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Last night I was a panelist on the monthly FDA podcast (link to follow once it is on iTunes) discussing the question of whether or not political parties based on religious principles should be allowed to form in democratic countries. Besides me, there were a couple of representatives from the Party of Concerned Christians (Artur and Jim) that do indeed base their platform directly on the Bible, one very excitable member of FDA (Dan) and the moderator and founder of FDA (Stephen).

An interesting topic, but I think the question is ill-formed. I have no problem with the formation of any political party regardless of platform (within the limits set out on free speech). I think placing any unreasonable limitations on what a political party can stand for (again, with the same caveats) is fundamentally and fatally antidemocratic. Dan was the only dissenter on this, and I think he’s plain wrong. What he’s afraid of is theocracy. No argument there, particularly if one uses the Bible as the basis of political platforms. The two Christian members of the panel disagreed, of course, but offered absolutely no substance in rebuttal. Let’s face it – the Old Testament is strong evidence of a patently evil god and if that god were to exist there is no way I would possibly even consider worshiping it.

My position about the formation of parties being unfettered aside (which probably shocks a lot of those who know me), my problem is with policy. This applies to secular as much as it would to a sectarian party. But there’s a special problem with the latter. The party Artur and Jim represent takes their policy directly from the Bible (which to avoid hate crime laws necessarily involves cherry picking scripture – even these two street preachers have eschewed the nastier bits in the Bible). Let’s look at the example I gave right at the start of the podcast, the most important point I wanted to get across.

Let’s imagine a party based in orthodox Judaism wants to table legislating the abolishment of clothing made from mixed fibers (it’s in the OT, folks – look it up). No one, not even a rabbi can tell you why this prohibition exists. No one can tell me that there is at all a secular reason for this prohibition. I’m wearing cotton blends right now, folks, and I am not exactly in a moral quandary here. In other words, no one not an orthodox Jew could possibly understand such legislation. Since any party forming a government has to make at least a pretense at representing the whole of its citizenry, this is bad policy. It is imposing a prohibition on people that do not hold the value upheld by the legislation to be a valid one.

An absurd example? I suppose, but let’s take a look at where I went with this. There are no secular reasons to disallow same-sex marriage. None. It is discrimination based on sexual orientation and I believe that discrimination can not be justified. Not ever. Clear? Since there are no secular reasons for banning gay marriage and only sectarian edicts against it, I find this policy (part of Artur’s and Jim’s party platform) to be just as patently absurd as a prohibition against mixed-fiber clothing.

Thus, sectarian policy will only make sense to members of the sect. In discussing this after the podcast, Jim articulated to me that he would not try to explain it to me in those terms, but in terms secularists such as myself would understand.

Lovely. Is it just me, or is it intellectually dishonest in the extreme to give reasons to convince someone of your position that weren’t the ones that convinced you? I find it worthy of derision. And that’s exactly what Jim did when he tried to justify a policy of discrimination not because “It’s in the Bible”, but with ad hoc rationalizations that he thinks might convince me.

Let me make this perfectly clear. There is NO justification for discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religious belief or sexual orientation. NONE. The rationalizations included one that tries to elicit a “Oh, but who will think of the children?” response. Please. A quick perusal of the relevant literature shows that children in same-sex marriages do quite well. But let’s just accept for the moment that such children are statistically more likely to be depressed. Why would that be? Could it be that they experience bullying at school like overtly homosexual children do? “Look, homosexual children kill themselves! We need to make them straight!” This is called “blaming the victim”, and the solution is not in “correcting” something that is in no need of correction (either the sexual orientation of a child or restricting marriages to straight couples), but in correcting the poisonous atmosphere which prejudice and bigotry generate. As G. Pennigs writes in the journal Human Reproduction, “Children in same-sex families are generally doing well but their situation could be improved if their parents’ relationship were to be socially and legally recognized.” I’d be depressed too if someone constantly berated and bullied me in school wearing cotton blend clothing in an environment where it was not acceptable for no good reason. Jim would point to me and say, “See? Children that wear mixed-fiber clothing are unhappy! We need to ban wearing cotton blends!” That’s just nuts.

