This is part 1 in a series of blog posts which will consider tolerance and diversity in Canada
Canadians have lost contact with the meaning of the words tolerance and diversity. These two concepts have been wrestled with since the founding of our nation nearly 150 years ago. They have shaped who we are. They are central to the existence of the Canada we live in today. And now, these words are being re-purposed with different meaning in the media and elsewhere.
In an era of clicking “like” and sharing memes, Canadians are confronted with the need for critical thinking on the meaning of tolerance and diversity, and the principles that underlie them, to a constitutionally multicultural nation. And, it seems, too many of us have either discarded or not developed our capacity for critical thinking.
First up, let’s consider questions of human origin.
It was a relatively recent ninety years ago that one of the United States’ most famous courtroom trials unfolded. In violation of state law, substitute high school teacher John Scopes brought his teaching on the theory of human evolution into the classroom. Tennessee’s curriculum taught biblical creation.
In the clash between legal titans William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow that took place in Dayton’s Rhea County Courthouse, Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution by a jury of his peers and fined $100 by the judge. That fight has been chronicled by many as the opening battle in the modern war between science and religion.
The conviction was thrown out on appeal; but only for technical reasons (the fine of $100 had been wrongly imposed by judge rather than jury and since Scopes was no longer in the employ of the state there would be no re-trial). The law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools was upheld as constitutional. It did not impose religious instruction on the school system; it merely permitted same.
It took another 43 years before the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1968, declared that state laws similar to the one in Tennessee were unconstitutional under the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Although educational attitudes about evolution have changed, what was troublesome about the theory of evolution in 1925 remains troublesome for many in 2015.
Scientific theory is generally considered to be “a well-substantiated explanation” confirmed through testing, observation and experimentation. However, the scientific theory of human evolution is hypothesis that has not and cannot be definitively confirmed. The 1974 discovery of “Lucy” (Australopithecus) was world news when I was in secondary school. The gap she allegedly filled – and there is now dispute in the scientific community that Lucy fills any gap – turned out not to be the only gap in the theory. The gaps in observable fossils and genetic testing suggest that more than one missing link remain to be found. In fact, the total number of gaps in the theory of human evolution has yet to be determined. Each of the innumerable gap timeline variables is calculated at between hundreds of thousands and millions of years. Also unanswered is the question of the origin of the first cell, human or otherwise.
Many in the scientific community admit there is a substantial amount of “faith in science” required to account for cell origin, as well as to fill the countless and extensive evolutionary gaps.
In religious communities, correspondingly, there is ready admission that faith is required to accept the biblical account of human creation.
In Canada’s state-run public education system, it has become standard to teach evolution as fact; and variations on aboriginal folklore concerning the creation of Turtle Island, with the first people falling from the sky, as a tradition-based alternative. Educators have imported their own version of the American constitutional concepts concerning separation of church and state for application in the Canadian classroom; the biblical account of human creation is thus excluded because it is religiously based.
The educators’ position is largely derived from the bias that posits religion and science as being incompatible – even though Christians, including those who believe the biblical account of creation to be true, have long been leaders in the scientific community and continue to be. The aboriginal traditional narrative is taught in order to not cause offense.
Aboriginal people comprise 4% of Canada’s population. 70% of Canadians belong to one of the world religions that include the creation account as part of their sacred texts. 24% of Canadians identify as having no formal religious belief.
Current Canadian classroom practices concerning the question of human origins receive a passing grade under 21st century adaptations of tolerance and diversity. The secular “scientific” position is covered and so is the politically correct alternative. The failure to accommodate discussion of the historic and continuing religious position, however, reveals an unwillingness to be inclusive.
Increased debate within the scientific community concerning the theory of evolution is ignored. International and constitutional rights of parents to educate their children have largely been shelved in favour of state-directed education on this and other controversial issues.
In state-run education institutions, too many Canadian students are schooled to simply accept what they’re taught. Critical and analytical thinking is largely discouraged, and no longer formally part of the state-run education curriculum. Don’t question. Just conform and comply to complete one’s education.
Parents are also required to conform. Those who object have been forced to engage the legal system to fight for their children and their rights.
Mainstream media commentary in stories concerning Canadian politicians, provincial and federal, who have questioned the veracity of the theory of human evolution demonstrate that the reporters concerned have been schooled well. Acceptance of their classroom indoctrination has prevailed over critical thinking for these journalist graduates of Canada’s state-run school system.
In the 2000 federal election campaign, Liberal Party operative Warren Kinsella brought a Barney the Dinosaur doll to an interview on CTV’s Canada AM to mock Canadian Alliance leader (and later highly regarded Minister of Foreign Affairs) Stockwell Day’s religious beliefs. In 2014, the media went after Alberta Minister of Education Gordon Dirks. In recent weeks, Member of Parliament James Lunney has been trolled on twitter, and stepped aside from his party to sit as an independent. The week before, Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament Rick Nicholls was accused of being “not ready for prime time” because he stated in the legislature that he doesn’t believe in evolution. What of tolerance or respect for a diversity of religions and opinions?
The new doublespeak definitions of tolerance and diversity have supplanted consideration that men and women in public service need not agree on the origins of humankind in order to serve the needs of their constituents and engage in the development of public policy for the common good.
It’s time for a little more critical reflection and a lot less click activism.
Let the final words on this point be those written by the high priests of human rights in their interpretation of our seemingly anointed national sacred text, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 2004, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, for the majority, agreed with dissenting Justice Charles Gonthier’s words below in the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36:
… nothing in the Charter, political or democratic theory, or a proper understanding of pluralism demands that atheistically based moral positions trump religiously based moral positions on matters of public policy. I note that the preamble to the Charter itself establishes that ‘… Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.’ According to Saunders J., if one’s moral view manifests from a religiously grounded faith, it is not to be heard in the public square, but if it does not, then it is publicly acceptable. The problem with this approach is that everyone has ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ in something, be it atheistic, agnostic or religious. To construe ‘secular’ as the realm of the ‘unbelief’ is therefore erroneous. Given this, why, then, should the religiously informed conscience be placed at public disadvantage or disqualification? To do so would be to distort liberal principles in an illiberal fashion and would provide only a feeble notion of pluralism. The key is that people will disagree about important issues, and such disagreement, where it does not imperil community living, must be capable of being accommodated at the core of modern pluralism.
Think about it.