Tag Archives: religion

“Hoorah for our Side”/”No monopoly on the route to the divine”

Cultural Relativism: There are many paths to enlightenment

Wade Davis, perhaps Canada’s most preeminent anthropologist, has spent years living with and working with indigenous people around the world. This has made him a tireless advocate of understanding traditional cultures around the world. He gave a great talk that was broadcast on CBC’s radio show Ideas. You can  probably hear his entire talk on their archive.

Davis also asserted that anthropology, his field of study, is important. It is important today because “anthropology is the antidote to Trump.” Trump of course is the equally tireless advocate for the doctrine of American triumphalism and superiority over all other cultures. In Trump’s world America is the best of everything. At least it would be if only Americans more uniformly listened to him. Ruth Benedict said that “the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

As we live in a globalized multi-cultural world “anthropology has never been more important.” Trump of course would never concede that. But that does not make it any less true. America is not the be all and end all. America is one voice among many. We should listen to morevoices. We should listen to many voices.

According to Davis this multi-ethnic world is  “where connectivity is bringing us together into a single human family.” At least if people like Trump are not able to separate us. He wants to deny this connectivity, this solidarity. Too many people fail to see the connections as they look at the differences. People like Trump see “theirpeople” with whatever label you want to use, separate and apart, and superior, from the others.

Davis finds proof for this connectivity in genetics. This is what he said

“Within our lifetimes genetics has shown that the genetic endowment of humanity is a continuum, race is a fiction, we are all cut from the same genetic cloth, we are all descendants of the same handful of people who walked out of Africa 65 or 75,000 years ago and embarked on this journey that carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world…By definition every culture shares the same genius and how that genius is expressed is simply a matter of choice. There is no hierarchy in the affairs of culture. That old 19thcentury idea that we went from the savage to the barbarian to the civilized in the Strand of London has been absolutely ridiculed by modern science and shown to be an artifact of the 19thcentury, no more relevant to our lives today than the old idea of clergymen that the world was only 6,000 years old.”


Davis finds important corroboration of the fundamental insight of anthropology, which is cultural relativism, from the relatively recent science of genetics.  As Davis said, “It is genetics that allows anthropologists to say without doubt that every culture has something to say, each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine.”

Davis eloquently points out that this concept has never been more important than today with the astonishing rise of nativism, nationalism and the worst forms of tribalism.  These nationalistic views are held not just by Trump, but millions of his supporters, and by many dictators and demagogues around the world, and their millions of supporters. Each of these leaders is constantly shouting “hurrah for our side” in the immortal words of Buffalo Springfield.

Darwin: The Greatest Religious Thinker?


Charles Darwin is reviled by many evangelical Christians. Some of them have suggested that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a godless philosophy that removes the sacred from the world.  I disagree. Not only that, I turn this around 180º. Darwin’s theory of evolution is a theory of great and profound beauty.  In fact, I think it is profoundly religious.

To Darwin, all life is one. All organisms are different branches of the same tree of life. This is a deeply marvellous idea that all of lifeincluding human life, is united on this planet.  There is solidarity to all of life.  I do not find this notion anti-religious.  In fact I would say this goes back to the original root of the word religion from its Indio origin, which was ‘connection.’  This is the original meaning of “religious”.  In fact I would go so far as to say that any so-called religion, which leads to separation of humans from each other, or from all of life, is deeply un-religious.

Typically fundamentalists around the world, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or whatever, try from time to time to usurp the meaning of religious to their own narrow purposes. When they try to expropriate the meaning of the world “religious” for their own restrictive and exclusive purposes they ought to be resisted strongly.

The most extreme versions of these religious beliefs have in the past turned to murderous doctrines.  Some famous examples include the Christian crusaders, Muslim terrorists, and Sikh assassins, to name only a few from a vast legion of candidates.  To these people I would suggest that as the button my wife Chris owned  said, ‘When religion turns to hate, it is no longer religion.’  Religion that does not help us to connect with others, or connect with the world, is no religion worth having. It is actually sacrilegious.

Darwin’s views in this sense are fundamentally religious.  In Darwin’s day the claim that humans and chimpanzees had a lot in common was a radical claim.  Remember there was no science of genetics or DNA at that time. Since then of course a lot of confirming evidence has been gathered.  First, there has been substantial fossil evidence which suggests that chimpanzees and humans had a common ancestor as Darwin claimed, and as many have been loath to admit ever since.  Remember Elmer Gantry, played by Burt Lancaster in the movie about the travelling evangelical preacher who had a chimp on stage and said to the crowd, ‘this may be your uncle, but he sure ain’t mine.’

In the late twentieth century scientists started gathering convincing evidence from DNA, which has led to the same conclusion.  Scientists have found that all living things have DNA.  For example organisms as diverse as frogs, bacteria, and humans all have DNA and the DNA evidence has been used to show how close the various species are to each other.  The DNA of humans and chimps is very similar.  DNA sequences which are read letter by letter indicate that humans and chimpanzees are in fact a stunning 98% identical.  They are basically the same.  Cut from the same cloth.  Scientists in fact now generally believe that the DNA evidence indicates that humans and chimpanzees did in fact have a common ancestor only a few million years ago.  This is very recently on the evolutionary time scale.  This could be compared with humans and rats who also had a common ancestor, but this was more like 80 – 100 million years ago.  This shows that greater changes occur over a greater period of time, but also shows that even humans and rats, which do not feel much fellow feeling for each, once had a common ancestor.