In fact, the only study on children raised in nontraditional versus nuclear families that supported Jim’s position was done by members of the Family Research Institute. Their stated purpose is “…one overriding mission: to generate empirical research on issues that threaten the traditional family, particularly homosexuality, AIDS, sexual social policy, and drug abuse”. [sarcasm]No, no conflict of interest there[\sarcasm]. It is neither scientific nor intellectually honest to start with one’s conclusions as the premises (which is the logical fallacy known as “begging the question”). The founder of the FRI, Paul Cameron, was struck from the rolls of the American Psychological Association for ethics violations. The Canadian Psychological Association disassociated itself from having anything to do with Cameron’s work on sexuality by stating he “consistently misinterpreted and misrepresented research on sexuality, homosexuality, and lesbianism”. Yeah, a really credible source this is. While I am someone who is likely to be swayed by empirical evidence (not in this case, since I don’t care what the stats are on the subject when it comes to using it as an excuse to oppress minorities), I will never be convinced by evidence form a body that has likely contrived it. Tainted doesn’t even begin to describe it, and why do I get the feeling that these and other ‘researchers’ with massive conflicts of interest and biases are Jim’s sources?

All of Jim’s arguments from a Trojan horse, very seductive on their face until you realize that they are specifically designed get you to agree to justifying discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (as if the basis matters) I categorically reject them and don’t even have to get to the issue of the veracity of the claims he makes. And the arguments in and of themselves are simply false or blaming the victim. Another of his arguments was similar. According to Jim, children growing up with same-sex parents generally do not do as well as children in a nuclear family, and he falls into a great big trap of his own making. All one has to is to look for other situations where this might be so and ask the question “Do we ban that too?” Divorce immediately comes to mind. I didn’t get a straight answer from him on this apart from “I would ban the frivolous forms of divorce.”

Artur (and this is on the podcast) claims that he has asked people on the street (he’s been arrested for harassment by Calgary City Police for his street preaching, and I am very suspicious that we are not getting the whole story from him concerning these incidents and his claims that his right to free speech is being violated (yet strangely no judge has agreed that this is the case), but I let that go) and that most people he encounters think same-sex marriage is a bad idea (an Ipsus-Reid poll this is not…). He wants a referendum on the issue. (Artur also claimed that separation of church and state is only there to protect religion. I set that fucking nonsense straight right quick. At least Jim gets it.)

What Artur is suggesting is to use a majority as a blunt instrument to violate the rights of a minority. Honestly, I don’t give a rat’s ass at how big a majority one has. No majority has the right to violate the rights of a minority. This is ABSOLUTE, and why democracies must have a good constitution with a bill of rights (in the case of this country, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms) embedded within it. Majorities can not always be trusted to do the right thing, let alone always protect the rights of those that don’t share their views, and so must act within a framework set out in a constitution. As an atheist I am acutely aware of this.

Both Jim and Artur I’m sure think their reasons are sound. It’s just that no one else does. Jim thinks there are secular reasons for banning same-sex marriage when there can be no reason to discriminate against gay couples. Artur thinks that if enough voters agree that that is sufficient to use as a blunt instrument to violate the rights of a minority. Fuck that. Does anyone really think that if Stephen Harper, the current Prime Minister of this country, thought he could repeal the legislation permitting same-sex unions that he would not already have done so? That is beyond reasonable thought. He’d have done it in a heartbeat. The reason he hasn’t done so is very simple – because he knows that because of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the Constitution Act of 1981 any constitutional challenge will result in striking down such legislation.

As for me, the idea of prohibiting two people who are in a committed relationship from enjoying the benefits society bestows on those who are allowed to marry a despicable platform is worth actively opposing. As an atheist, I am sometimes accused of not having anything to be thankful for (especially around Thanksgiving…). Well, I’m thankful for living in a country that respects individual rights (which, by the way, can not be arrived at through sectarian principles…).

