For academics, religion is a conflict of interests

Margaret Somerville
November 26, 2013
Reproduced with Permission

In the last few weeks I have received several emails in which the senders - some in Canada, others in Australia - told me they were at some event or meeting and when my name came up as a possible speaker, I was dismissed as being of no interest, because I was "simply a mouthpiece for the Roman Catholic Church". Although some activists who adamantly disagree with my views and arguments about ethics have sometimes used this "label as religious and dismiss on that basis" kind of ad hominem attack against me, I was puzzled that its use seemed to have recently increased and extended beyond them.

For the record, my family is Roman Catholic - although, when I was young, my father was a card carrying atheist-communist, who refused to set foot in a church - and I was educated in Roman Catholic schools, for which I am deeply grateful. I also have great respect for religion and regard its misuse as abhorrent.

All that said, I've been a participant in the public square for more than thirty years and have never argued from a religious base in presenting ethical and legal analyses of the issues with which I deal. So why was this seeming expansion of labelling me as Roman Catholic occurring now?

A few days ago, a message from a well-known Montreal journalist was passed on to me and gave me a clue. She asked whether I was aware of the current content of the Wikipedia entry under my name. I looked and saw it had recently been modified to include many statements that can be summarized as: "Margaret Somerville is a Roman Catholic apologist; ...she just parrots the "Catholic line"; ...she's instructed by the Vatican", and so on.

I corrected the entry, but then it was changed again - in a completely outrageous, much more extreme way than before. The important point to understand, however, is why the person or persons responsible for these statements would label me in this way.

It's a "label and dismiss" strategy. People who cannot tolerate religion - indeed, who despise and are hostile to it - try to suppress the voices of people they perceive as religious, and their arguments and views with which they disagree, by using a "derogatorily label the person and dismiss them on the basis of that label" approach. For them, calling a person religious is highly derogatory. This strategy allows them to eliminate their opponents' arguments, without needing to deal with the substance of those arguments.

It's a common tactic. I published an article in the online Globe and Mail arguing for the importance of children's biological ties to their parents and doing the least damage possible to these. This was extremely unpopular with same-sex marriage supporters, who believe that what constitutes a family is simply a matter of adults' personal preferences. Here's one response to that article: "Any chance that Dr. Somerville is a Catholic? If so, she should at least state it in her opinion pieces and not hide behind her ivory tower."

In light of such attacks, the decision of the editors of some of the world's leading medical journals to require that authors reveal their religious affiliations in their conflict of interest disclosures, which are published with the authors' articles, can be seen as surprising and probably not wise. I happen to be against infant male circumcision and regard it as unethical, but I do not agree with the articles of Jewish medical researchers supporting this practice being dismissed simply on the basis that the authors have a religious reason for their support.

Some people's religious and moral beliefs conflict with some politically correct positions. Again, a "label and dismiss" strategy is used. Those challenging a politically correct stance are often automatically branded as intolerant, bigots or hatemongers and, yet again, the substance of their arguments against the politically correct stance is not addressed. Rather, they are dismissed as being intolerant and hateful just for making those arguments. In short, political correctness can be used to shut down non-politically correct people's freedom of speech and also, sometimes, to suppress freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

This leads me to the charter of Quebec values. The title of Bill 60 begins, Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality... The problem is that State secularism, properly understood, and religious neutrality are in direct conflict; they are entirely incompatible.

Secularism is a belief form and ideology, much like a religion, a principal edict of which is the active exclusion of religion, religious people or religious views and values from having any influence or role in the public square, in particular, any input into social or public policy, or law. That is not "religious neutrality".

Moreover, if religious people are disqualified on the basis of their lack of neutrality, adherents of other belief systems, such as secularism, should be dealt with likewise. Clearly, that would be an unworkable situation as everyone would be excluded, because we all have beliefs that guide us. The answer to this dilemma is that all voices have a right to be included and heard in the democratic public square. This liberty right is the correct understanding of the nature of a secular state and respecting it is at its heart. Importantly, as this demonstrates, such a state is the polar opposite of one that espouses secularism.

I began by describing the allegations that my views are informed by religion and it's wrong on my part not to disclose that. In contrast, the Quebec values charter would eliminate religious symbols from the public square, that is, it specifically seeks to hide people's religious affiliations. But the people in question, who comply with the "un-dress code", will continue to hold their beliefs. Quite apart from the human rights and ethics breaches the charter would perpetrate, would we be better or worse off not knowing what these people's beliefs are? Or could the promoters of the Charter be hoping that people with particular religious beliefs will no longer be found in certain positions of authority, because they will not seek positions in which they would be prohibited from wearing symbols of their beliefs?