Not-quite-random thoughts on religion in the news

By Lara Apps

The National Post reported today on a new accommodation measure at the University of Regina: special sinks designed to make it easier for the school’s 800 or so Muslim students (out of a population of 13000 students) to wash themselves before prayers. The issue with regular bathrooms is that Muslims need to wash their feet as well as their hands before prayer, which is a bit of a problem for everyone.

The National Post is deeply opposed to Quebec’s proposed charter of values and its ban on public employees wearing religious items such as large crosses and headscarves. The University of Regina’s action has therefore been presented as an example to Quebec of how things should be done. I suspect that the National Post would have taken a different position regarding the special sinks if they were not so publicly against the charter. The comments thread filled up almost immediately with anti-special sinks remarks along predictable lines, e.g. why should taxpayers have to cover the cost of such sinks and why can’t Muslims just go to their mosque to pray instead of requiring accommodations on campus?

What these commenters probably don’t realize (and perhaps it’s best if they don’t, really) is that Canadian universities actively recruit international students, many of whom will be Muslims. If we are going to recruit international students, who provide an essential source of funds for cash-strapped universities because they pay much higher fees than Canadian students, then we need to put some effort into ensuring that they are reasonably comfortable here. Even if the Muslim students are Canadian (I assume many of them are), building a few sinks seems like a humane, reasonable measure.

Yesterday’s shooting at the Washington Navy Yard by Aaron Alexis generated, among some of the weirder comments (not limited to the National Post), a suggestion that Alexis, as well as other mass shooters, was motivated by religion, because Alexis was a Buddhist. A few blogs have also suggested that Buddhists can be just as violent as members of any other religion, with reference to the current sectarian violence in Burma). First of all, mass shootings are not typically motivated by religious beliefs. We’re not talking about acts of terrorism, which, although obviously similar in that people get killed, are not the same thing as mass shootings (I don’t mean to suggest that acts of terrorism are motivated solely or necessary by religion). Second, Alexis evidently had mental health problems, including anger issues, blackouts, a persecution complex, and possible PTSD. But hey, it must have been the time he spent at his Buddhist temple that made him kill 12 people.

And to wrap things up… I’ve been following a discussion on a friend’s Facebook page, in which one of the commenters has asserted that religion is a choice and therefore members of religions can choose not to follow those faiths; they can also, therefore, simply choose not to wear the items of clothing that will be banned under the proposed Quebec charter of values. The commenter is an atheist with, apparently, no sense at all of how essential religion can be to an individual’s sense of identity. Is religion a choice? Yes, in the sense that one can adopt or leave a religion as one chooses (barring factors such as social and family pressure or legal sanctions in states with official religions). But it’s not exactly the same kind of choice as deciding which television program to watch on a Friday evening. If you believe that, say, wearing a veil is a necessary aspect of your religious faith, then you probably believe it is right to wear it and wrong not to. In other words, asking you to choose between wearing and not wearing it imposes a serious moral dilemma on you. As for the suggestion that people can switch religions at the drop of a hat (headscarf?), to one that’s less demanding — this just betrays a complete failure to grasp that people’s beliefs have genuine meaning for them. I doubt the atheist commenter would accept that he could easily become a Muslim if he had to in order to keep his job. Perhaps he could just pretend to be one — but surely he’d resent that necessity a little bit?

What’s worrying me, as the public sphere continues to heat up over “Canadian” and “Quebec” values, religious accommodation, and religious freedom, is that we are risking violence, which will then, no doubt, be blamed on religion when it’s really a blinkered unwillingness to accept difference driving this particular conflict.

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