Another statement that I found rather dishonest (by ‘dishonest’, I do not mean out-and-out lying) that you will hear in the podcast and afterwards gained a pretty good understanding of the mechanism of this form of dishonesty, is when Jim claimed that Christianity hasn’t changed since its beginning. Well anyone familiar with the history of Christianity knows that is a pile of bullshit. The gospels themselves demonstrate a clear evolution of theology and its heterogeneity in the first two centuries. The situation gets worse when one considers that there were Christians who believed in one, two or many gods, that Jesus was a god, a man adopted by god, etc. Some of these theological differences are clear in the NT canon, others are in various other written works deemed not orthodox. Jim claimed Paul wrote more than half the NT, but he was clearly not aware that scholars have deemed six of the thirteen epistles as forgeries (and I informed him of this). But when I informed him post-podcast about the huge variations is Christianity he just said “those aren’t Christianity”. What he means is those aren’t his Christianity, committing the “No True Scottsman” fallacy. And that’s where I understood everything. He’s deluded himself into thinking there is only one Christianity and all else isn’t. That’s nonsense. I guess “denial” isn’t just a river in Egypt. But that mode of thinking pervades his whole thought process, including his views on same-sex marriage. At some level I’m sure Jim knows that he’s being discriminatory and that discrimination is wrong, but because his holy books tell him otherwise, he has to remain in denial to prevent his whole world from crashing down. He’s not dumb. Quite the contrary. He’s just very, very deluded about his views being inherently self-contradictory. The cognitive dissonance has GOT to hurt…

I’ve said that I have no problems with sectarian parties forming. My problem is always policy. Policies based on sectarian grounds are by their nature exclude anyone outside the sect. Not only that, sectarian policies are all about limiting choice (the abortion issue comes to mind, and was discussed in the podcast), and I can not in any way see how this is a good thing. Worse, no matter how much sectarian parties try to frame their policies in a secular manner, it is still the thin edge of the wedge in creating a theocratic form of governance, and I say “Fuck that.”

I’ve been invited back for part deux in several weeks (December 6), when the panel will (hopefully) include an Islamic scholar and imam. I will have to ask Richard Dawkins’ question: “What is the penalty for apostasy in Islam?” Talk about the ultimate violation of the right to free speech. People are killed for expressing disbelief in some places, folks. And Christians, don’t get too smug about that. It wasn’t all that long ago when you were doing the same. (The Enlightenment was a reaction to that, so I guess in one way Christianity WAS responsible for Enlightenment values, but there is no way to them through a chain of logic from scripture…). I also want to bring up the blasphemy laws and the attempt by Islamic nations to make blasphemy illegal globally by hijacking the United Nations. How democratic is that? For those who listen to the podcast I ask, “Will Dan blow up?” Stay tuned….


  1. In my opinion, I do not think your critique of the FDA podcast on religion and democracy is entirely accurate.

    The podcast topic of discussion was whether or not religious based political parties should be allowed to participate in elections as electable parties. The source of this topic stems partly from the Egyptian Law No.40 (under Hosni Mubarak) of the year 1977 Concerning the Political Parties System and its Amendments. In Article 3 (4) of this law, it states that religious based political parties are banned from the Egyptian electoral process.

    The podcast was not about whether or not the policies of the Christian Heritage Party of Canada are unacceptable or acceptable democratically, and therefore they are grounds for banning or registering the party. Unfortunately, part of the podcast focused on this issue.

    The important result of the podcast is that the seven panelists present, comprised of atheists, agnostics, and Christians all agreed that secular and religious based political parties should be banned from the electoral process if their policies contradict fundamental human and political rights.

    The second podcast on December 6 will focus on defining the threshold for banning political parties, and address political parties who are secret about their agenda or change it overtime with severe negative consequences.

    Stephen Garvey
    Foundation for Democratic Advancement
    Founder, Executive Director, and Co-Director of
    Research and Project Initiative

    • I edited the comment as you requested.

