textbook or dictionary that would define religion in this peculiar way.

Many religions rely fundamentally on facts. Judaism depends upon the fact of Yahweh rescuing Israel from slavery  in Egypt via the Exodus. Christianity depends upon the fact of God raising Jesus from the grave. Islam depends upon Allah bestowing the Qur’an upon Muhammad.

The most popular story in the most popular book of the most popular stream in Hinduism has Krishna instructing Prince Arjuna before a particular battle depicted in the Bhagavad-Gita. And Buddhism depends on Siddhartha Gotama achieving enlightenment under the bodhi tree two-and-a-half millennia ago.

Adherents to these religions (and we’re thus talking about the vast majority of the world’s population) believe these events took place. For them, they are facts, and it is important that they are facts.

Mr. Macdonald may not believe that they are facts. And followers of Religion A may likewise dispute the veracity of the facts believed by followers of Religion B. That’s what critical historical study of religion is about: figuring out what really happened.

But it remains simply true that each of these religions depends upon what it takes to be actual events faithfully documented by reliable accounts. So to characterize religious belief as having nothing to do with facts is not true to the basic…facts.

Second, Mr. Macdonald affirms that he is “all for a person’s right to believe in whatever he or she desires, to embrace foundational myths of aliens, or miracles, or extreme positions of love or hatred, as long as it remains in a place of worship, with the door closed.”

That’s not a terribly generous allowance, since religions don’t typically function that way. Religion is a way of life, not just a collection of beliefs. To be an observant Jew or Sikh is to act like a Jew or a Sikh all the time and everywhere, not just in a synagogue or gurdwara a few hours a week.

For that matter, Mr. Macdonald clearly doesn’t like confining his own views to private spaces, but feels free to vent them in national media, presumably in hopes of convincing others of the rightness of his views.

And that brings me to his third regrettable point: “Religion most often involves a deep commitment to telling other people how to live their lives.”

Well, yes, for many religions it does. It certainly does for the great missionary religions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, and it does for proselytizing sects of other religions as well.

It is also evidently a deep commitment of Mr. Macdonald’s religion, as he spends the rest of the article excoriating anyone who doesn’t agree with a list of his personal ethical absolutes regarding abortion, LGBTQ+ issues, school prayer, etc., etc. Flip his views around, and you have the righteous insistence of a Jerry Falwell that Only One Way Is Correct and that way ought to be the law of the land—which sounds a lot like imposing one’s (religious) views on everyone else.

So here’s the deal. Either Mr. Macdonald follows his own advice and keeps his views private, since they are no more “fact-based” than anyone else’s, or he allows people to disagree with him in public, and even commend their views to others, as he clearly enjoys doing.

Any other policy would be hypocritical.

And that’s a fact.

UPDATE: For more on faith and facts, see the next post by Professor Stackhouse

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).