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The rejection of conscience reveals the myth of pluralism

Recently, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the requirement that Ontario physicians should provide effective referrals for procedures such as euthanasia and abortion. 

The appeal was based on a lower court decision defending the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario policy requiring physicians to provide a “referral made in good faith, to a non-objecting, available, and accessible physician, other health-care professional, or agency.”  The prior decision had acknowledged that such a policy violated religious freedom but that this was justified to ensure access to these services for patients.

This policy places Christians physicians (amongst others) in a troubling position where they either follow their consciences or face possible discipline. 

While this case specifically targets physicians, it is one that all religiously inclined Canadians must grapple with.  Whether the issue is teaching children, practicing law, or caring for patients, matters of conscience will continue to be problematic for religious Canadians.

Pluralism is a myth in Canada

While in principle Canadian society is open to a diversity of viewpoints, this is practically impossible to uphold.  All people necessarily live socially, and their beliefs and practices will make their way into the public arena. Increasingly in our setting, we see that if the clash exists between religious freedom and autonomy, the former will lose. 

This was made explicit in the initial court decision, and it should not surprise believers. A pluralistic society where everyone is treated equally (even in principle) requires certain foundations. These conditions are fading in Canadian society.

First, there must be some ideological impetus behind the idea that all people should be able to live out their beliefs.  This requires something to uphold the value of every person regardless of what those beliefs entail. Christians have the Imago Dei. No such equalizer exists in secular society.

To the predominant secular mind, worth is contingent on a certain kind of experience. Hence the devaluing of the unborn and the terminally ill. Similarly, right and wrong are determined by personal desires.  Any obstruction to meeting those desires is then by definition negative.  Hence the hostility towards Christian consciences.

Second, pluralism requires on a more practical level the ability for people to live together in the public sphere. As Peter Berger has argued, our age can be characterized by pluralism insofar as there is sustained conversation amongst different worldviews in an amicable manner.

Presently, the sustained conversation really is more of a one-sided tirade against Christian morality.  In part due to the pre-determined hostility based on the ideological conflict alone, the discussions that occur are also unpleasant rather than friendly.

Christians, however, should consider their own role in the collapse of civilized public discourse. Many Christians have retreated to their enclaves, and this has been detrimental for two reasons. 

As Christians spend more time with only other Christians, they befriend fewer nonbelievers. This means secularists know fewer and fewer Christians personally, and so their disdain for Christians cannot be tempered by friendships with thoughtful and caring Christian friends. It is much easier to despise a group when you don’t know have a meaningful relationship with any of its members.  And attitudes to adopt toward Christians will be largely informed by the hostility of obstructed desires.

In addition, Christian presence amongst secularists personally and institutions more broadly allows for thoughtful Christian responses to our society’s problems.  In pluralistic societies, competing beliefs are available in public, and this has the potential to lead to the destabilization of any set of beliefs (whether Christian or secular).  If we are sure of our own faith, the secular worldview can be destabilized and this process can serve as the preparatory plow before seeds are directly planted.

It may be, however, that we have now reached a point where these two conditions for pluralism are lost.  Many secularists don’t believe people should be free to practice beliefs that obstruct people’s desires, and most don’t really know or do life with Christians. 

As long as these two foundations are weak, I think court decisions will continue to be ruled against Christians. 

Hostility continues to grow, and even when viable alternatives to effective referrals are available in other jurisdictions through provincial health centres that bypass the individual physician, the courts continue to demand effective referrals.  Christian physicians are seen as rogues, uncaring and selfish.  They must not be tolerated, and so policies must actively force them to comply rather than be uninvolved.  This is not a pluralistic climate, it is an anti-Christian one. 

Hold fast and hold together

Moving forward, Christians must continue to uphold righteousness.  We must not habituate to these conditions and have our consciences dulled. 

This could be costly.  Christians very well may lose their jobs.  But this is the nature of the spiritual war we find ourselves in.  We can trust God.  And because of Him, we know He holds no good thing from us. Those good things may not always come in packages we expect or recognize, but we know that He is true to His Word.

While the present issue relates to doctors, cases will continue to arise and implicate Christians throughout society.  And in each instance, what we need is not for all the Christian doctors or teachers to come together but for the whole church to come together. 

One of the tremendous resources God has given believers is other believers.  We are not meant to stand alone in this battle.  The repercussions of following our consciences can be intimidating and exhausting.  We all need the encouragement and prayers of other believers. 

Practically, if a believer loses his or her job due to faithfulness, the church should be ready to help support this person.  Can some help financially? Do others know of another job opportunity? Are there errands to complete? Can we invite this person and his or her family over for dinner and help them relax?

Pastors should also talk about these issues with their people.  Every congregation will be impacted by the Christian conscience in the public square sooner or later.  Pastors can remind their members that hostilities will occur, that God can still be trusted, and that the church will stand in solidarity with those who live faithfully. 

If we want believers on the front lines to live faithfully, we must be prepared to support them and bear their burdens with them.  Knowing that such support exists can embolden faithful action.  The support can also be a tremendous testimony to God’s people and His good designs in a world that has trouble understanding self-renunciation and serving others.  It will also quicken the souls of many within the church, who will see how the love of God can manifest through His people.

We face uncertain times ahead.  There may be more rulings to come and further strikes against conscience.  I don’t know how much more the anti-Christian sentiment may ramp up in the next few years.  But God knows.  And He will see His people through.   

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