      I wasn’t writing a critique of the podcast. I thought it was excellent. I was writing of my experiences and thoughts both during and following it, not assessing the relevance of the question or the quality of the podcast. I vouch for the accuracy of what I wrote, though, because these were my own thoughts and as such I am the only arbiter qualified to gauge their validity. I was not intending this to be in any way an assessment of the podcast – just my own thoughts and feelings.

      The question under consideration is an excellent one but it would have been nice to have known where it was coming form prior to the podcast. The question as stated is broad and no one else present knew in what context it was intended. Since our own experiences will presuppose a North American context (and this definitely comes out in the podcast), this is a very different context than was perhaps intended. I can only speak for myself, but I was not informed of the original context of the question and only knew what was given me. But this accident perhaps was to the advantage of the podcast since there was no one there with any expertise in Middle Eastern politics.

      I know very little of the religio-politics of the the Middle East (what we get from news services would hardly make anyone so) and can’t speak to it with any authority. I don’t think anyone there could. I would thus have been extremely uncomfortable in the absence of someone that was qualified to speak on the subject, and so it remained a more localized context. It’s too easy to create straw men under such circumstances, and we would end up congratulating each other for knocking them down. That would not have been something I would have wanted to be part of.

      But considering the question as posed – whether formation of sectarian parties should be allowed – is meaningless unless one considers what sectarian parties represent. That to me is the definition of ‘policy’. So to consider the question at all without looking at policy makes the question nonsensical. Might as well consider banning any party if one is not going to consider why they are going to do so. And the only way we can assess whether or not a party should be banned – should we come to the conclusion that any party can be banned and not not make democracy a travesty – has to be made on the basis of policy if we want to go beyond a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question posed. I am not the only person on the panel that was going straight for policy as a reason to reject any such party. Like Dan, I think the Bible is a vile document and the few snippets of good in there I hardly think we need a deity to figure it out. God-ordered wholesale slaughter, barbaric punishments, injustice, slavery, misogyny – all Bible-endorsed activities – aren’t a good basis for a political party that is supposed to represent all citizens. The difference between Dan and me is that I can not accept that banning a party on any basis except the same reasons for which freedom of speech is already limited is democratic. Maybe we should have started here. I dunno. What do you think, Stephen? But from the pre-podcast info I was given I think there were some communication issues as to what was desired to achieve. I should have asked. If that was what you wanted, there was little of that in the podcast and we weren’t steered that way.

      So, if we have an answer to the question: Is banning sectarian parties compatible with a democratic process? (My answer is already known…), the question which logically follows is “On what basis do we ban sectarian parties?” This inevitably leads to a discussion of founding principles and policy built on those principles. In fact, the basis for banning ANY party can only be arrived at this way. This is exactly what Dan was trying to accomplish. If I had arrived at a different answer to the first question, I would be in 100% agreement with Dan. (Except that I don’t believe for one second that the Christians on the panel use any of the parts of the Bible Dan and I would consider to be repugnant to inform their policy because they themselves don’t agree with it. Artur alluded to parts of the Sermon on the Mount and what Christians consider to be the good stuff (I’m actually not that much of a fan of the Sermon on the Mount, either) while either denying or ignoring the OT or the nasty parts of the NT, so he’s engaging in quite a bit of cherry picking, so the claim that the Bible might be the basis for their policies is at best only partly true.)

      In allowing sectarian parties, I place a lot of faith and hope (so much for atheists having neither!) that the electorate in an established democratic society such as Canada will do the right thing and reject these kinds of parties. As such, I will always defend the rights of others, even though others might not want the same for me. Hey, I’m an atheist. I’m used to it.

      I think Michael Douglas’ character in The American President said it best:

      America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free”.

      The Islamic nations have two problems that the Western nations have long since surmounted. One is that we actually have democratic institutions. We’ve had them for a long time. We’re not only used to it, but most will actively defend them. Thus, those entrusted with safeguarding these institutions generally have already “drunk the Kool Aid”, and in a good way. Islam is new to the game, and is really trying to feel their way, but at least they have some examples of where you can get.