There is even growing evidence that humans and chimpanzees think and act in similar ways.  This is further evidence of their commonality, or close relationship. Researchers have found that chimps can gain complex cognition and even have the ability to count.  They don’t learn to count in the wild, because it is not necessary for their survival, but they can learn to count.  Chimps can even grasp complex notions like the concept of zero. Such evidence too suggests that chimps have a great deal of commonality with humans.  Humans and chimps even share the same blood types.

Many scientists now believe that this evidence points to the fact that chimps and humans did in fact have common ancestor as Darwin suggested.

For some reason the line of development or evolution, which led to humans led to an explosive development of mental capacity.  Natural selection favoured the evolution of organisms that could communicate, manipulate symbols, and construct language.  These were obviously evolutionary advantages for this species.

Some see this view of Darwin’s as basically irreligious since it seems to remove the concept of a divine creator from the world.  It actually doesn’t. Darwin himself believed in God. However, this does not make these views irreligious.  As I have said, I think these views instead demonstrate a fine sense of true religion in its original Indio sense of connection.  Darwin himself said in his monumental Origin of the Species, “there is a grandeur in this view of life with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one, and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the 6th law of gravity from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”  Darwin did not remove God, but he did naturalize creation.

In my view the thought of Darwin is deeply religious.  Much more than the views of murderous fundamentalists or noisy evangelicals who so often seem to hog the stage.  Even though many people hold that Darwin removed God from science, he found an elemental connection between man and all living things.  I cannot think of anything more religious than that.  And that is what religion is ultimately about.  Connection.  It is not about what narrow beliefs one has about what to eat on what days, or whether the world was created exactly 4004 years ago.  No, religion is about a lot more important things than that, no matter what narrow-minded people think and preach.

Darwin’s view that we are all connected on the tree of life, is contrasted starkly by the views of Christian fundamentalists, and extremists of all religions, that they are superior to all others.  They want to be separate and apart from heathens, to say nothing of all life. They believe that they will go to everlasting pleasure in heaven while others will go to everlasting pain in hell. Such fanatics see an unbridgeable gap between them and other humans, to say nothing of them and other organisms. These are the most profoundly irreligious views imaginable.  Nothing could be more sacrilegious than that. I much prefer Darwin. In fact, I think he was one of the greatest of religious thinkers.

The Sleep of Reason


Goya, the famous Spanish painter was well known for dark art.  No one ever accused him of seeing only the sunny side of life. Goya inscribed one of his works with the following words: “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.” I find that profoundly true.

Voltaire the child of the Enlightenment, one might say a Fundamentalist Enlightenment thinker, said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Our species has impressive powers of reasoning. It is what sets us apart from most species. Yet we give up our advantage all the time. Why do we do that? Why do we allow reason to go to sleep? More importantly, why do we do that when it is clearly against our own interests to do that? That is a very big question. One I would like to answer.

One of the worst things that we can do is to abdicate our power of reasoning. If ever—ever–we give up our rationale for beliefs we are doomed.  We must always insist that all beliefs are based on reason and evidence.

Our reasoning power may be weak. It is certainly far from perfect. For each and every one of us our power of reasoning is flawed, but we never have a better tool to justify belief. Any belief. Beliefs based on evidence and reasoning are not guaranteed to be true. They are not certainly true, but they are the best-grounded beliefs we can have.

Reason goes to sleep whenever we don’t base our beliefs on reason and evidence.  The bars to reason are many and varied and include the following among many others: faith substituted for reason, indoctrination, fear, prejudice or bias, laziness, ignorance, herd instinct or wish to conform, wishful thinking, ideological blinkers, and advertising or propaganda.


I am going far beyond religion now. Beliefs based on something other than reason, like faith, or feelings, or wishes, can have dangerous consequences. This can lead to crazy beliefs. No where is that more obvious than the United States. There is a good reason for this. America is in my opinion the most religious country in the west. At least by conventional definitions of religion. Kurt Anderson described this phenomenon this way in his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire(2017): “Unlike the Earth’s other moderns, we have rushed headlong back toward magic and miracles, crazifying some legacy churches, filling up the already crazy ones, inventing all kinds of crazy new ones.]Because the US has given itself over to beliefs without reason to such a fantastic extent for so long it has become vulnerable to believing all kinds of crazy things. Americans have become vulnerable to all kinds of crackpots from the ludicrous to the deranged.

For example it is astonishing how many Americans believed, without any evidence whatsoever, that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizzeria that had no basement. Or that there is a government conspiracy to spread toxic vaccines. Or that Satanic child molesters are everywhere.  That Obama is the anti-Christ, a  Muslim and was born outside the United States. That the massacre of elementary school children in Sandy Hook by a lone gunman was a scam promulgated by paid actors. That climate change is a hoax. That the high school students at Parkland Florida who were terrorized by a gunman were also paid actors.

The gullibility of millions of Americans is truly astonishing. Where did this come from? I believe that it is the result of checking reason at the door for decades if not centuries.    When reason sleeps monsters are indeed brought forth.


Faith, Truth, and desire


This may be my most controversial post so far. I urge my friends who will be disappointed in me not to think of me as wicked, but as a fallen brother. I also  urge them to point out to me where I went wrong.