      Two, as Aayan Hrsi Ali notes, Islam has not yet had its Voltaire. It has not gone through an Enlightenment where the basic principles of rights and freedoms have become part of their culture. Prime examples of this include the attempt by Islamic nations to make blasphemy a crime via the UN and Ali’s own requirement of security for her own personal safety.

      Maybe this is more in line with what you had intended, Stephen. Any thoughts?

  2. Thank you for your clarification.

    The intent of the first podcast on religion and democracy was to establish, universally, whether or not, religious based political parties should be banned. In my opinion, this is a political philosophy question. (I mentioned Egypt merely to shed light on the origin of the podcast topic.) I assume that fundamental democratic principles are universal.

    As mentioned, the panel determined, with consensus, that both secular and religious based political parties should be banned if they violate fundamental human and political rights.

    I agree that policy is integral to determining the basis for banning a political party. The second podcast will focus specifically on policy and what should be the threshold for banning a political party. As you articulated, this is a very delicate question, because of the implications of determining a flawed threshold.

    To put the podcast in context, this is first time the FDA has done a panel podcast. As mentioned, your suggestions for the second podcast such as two minutes for introductions and closing statements for all participants will be implemented. Also, the topic of the podcast will be explained with greater clarify to avoid confusion and minimize tangents during the podcast.

    I agree with your thoughts on Islam, though based on my research they are making significant progress for example in the UK. Though the same issues arise as with Christianity–the inability to disconnect with scripture and the political and social ramifications of what scriptures are drawn on. (However, as established in the podcast, secular parties are susceptible to their own biases and misguided beliefs. Ultimately, as also established in the podcast, people are not perfect, thereby they are susceptible to error, mistake, corruption, so safeguards, checks and balances are critical to democracy.)

    Stephen Garvey

    • Okay, now we’re talking!

      Dang. If I had understood this the whole timbre of the discussion would have been greatly different (at least coming from my chair). My bad. I took it to where my own biases lie, but I think most of us there did as well. But you’re right. There was still meaningful discussion. I just hope the audio isn’t too jumbled for your listeners.

      I think there is a very different feel to the question if we consider it in a western or eastern context, as you might glean from my previous comment. There’s a big difference in how ingrained the principles of democracy are between the two, and the color of the same question changes depending geopolitcial context.

      In a western constitutional democracy my answer is clearly “no”, it is a violation of democratic principles to ever even consider this. But we in the west live in cultures where democratic principles are deeply ingrained to the point where even sectarian parties are convinced that democratic principles and the freedoms we enjoy stem from their religion. I am not worried at all that even should a party like that represented by Jim and Artur form a government that legislation repealing same-sex marriage or the reproductive rights of women could ever come to pass. Constitutions can be changed, certainly, but not easily and I really doubt that the odds are significant at all. As I said, if Stephen Harper thought it could be done, he would already have tried. I think he knows he would fail.

      But given a different geopolitical context, I might give a different answer. And it’s a shame that the conversation never swung this way, though I would want someone with significant knowledge of the region their to keep us on the straight and narrow. I have to admit that I was not upset at the decision of the Algerian military to step in and invalidate the results of the 1991 election when the Islamic Salvation Front won. This is the first example that leaped into my brain when I finally understood the direction of the question. The only caveat to this is, can we actually say that even the most democratic of these countries are more than just facsimiles of democracies? I don’t think a single one is truly democratic and sectarian principles pervade their elected governments through and through. I’m not sure the actions of the Algerian military were about preserving democracy so much as preventing a complete removal of the veneer of democracy altogether. I dunno. This is a sticky wicket, to be sure. Is it right to temporarily (one hopes) suspend a democratic process when a party that vows to destroy secularism? Now my answer to the question might change.