A friend sent to me an excerpt from a well-written article by N. T. Wright.  He argues that as a historian there is convincing evidence that Jesus Christ came back to life after dying. This is what he concluded:

The historian’s task is not to force people to believe.  It is to make it clear that the sort of reasoning historians characteristically employ — inference to the best explanation, tested rigorously in terms of the explanatory power of the hypothesis thus generated — points strongly towards the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Is that true? I accept it as a principle, that the more astonishing the claim the stronger the evidence must be to support it. I would suggest that someone rising from the dead is such an unusual accomplishment that objectively we would never believe that this had happened without very strong evidence indeed that it had in fact occurred. I don’t know about you, but I have never found such a claim about anyone else was ever true or even mildly convincing. Would any of us accept such claims about Mohammed, for example?  I would suggest that Muslims might believe that, but unless one had been indoctrinated to believe from a very early age it is highly unlikely that anyone would ever reach the conclusion that the evidence “points strongly towards the bodily resurrection of Mohammed”. Only those who already believed in the faith, would feel that evidence pointed strongly in that direction.

Would anyone say that about the evidence that any person at all  rose from the dead? Can you conceive of any evidence at all that might lead one to believe that? I would submit that any such conclusion is highly unlikely. The reason is that such beliefs are not based on evidence, they are based on inculcation or indoctrination and even highly intelligent people are guided, usually unconsciously, by that indoctrination, not by evidence at all. They don’t even realize their belief is based on indoctrination.

For the same reason it is obvious why most Christians were raised by Christians and most Muslims were raised by Muslims. We tend to believe what our parents teach us, especially what they taught us from a very young age. It is not that the evidence for Christian beliefs is so much more available in Christian countries or evidence for Muslim beliefs is much more available in Muslim countries. The key is indoctrination not evidence

I am no expert–but I have never seen evidence for the resurrection of Christ that would actually convince anyone other than a person who already believed it. The evidence is not strong at all; it is extraordinarily weak. At least I have never seen any.  It is not surprising of course that the evidence is weak. After all millennia have passed since the alleged event.  Finding convincing evidence of such an astoundingly rare event would in fact be miraculous, if not impossible. Of course, that does not mean those who believe in the resurrection are wrong, I am only suggesting that they do so not on the basis of belief, but what I call “indoctrination” and they call “faith.”

Of course millions of people believe that Christ rose from the grave and they are entitled to do that but I don’t believe it is  based on evidence at all but faith.  That really means that such beliefs will be held no matter what the evidence. I think it was John Loftus who said, “You cannot reason people out religious beliefs, because they were not reasoned into them”.

Faith is belief without reason.   If you believe something without there being a reason, then you have faith in it. According to the Bible in Hebrews11:1, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That is precisely what Friedrich Nietzsche objected to about faith.  Hopes are not evidence! The search for truth, he believed, is corrupted by wishes and desires.  If hopes are the “evidence” of truth you know the evidence is tainted. Contrary to the book of Hebrews, it is completely unreliable .

N.T. Wright earlier in the above referenced article said, about the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ,


“The question divides into four.  First, what did people in the first century, both pagans and Jews, hope for?  What did they believe about life after death, and particularly about resurrection?  Second, what did the early Christians believe on the same subjects?  What did they hope for?  Third, what reasons did the early Christians give for their hope and belief, and what did they mean by the key word ‘resurrection’ which they used of Jesus? Finally, what can the historian say by way of comment on this early Christian claim?”

The fundamental problem I see with an approach like that of N.T. Wright is that it is based on hopes. His method is to find evidence to support beliefs he has probably had since the time of his youth and which ground his hopes for a life after death.  Hopes have no place in historical or scientific inquiry. They have a place in theology of course. Hopes are part of faith–a fundamental part of faith in fact.

That is what made Friedrich Nietzsche say, “Faith” means not wanting to know what is true.” The faithful believe what they want to believe. It is extremely difficult  not to believe what you want to be true. Nietzsche also said,  “The craving for a strong faith, is no proof of a strong faith, but quite the contrary. If one has such a faith, then one can afford the beautiful luxury of skeptics: one is sure enough, firm enough, has ties enough for that.” In other words, if faith is strong enough, no reasoning will talk one out of it. No evidence, no matter how compelling will dispel the belief.

All of this reminds me of that great 20thcentury deep thinker—Archie  Bunker. Archie Bunker proudly claimed to have faith. He said,  “Faith is something that you believe that no one in his right mind would believe.”

People who acquire faith usually do so not because of a convincing argument, or a powerful religious experience, but as a result of deep and persistent inculcation or indoctrination by their parents.  Such a faith is therefore nothing more than a very powerful prejudice.  It is very difficult to divorce oneself from one’s parents. It is actually much more difficult than to divorce a spouse. Nietzsche disdained such faith. He said “To accept a faith just because it is customary, means to be dishonest, to be cowardly, to be lazy.”

Nietzsche contrasted this faith with love of reason. He put it this way,

“A kind of honesty has been alien to founders of religions and others like them:  they have never made their experiences a matter of conscience for knowledge. “What did I really experience? What happened in me then, and around me? Was my reason bright enough?  Was my will turned against all deceptions of the senses and was it courageous in its resistance to the fantastic?—none of them raised such questions;  all the dear religious people still do not raise such questions even now:  rather they have a thirst for things that are against reason, and they do not want to make it too hard for themselves to satisfy it.  And so they experience “miracles” and “rebirths” and hear voices of the little angels!  We, however, we others, who thirst for reason, want to look our experience as straight in the eye as if they represented a scientific experiment, hour after hour, day after day. We ourselves want to be our experiments and guinea pigs.”

We have to be “courageous” in “resistance to the fantastic.” I think Wright  lacked that courage. He has instead found convincing evidence where no objective person would have found it. He has been guided not by evidence or “reasoning…tested rigorously” but instead by preconceptions.

Preconceptions are dangerous because they keep us from looking for the truth. After all, if you think you already have the truth why would you search for it? Nietzsche said it was not important to have the courage of one’s convictions. It was much more important to have the courage to attack one’s convictions.” That is what we have to learn to do. That is the basis of critical thinking. This willingness is its most important element.

Nietzsche also said, “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” He said, “I am dynamite.” I think he meant to say that he was on this earth to break up encrusted ‘truths.’ He was here to attack them, to expose them.

Nietzsche’s approach is difficult. He does not deny that. He scorns easier positions.  Unlike Nietzsche, most people do what John Kenneth Galbraith talks about when he said, “Faced with the choice of changing one’s mind and with proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone get busy on the proof.”

It is very difficult to give up our convictions. This is particularly true of those we learn at a very young age from our parents. They seem to be a part of us. To cut them loose is like cutting off an arm. I also like what Albert Pike said, “We believe what we are taught; and those are most fanatical who know least of the evidence on which their creed is based.

Dewitt Jones, the photographer enunciated another  profound concept. He said, “I will see it when I believe it.” Until then our preconceptions or biases can stifle the truth so that we cannot detect it.

Christians keep talking about the importance of belief in Jesus.  I am never sure exactly what that means. Can they mean that we have to believe some particular proposition?  After all why would such a belief be necessary? Or does it mean we should trust him?  Have faith in him. That would make more sense. Is that very different however?

Some Christians even suggest that unless we have some beliefs in Jesus we will be condemned to eternal damnation–whatever that means. Forget about eternal damnation, is it fair to base rewards or punishments of any sort on beliefs–particularly fundamental beliefs that we have had since the time of our extreme youth? In most cases our parents should get the credit or blame for those, not us.

Our parents indoctrinated us–rightly or wrongly–when we were very young. We were so young we had no ability  to resist the indoctrination. We are not good or bad because we accepted the indoctrination. We were vulnerable. There was nothing we could do about it. Just as it is not fair to condemn an accused person of a crime when the person is so mentally ill that he or she cannot resist the impulse to commit the crime, so it is not fair to base any rewards or any punishments, let alone eternal ones, on what we were indoctrinated to believe, or not believe, when we were  young children. I cannot believe any God who would do that. That is why we should never be judged by our beliefs. We should be judged by our actions freely accomplished.

Keeping silent is not the answer

A good friend sent me a private thoughtful critique after a recent post. He said, he found “finding fault” alone at best amusing but mostly annoying. He suggested I make some positive suggestions.

First of all I think if we find fault we should criticize. I don’t think silence in the face of injustice is ever wise.  Sometimes it is important for us to make clear that we dissent from the conventional wisdom. This is particularly important, I believe, where the powerful majority is sometimes misusing its power or authority. Someone should stick up for the weak. I am trying to do that in my puny way, even if that means that I annoy some of the powerful.  So be it. I have been too quiet for too long. I am choosing now to speak up. I think I should have spoken up sooner. Sometimes the time has come to denounce actions of a large group. Sometimes it is important to let others know on which side you are on. Others can choose to disagree.

I live in a small town where sometimes, in my opinion,  the majority has gone too far in their dominance of the vulnerable. I am not saying they were always wrong or that they were bad people. Many of them are good people who meant well. And that is important. Others abused their power.

I have  been asked to make some “constructive propositions.” I intended to do that later, and will do so. However, let me make one at this time.  I was very fortunate to have been raised by loving Christian parents who did their best to lead me to salvation. They were not mean or abusive. They did it with love. They taught me; they did not indoctrinate me. For example, they never forced me to attend revival meetings.I was free to go if I wanted to, but was also free to avoid them.   I was expected to attend Sunday School every Sunday. It did not damage me, though I was not keen on it.  What they gave me was spiritual freedom. I will always be grateful for that freedom. Some of my friends were not so fortunate. I intend to blog about the positive as well.  Specifically, I think there is a better way than evangelical religion. I intend to share that.

With such wonderful freedom comes responsibility. So I have chosen to speak up. Martin Luther King also spoke for those who had been taken advantage of. I am not comparing myself to him. He did that in much more serious circumstances than I have been doing. He was a brave man. I know I am a moral pipsqueak in comparison. This is what he said, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I don’t think we should keep quiet just for fear of being annoying.

Indoctrination or choice? One person’s indoctrination is another person’s Sunday School


Revival meetings were incredibly emotional, particularly for young teenagers. Many of my friends were deeply affected by them.  Those meetings often emphasized fear. Young people were forcefully reminded that failure to accept Jesus as our personal savior would lead to hell. Forever! Some of them were scarred for life. It is hardly surprising that under such circumstances the youth were often terrified and the decisions they made were suspect.

Many young people were filled with fear by powerful professional speakers brought into our town for exactly that purpose. I have already commented about how I thought that this was unfair. Now I want to carry that thought a little farther.  I want to go beyond revival meetings.  What about Sunday School?  Were they any better?

Parents often indoctrinate their children. They want to teach their children the truth. I consider that reasonable, but when they go beyond teaching to taking away the decision of the child and making it their own they have gone too far. For example, when they hire professionals who know how to manipulate the children into doing their will, they have taken the choice away from the children.

Indoctrination by parents of their children is extremely popular in many societies and among many groups. Evangelical Christians are great practitioners of it, but so are other groups. It is not an accident at all that most children raised in Christian homes become Christians as adults. The same goes for Muslims, Jews, and most other religions. Is each group so good at teaching their children? When the vast majority of children from each religion follow the religion of their parents, I believe that is pretty good evidence that the parents have gone beyond teaching to indoctrination.  In such cases, they have manipulated the children and taken their free choice away. Why else would each religion be so successful?