      I’m not convinced the case of the UK is a sterling example. The caving in by the British to Islamic demands for sharia law is a step backwards, not forwards. Even if I didn’t think it a misogynistic, barbaric and antiquated institution, my secular sense tells me that there must be only one set of laws in any country that applies to ALL its citizenry, no exceptions. Sharia law gives special status to Muslims who choose to go that route, one which no one outside of this sect can access. One could argue that even in Canada such things already exist. There are “Sentencing Circles” for First Nations peoples and the Rabbinical Assembly for members of Judaism. But this argument would hold no water with me because I would like to see ALL forms of legal exceptions removed. Secular means government is blind to anyone’s sex, sexual orientation, religion, race, whatever. The existence of these bodies can only erode that. I understand that they are still subservient to the judicial system, but to a staunch secularist such as me that is no excuse for giving anyone special status on such bases.

      Thanks, Stephen!

  3. Good points.

    At the FDA, we apply to same democratic standard to all countries which hold elections. To do otherwise, would in my opinion undermine the objectivity of our approach.

    In the case of the UK, and sorry for the lack of clarification, I was referring to a UK Islamic party I researched. In my view, it has some very developed, advanced democratic principles:

    Hizb ut-Tahrir, The Liberation Party of Britain:

    The Khilafah applies the Islamic constitution, it replaces the existing plethora of constitutions that keep the Muslim world subjugated and backward. The Khilafah guarantees elections, and regional and ‘nationwide’ assemblies which form the pre-requisite governance institutions, including a judicial authority to check the actions of the executive, and protect the rights of all citizens – men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. The Islamic state will neither be theocratic nor does it model itself on any other contemporary Muslim state.

    • The new Islamic constitution will have one head of state (Khalifah) to replace the current unstable and ill-defined roles of Monarch, President or Prime Minister. A new People’s Assembly (Majlis ul Ummah) will replace the plethora of lower and upper houses and a strengthened judiciary, with a new court targeting state injustice (Mahkamat ul-Madhalim), will replace the existing politically manipulated legal system. Both the new judiciary and elected People’s Assembly will provide the requisite institutional checks and balances in the Islamic political system.

    • Both the head of state and the new People’s Assembly will be elected via an open, transparent and fair process. The People’s Assembly comprises representatives from across the Khilafah and will include Muslims and non-Muslims. The council is designed not only to make representations to the state, but also has the power to scrutinise and overturn state policy, analyse the budget and hold leaders to account.

    • All judges in the new Court of Injustices and other courts will be independent from the executive and consultative assembly. No individual – not the Khaleefah, armed forces and their chiefs, the elite, or industrial barons – is above the law. The rule of law will be implemented without fear or favour. All policies of the state can be challenged in court. Where the court is actively investigating a complaint against the head of state, the head of state has no right to remove any judge involved in the case. Any verdict by a Judge is final irrespective of the wishes of the ruler.

    • The appointment of a Chief Justice and Qadi in the Court of Madhalim (injustices) creates a dedicated office of the judiciary charged with checking the state’s compliance with the law. The Madhalim court does not rely on a plaintiff raising a specific complaint against the state and is charged with ongoing monitoring of all organs of state. The Madhalim has the power to remove the head of state if he breaches his terms of contract.

    • Islam obliges the people to criticise, account and denounce, if necessary, any action of the ruler, his advisors or any policy carried out by the state that disagrees with Islam or oppresses the people. This is done by individuals, scholars, the media and political groups and parties.

    • The independent judiciary and People’s Assemblies institutionalise the culture of accountability and scrutiny that is a collective obligation in Islam.

    • The state believes torture, spying and arbitrary arrest as carried out by the Muslim world’s intelligence and security apparatus under the supervision of the US is forbidden under Islamic law. Such activities therefore are absolutely illegal (haram), have no place at all in any civilised society and would be prosecuted under the Shariah.

    • The Khalifah will introduce radical Islamic policies that tear down any provisions that enforce the Police State. Citizens of the Khilafah, Muslims and non-Muslims, will have the right to take any member of the enforcement agencies, regardless of rank, to court and/or register a complaint to an independent judiciary (Mahkamut ul-Madhalim) without any implications for his/her wellbeing.

    Stephen Garvey

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