I think it is because parents of many religions indoctrinate their children into the religion of the family. Few of the children reject that direction by their parents and thus few choose some other religion. I don’t think it happens often. When children are young they are hardly in a position to resist the influence of their parents. Many follow their parents without reasoning. Indoctrination leads exactly to that. Is this a free choice?

Mennonites used to think that it is was very important that children not be baptized at birth. That was because the choice of religion would then be that of the parent, when the choice should be that of the child. I agree with that entirely. I believe that they meant that the decision of the child had to be freely made. Infants can’t make such choices. Otherwise, again, the decision would be the choice of the parent not the child.

Indoctrination robs the child of choice and substitutes the decision of the parent for that of the child. I would think Mennonites would reject that unequivocally. They don’t. If parents don’t allow their children to make their own decisions on important subjects such as choosing their faith, or no faith, they are really making the decision for their children.  They are taking that decision away from their children.

One person’s indoctrination is another person’s Sunday School.



I have used the word “abuse” deliberately. I know it is an inflammatory word. It comes with many connotations. That is why I chose it.    There are degrees of abuse. “Abuse” describes a spectrum of behaviors from the mild to the severe.

I also recognize that standards change. When I was a young lawyer there was no such thing as sexual harassment. Well actually there was lots of it. We just never talked about it. There was no such legal concept, but there was actually lots of sexual harassment. People did things they would not be proud of today. I include myself in that sorry category. I am not talking about sexual assault here. Standards have changed and men should be criticized for what they did. That does not make them evil. It means what they did was wrong and should never be repeated.

When I was young we were allowed to smoke in university classrooms. I pity the poor non-smokers in the classes. We were bad. Now we are repelled at the thought

It is the same with abuse. When I was young, teachers were allowed (expected?) to beat their students. Some of them did that severely. I was spanked by a teacher. I was given  no reason why. She never even told me what I had been done. I know I probably earned it.  As a result I learned nothing from the punishment. (That may explain a lot about me.) But I would not call that abuse. Or if it was abuse, it was very mild. I could take it. It was on the mild end of the spectrum.

I define the term “abuse” as behavior whereby a strong person takes unreasonable advantage of a weaker person for his or her own advantage.  The word “unreasonable” is intended to suggest that a reasonable person would not do it. That is an objective standard. Some people would do it.

As an example, if young and vigorous Johnny persuades his Mother to transfer her bank account to him to “protect it” from her other children while he uses that money for his own advantage, I would call that abuse. This is a case of serious abuse.

Another example of abuse, I submit, is when a parent uses his or her authority and power over children to turn them over to a professional manipulator of children, such as an itinerant preacher, in order to “persuade” the children to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  That is a violation of the child’s autonomy. That does not mean parents who did this are wicked. That does not mean parents cannot educate their children or guide their children. They must do that. Children need that. Parents however must be careful to respect the children. We always say children must respect their elders. That is true, but the elders must also respect the children. Revivalism in my opinion goes too far. It was well beyond respect. It was unreasonable. It was abuse.

Is Revivalism Child Abuse?


I was born and raised in a small town in Southern Manitoba, Steinbach, that was famous for its religiosity. We were constantly in the news about social issues, particularly when they involved a religious twist from the conventional wisdom.

Recently I was reminded of this when an old friend, Ralph Friesen, delivered a lecture at our local heritage museum on the history of the revival meetings in Steinbach. He woke me from my slumber.

In the days of my youth our town was regularly visited by itinerant preachers usually at the behest of the local ministerial association when they thought our town needed to be stirred out of the spiritual torpor that inevitably came over it. Actually every revival in turn had to be followed a few years later by another. It was always difficult to keep religion at a fever pitch for long. The revivals were often held in huge tents and were like a special community church service led by a special preacher, often from the United States. There was also stirring music as well to get the crowd fired up.

The point of revival meetings was the emotional response. That was why they were held. They were meant to get people excited and passionate about religion. I learned from Ralph that originally the meetings were targeted only at adults. Frankly, I have no strong objection to that. If adults want to be influenced by emotional appeals, I suppose there is nothing dastardly about that. It would not interest me, but if others want that,  the principle of religious freedom, which I support, surely permits that.

Eventually the revivals started to target young people as well. Many of my friends were strongly encouraged or even required to attend by their well-meaning but misguided (in my opinion) parents . These parents I believe genuinely wanted the best for their children and what could be more important or beneficial than leading them to the lord?

Here I think the supposed moral high ground of the revivals is a little more like the swampy quagmire of the lowlands. Personally I am not keen on any sort of indoctrination or inculcation, but when directed at impressionable youth with well oiled religious machines lubricated with strongly emotional appeals based often on primal fears, I have even less respect for them.

I remember well the religious crusade launched against the youth of Steinbach in the 1960s by Wes Arum. Arum-Scarum we scoffers called him, for good reason.  He was a powerful speaker. Much more effective than Billy Graham I thought. I remember how a group of my friends and I attended these meetings with scoffing scepticism.

Unfortunately I missed the grand finale sermon on the last week of the crusade. After that last meeting I was shocked to learn that one of my very good friends who was one of the most intelligent boys I knew, succumbed to the altar call where he was asked to accept Jesus as his personal savior. This  happened a day after he, like all of us, assured our group that our scepticism was rock solid and no calls would be heeded. But he did. My friends and I were amazed. How could this happen? We were stunned.

Fortunately we learned that the Arum-Scarum crusade would be repeated in another small town about an hour away. One of my friends and I made sure we attended the grand finale there. The sermon was a masterpiece. Arum tugged at the heartstrings, and more importantly, the fears, of the young people.

The sermon centred on a story about a crusade at a college dorm. One of the students there missed the crusade and was wakened from his sleep in the night. The dormitory was completely empty when he woke up. He ran through the halls screaming for his friends. No one heard or answered his calls. He was desperate. Where could they be? He did not realize the crusade was not over. All the students but him were there. He screamed in terror because he concluded he had been left behind. Everyone had been called to heaven in the rapture except him. He was left behind—forever!

It was an extremely emotional and powerful speech. It was easy to see how a young person, susceptible to such ideas after a lifetime of inculcation by his parents and his church, could have ‘the hell scared out of him.’  That I believe is exactly what happened to my friend. Personally I believe fear is a very poor basis for making a wise decision.

Is it right for adults to do this to young children, even in the name of religious salvation? We all want our children to have the best, to be led from darkness to light, but is this the right way?

All of this reminds me of what Christians did to indigenous youth in residential schools in Canada. Operators of those institutions wanted to ‘drive the Indian out of the Indians.’  They thought they were doing that in the name of good cause. They wanted to civilize the savages and lead them to salvation. They wanted to make them like the white at any cost. It was worth it they thought. The arrogance of white people shredded the dignity and respect of the young indigenous students. Now we know that was horrendous abuse. I do not equate the suffering of indigenous people at the hands of the residential school system. The suffering of indigenous youth  was obviously on a scale of horror well beyond that of Mennonite youth. I merely draw attention to the similar motivation of those in power over their vulnerable youth.  Power has to be exercised with extreme caution even when motives are good. I believe most of them meant well? Good intentions were not an excuse for the adults who ran the residential schools. Is  it for our Mennonite parents?

I asked a friend of recently mine if he felt he had been abused spiritually by his parents.  Here is part of his reply.  “They intended no evil, no wrong, and were deeply hurt by my resistance and “rebellion”.  I can’t think of how I could have done that any differently, and yet maintained who I am.  That’s the unavoidable sadness of it.  It’s a long process, and it probably never fully ends.  I can’t speak with either of my parents about this anymore, but I’ve come to terms with the dynamics of those far-off days, my part in the struggle, their part, and their fundamental decency and love.  I have no doubt they loved me, and I continue to love them.  But that’s easier said than understood.”

Were our well-meaning elders guilty of child abuse?  I know this is a provocative question, but I think it’s an important one. How far can parents go? I think they went too far. I want to explore this subject further and invite response from those who disagree with me.

Dissenting Opinion in Supreme Court Ruling on Trump’s Muslim Ban


The dissenting opinion of Justice Sotomayor was strikingly different in every respect from that of the majority. I read somewhere that the other judges in the majority looked solemnly down when she delivered it in court. It was not kind to them.

First, she dismissed the Government’s claims that it had made a comprehensive examination of policies of other foreign governments to determine if they were interfering with America’s ability to measure the vetting process of foreign nationals. To her it was clear that its review was unimpressive.

Justice Sotomayor noted that there was ample evidence, dismissed by the majority, that Trump had clear animus towards Muslims. During the campaign Trump repeated on many occasions, that he wanted a complete ban on Muslims from entering the US, even after he was warned that such comments were unconstitutional. During the campaign, any suggestions that he tone down his rhetoric were dismissed as “political correctness.” He wanted to call it as he saw it and his supporters liked him for that. So he never disavowed his statements.

Just before issuing the Proclamation implementing the Muslim ban, Trump tweeted that the travel ban should be “far larger, tougher and more specific—but stupidly, that would not be politically correct.” Just after issuing the Proclamation, Trump retweeted 3 clearly anti-Muslim videos entitled “Muslim Destroys a Statute of Virgin Mary!” and “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!” and “Muslim migrants beat up Dutch boy on crutches!” Those videos were originally tweeted by a British political party whose mission is to oppose ‘all alien an destructive political or religious doctrines including ..Islam.” The videos were highly inflammatory and arguably misleading. For example, the person depicted in the video about the Dutch boy was not actually a migrant as alleged and his religion was not known. It is abundantly clear that Trump was driven by anti-Muslim feelings. He displayed them proudly.

Justice Sotomayor started her opinion by pointing out “The United States is a Nation built upon the promise of religious liberty. Our Founders honored that core promise by embedding the principle of religious neutrality in the First Amendment. The Court’s decision today fails to safeguard that fundamental principle. It leaves undisturbed a policy first advertised openly and unequivocally as a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” because the policy now masquerades behind a façade of national-security concerns. But this repackaging does little to cleanse Presidential Proclamation No. 9645 of the appearance of discrimination that the President’s words have created. Based on the evidence in the record, a reasonable observer would conclude that the Proclamation was motivated by anti-Muslim animus.  That alone suffices to show that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their Establishment Clause claim. The majority holds otherwise by ignoring the facts, and misconstruing our legal precedent, and turning a blind eye to the pain and suffering the Proclamation inflicts upon countless families and individuals, many of whom are United States citizens. Because that troubling result runs contrary to the Constitution and our precedent, I dissent.”

Justice Sotomayor analyzed the Establishment Clause in depth. That clause in the first Amendment of the American Constitution forbids government policies “respecting an establishment of religion.” She also stated, “The  ‘clearest command’ of the Establishment Clause is that the Government cannot favor or disfavor one religion over another.”  She added, “the Establishment Clause ‘forbids hostility toward any [religion] because ‘such hostility would bring us into war with our national tradition as embodied in our First Amendment.”

The Founders of the American republic had fresh memories of the religious wars of Europe with their incredibly bloody battles and they did not want to repeat what happened there.  As Sotomayor said, “government actions that favor one religion ‘inevitably’ foster ‘the hatred, disrespect and even contempt of those who [hold] contrary beliefs…Such acts send messages that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.”

As Justice Sotomayor added, “To guard against this serious harm, the Framers mandated a strict ‘principle of denominational neutrality’…government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.’” There is no neutrality when the government’s ostensible object is to take sides.

To determine whether or not the plaintiffs proved an Establishment Clause violation the court should consider whether a reasonable observer would view the government action as enacted for the purpose of disfavoring a religion, no matter what its words said. Canadian courts usually say this by declaring that the court should look at ‘substance not form’. I would put it in the way a wise Canadian judge once put it: ‘you can call a jackass an eagle but that won’t make it fly’.  That is exactly what Trump did in her view. There was evidence before the court that Trump had asked his legal advisors to put the ban in such words that it would be legal. He wanted a Muslim ban, but he decided to camouflage it as based on territory rather than religion.

In order to determine such an issue it is permissible for the court to look beyond the fine words in the Proclamation to consider the circumstances in which it was issued. That meant the court should look at what the President and his advisors said in public, over and over again.

Justice Sotomayor went through a long analysis of numerous public statements Trump and his advisors made, and this made it absolutely clear what Trump’s actualintent was.  She said that the majority only looked at a few of his statements and a more complete review of those statements clearly demonstrated “animus toward Islam. The full record paints a more harrowing picture, from which a reasonable observer would readily conclude that the Proclamation was motivated by hostility and animus toward the Muslim faith.”

For example, in one speech Trump made in South Carolina he told a story about US General Pershing killing a large group of Muslim insurgents in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood, making it clear that such actions were needed to deal with Muslims who “hated us.” He actually repeated this story on a number of occasions. That is what strong leaders do.

Justice Sotomayor was not fooled. The Proclamation was driven by impermissible discriminatory anti-Muslim animus and not the Government’s asserted national security justifications. I would describe it this way: the Government can put lipstick on a pig, but it will still be a pig. Justice Sotomayor concluded, “The Proclamation rests on a rotten foundation…In sum, none of the features of the Proclamation highlighted by the majority supports the Government’s claim that the Proclamation is genuinely and primarily rooted in a legitimate national security interest. What the unrebuttable evidence actually shows is that a reasonable observer would conclude, quite easily, that the primary purpose and function of the Proclamation is to disfavor Islam by banishing Muslims from entering our country.”

This led Justice Sotomayor to her passionate and eloquent conclusion in which she described the First Amendment which guarantees religious freedom as follows:


The First Amendment stands as a bulwark against official religious prejudice and embodies our Nation’s deep commitment to religious plurality and tolerance.  That constitutional promise is why, [quoting from an earlier decision of the court] ‘for centuries now, people have come to this country from every corner of the world to share in the blessing of religious freedom…’ Instead of vindicating those principles, today’s decision tosses them aside. In holding that the First Amendment gives way to an executive policy that a reasonable observer would view as motivated by animus against Muslims, the majority opinion upends this Court’s precedent, repeats tragic mistakes of the past, and denies countless individuals the fundamental right of religious liberty.


In a previous case a judge of the U.S. Supreme Court had said, “State actors cannot show hostility to religious views; rather, they must give those views ‘neutral and respectful consideration.” That is what Trump and his officials and advisors should demonstrate. Clearly they did not.

As a result Justice Sotomayor said, “the majority here completely sets aside the President’s charged statements about Muslims as irrelevant. That holding erodes the fundamental principles of religious tolerance that the Court elsewhere has so emphatically protected, and it tells members of minority religions in our country ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community’.”

Finally, Justice Sotomayor compared Trump’s actions to the shameful actions of the American authorities in the case of the Korematsu v. United Statesduring the Second World War. In that case the court considered the constitutionality of an Executive Order which ordered Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II regardless of their citizenship because the need to protect against espionage outweighed the rights of Americans of Japanese descent even though there was little or no evidence that Japanese Americans were acting as spies or making signals to Japan. Instead the Court gave a pass to an odious gravely injurious Presidential order. Just as Trump did, the President at the time, invoked an ill-defined national security threat to justify an exclusionary policy of sweeping proportion. Justice Sotomayor said, “As here, the exclusion was rooted in dangerous stereotypes about, inter alia, a particular group’s supposed inability to assimilate and desire to harm the United States.” Many thought that in the intervening years America had done much to leave its sordid legacy behind. Sadly, Trump and his supporters made it clear that this was not the case. That legacy is very much alive.

Justice Sotomayor made it clear that unlike the majority of the Supreme Court, she did not tolerate this. As she said, “By blindly accepting the Government’s misguided invitation to sanction a discriminatory policy motivated by animosity toward a disfavored group, all in the name of a superficial claim of national security, the Court deploys the same dangerous logic underlying Korematsuand merely replaces one gravely wrong decision with another. Our constitution demands, and our country deserve a Judiciary willing to hold the coordinate branches to account when they defy our most sacred legal commitments. Because the Court’s decision today has failed in that respect, with profound regret, I dissent.”

Maybe you can tell. I much prefer the dissenting opinion to that of the majority of the US Supreme Court.



Religious freedom to discriminate: Law Society of British Columbia and Trinity Western University and Brayden Volkenant


Many people in my community have become very excited about the case of Law Society of British Columbia and Trinity Western University (‘TWU’) and Brayden Volkenantwhich together with a similar case in Ontario went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada (‘SCC’) for a decision about how religious freedom and the right to be free from discrimination worked together in Canada. It is always difficult for courts to reconcile 2 conflicting freedoms. In this case at issue was the right of the TWU community to religious freedom and the right of members of the LGBTQ community to be free from discrimination. Both are important rights protected by the Charter. Should one override the other or should one be bent in favor of the other?

To evangelical Christians in my community this was a crucial case. They felt their religious freedom was at stake. I heard that the Southland Church, the largest evangelical church in town, , held a fast and vigil the night before the decision was announced. Their prayers went unanswered.

TWU is an evangelical Christian postsecondary school that sought to open a law school that would require its students to sign a Covenant Agreement (‘Covenant’) that prohibits “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” That covenant prohibits conduct throughout the 3 years of law school even when students are off campus in the privacy of their own homes.

The Law Society of British Columbia (‘LSBC’) is the regulator of the legal profession in BC and implemented a resolution declaring TWU’s proposed law school was not an approved faculty of law because of its mandatory covenant. It felt that the covenant was discriminatory against the LGBTQ community and others. TWU and one of its students made an application to court to compel LSBC to approve its law school arguing that its failure to do so violated its religious rights protected by s. 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (‘Charter’). The SCC upheld the decision of the LSBC and hence the proposed law school is notapproved in BC. Other provinces may follow the same course of action.

Was the SCC right or are the protesters at Southland right? The reasons of the court were long and complicated. I would recommend that anyone interested in this subject read those reasons in their entirety. It is difficult to fairly précis the decisions. All in all 7 SCC judges agreed with LSBC and 2 dissented agreeing with TWU.

The nub of the matter is that law school seats are a treasured benefit. Hundreds of people, across Canada apply for each seat. TWU would have had 60 seats available for its graduates and it was clear to all that TWU’s Covenant would have effectively closed the door to the vast majority of LGBTQ students. Those who would have been able to sign the Covenant would have had 60 more law school seats per year to apply for than LGBTQ students. In short LGBTQ students would have fewer opportunities relative to others. Should that have been allowed? The majority of the SCC said “no”. The SCC held that this would undermine true equality of access to legal education and by extension the legal profession. According to the majority of the SCC “substantive equality demands more than just the availability of options and opportunities–it prevents the violation of essential human dignity and freedom” and “eliminates any possibility of a person being treated in substance as ‘less worthy’ than others.”

TWU admitted that eliminating the mandatory Covenant, which is what LSBC required, would not prevent any believing member of their community from adhering to their beliefs. Rather it said removing the Covenant was an interference with their members’ beliefs that they must be in an institution with others who shared or respected their practices on sexual relations.

The majority of the 7 judges (5 of them) disagreed with TWU holding that the impact of the decision of the LSBC was “of minor significance” to the religious freedom of the TWU community.  The Chief Justice McLachlin and one other judge  admitted it was of morethan minor significance. butnonethelessagreed that the Covenant could not lawfully be required. I find her judgment the most interesting.

First, because TWU is a private institution, the Charter does not apply to it and it is allowed to discriminate against the LGBTQ community (even though I would argue it ought not to do that because it is not right to do so). But the TWU insistence on the mandatory Covenant is a discriminatory practice because it imposes a burden on LGBTQ people solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. Married heterosexual law students can have sexual relations, while married LGBTQ students may not! The Covenant “singles out LGBTQ students” (and others I would add) “as less worthy of respect and dignity than heterosexual people and reinforces negative stereotypes against them,” the Chief Justice said. Those LGBTQ students who insist on equal treatment will have less access to law school and hence the practice of law than heterosexual students. Heterosexual students can choose from all law schools without discrimination, where one law school would only be available to LGBTQ students willing to endure discrimination.  This, the court determined, is a harmcaused by the exercise of religious freedom by TWU.

The LSBC is duty bound to protect the public interest and preserve and protect the rights and freedoms of everyone, including the LGBTQ people. The religious freedom of TWU stops at the point where it harms others and infringes on their rights. The LSBC was within its rights to refuse to condone practices that treat certain groups as less worthy than others. I would respectfully suggest that members of the Southland Church Community should also refuse to condone such practices on the part of TWU.

The Chief Justice admitted that this decision has negative impacts on the religious freedom of the TWU community and these were of more than minor significance. Yet she accepted the position of the LSBC that it could not condone a practice that discriminates by imposing burdens on the LGBTQ community on the basis of sexual orientation, with negative consequences for the LGBTQ community, diversity, and enhancement of equality in the legal profession. The Law Society was faced with an either-or decision  on which compromise was impossible–either allow the mandatory Covenant in TWU’s proposal to stand, and thereby condone unequal treatment of LGBTQ people, or deny accreditation and limit TWU’s religious practices . In the end, she said, “after much struggle the LSBC concluded that the imperative of refusing to condone discrimination and unequal treatment on the basis of sexual orientation outweighed TWU’s claims to freedom of religion…The LSBC cannot abide by its duty to combat discrimination and accredit TWU at the same time.”

While I agree completely with the decision of the Chief Justice of Canada and the other judge who agreed with her, I want to go a step farther. I want to go beyond the narrow confines of the law and the Canadian Charter. I think it is time–no it is high time–for the evangelical religious community to take an honest look at itself and its traditional practices. It is time for it to stop using religious freedom as a shield to allow it to infringe on the rights of others. That is not the purpose of religious freedom. It is time for the evangelical community to stop causing harm to others in the name of religious freedom. That is what it tried to do in this case and d it has done so over and over again in the name of religious freedom on the basis of dubious interpretations of ancient texts. The evangelical community can and should to better.