Erin Wilson, After Secularism

When I have time, I enjoy browsing in the new books section at the Carleton University Library in Ottawa. Recently, I came upon After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics, written by Erin Wilson, a professor in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Wilson begins with a critique of the limitations of secularization theory, where, as she says, “religion was considered to be dying out and not relevant for understanding politics in developed secularized states such as those in the West.” Post-Enlightenment thinkers such as Marx, Durkheim and others thought that religion was a retrograde and irrational force that would wither away as societies evolved into a more enlightened phase of existence. This has been, by far, the dominant way in which Western academics have viewed their own societies. Continue reading Erin Wilson, After Secularism

Some thoughts on God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens

Writer Christopher Hitchens has died at age died at age 62. One of his most popular and controversial books is God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. In a guest column for this blog, Eric Schiller, a Quaker and a retired University of Ottawa professor, writes about the book and analyzes Hitchens’ attack on organized religion.

Continue reading Some thoughts on God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens

Canadian churches and the Occupy movement

Occupy Ottawa (Koozma Tarasoff photo)

The young protesters of the Occupy movement who have been living in tents in urban parks from Vancouver to Halifax are being forced out or threatened with eviction. In one respect, the mayors are inadvertently doing them a favour  — sparing them the discomfort and perils of living outdoors in winter and also allowing them to leave and to plan for their next phase in the srping.  

What has been achieved is extraordinary. The simple slogan (“We are the 99 per cent”) focused attention on corporate greed and growing economic inequality in a way that no one else has been able to do in decades.  It is the willingness of these young people to put themselves on the line that speaks to their contemporaries and to older people as well. Continue reading Canadian churches and the Occupy movement

Hill Times and Dennis Gruending on Pulpit and Politics

The Ottawa-based Hill Times carried an interview with me in its October 17 edition regarding my new book, Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public LifeIt was released earlier in October by Kingsley Publishing of Calgary. It is available in Ottawa at Brittons magazine stores: 846 Bank Street or 352 Richmond Road, or from Alpine Book Peddlers on line or toll free at 1-866-478-2280. The Hill Times interview was conducted by Kate Malloy, the paper’s editor and a veteran parliamentary reporter. You can read the story and interview by clicking HERE.   



Dennis Gruending to publish book on Pulpit and Politics

Pulpit and Politics by Dennis GruendingThose of you who follow my blog will wonder why I have not been posting for the past number of weeks. In fact, several of you have contacted me to ask about it. The truth is that I have been taken up with the final edits of a book that I will publish in October. It’s called Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life, and Kingsley Publishers of Calgary will release it. The themes and details that I deal with in the book arise largely from this blog, which I have been writing since late 2007. Actually, many of you have contacted me with constructive criticism about the blog and have provided ideas for stories that I might pursue. Many of those suggestions have made their way into the book but it goes well beyond the blog. I have revised the material, updated and added to it, and the book will also contain a detailed index of names and organizations as well as a comprehensive reading list.

I have been struck over the past few years by the growing competition between religious progressives and conservatives for power and influence in Canadian politics. This is an historic rivalry and one that will become even more pronounced now that Stephen Harper has won a majority government, partly through the efforts of religious conservatives. Their political agenda is anchored in opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, publicly funded childcare, a dislike of many social programs, and a general suspicion of government. Since its inception in 2006, the Harper government has courted conservative evangelicals, along with certain Catholic and Jewish voters, to join a political coalition that would change Canada into a leaner and meaner state, albeit it one with more prisons and a larger military.

The book will look closely at the political ideology and tactics of religious conservatives, but that is only half of the story. I will also report on efforts by religious progressives who are struggling to have their voices heard on issues of equality, justice, human rights, and peace. This is an effort that plays out on Parliament Hill, as well in church basements, synagogues and temples. It is not merely a topic of casual interest; the consequences for our future are potentially dramatic. Religious faith informs political decisions about the division of wealth in our society, education and race relations, immigration, respect for democracy, foreign policy, and environmental issues, to name just a few.

The book will also examine religiously inspired ideas and events elsewhere that are having an impact in Canada. We cherish our reputation as a peaceable kingdom, but we are not immune to religious fundamentalism, even extremism. The bombing of Air-India Flight 182 bound from Toronto to New Delhi in 1985 killed 331 people, making it the most widely felt terrorist attack in Canadian history. It was planned and executed by Sikh religious extremists living in Canada. There are no tranquil islands in an increasingly globalized world of ubiquitous jet travel, round-the-clock news feeds, and secured Internet chat rooms. Canada is not an island, particularly given its tradition of engagement abroad and its increasingly ethnic and religious diversity. It is for these reasons (in addition to natural curiosity) that on my travels and in my reading I pay close attention to the links between religious faith and public life in other countries as well as my own.

I have watched this drama unfold from my base in Ottawa, and I have also participated in it: as a writer, a director of information for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and later as a Member of Parliament and a blogger. There is a fine body of research and writing in the United States and elsewhere about the importance of understanding the motivation and tactics of religious groups involved in public life. Far less attention has been devoted to the topic in Canada. I am determined that Pulpit and Politics will help to fill this gap.

Pulpit and Politics will sell for $22.00 and will be available (in October) from Kingsley Publishing or Alpine Book Peddlers.  It will also be available as an ebook. I hope that you will consider buying a copy for yourself and perhaps another for a family member or friend. I’ll let you know when Pulpit and Politics becomes available. And now, I will get back to writing for my blog. I promise.

Reginald Bibby, Beyond the Gods and Back

By Dennis Gruending

Reginald Bibby (Art Babych Photo)Sociologist Reginald Bibby is probably Canada’s closest observer of religious trends. He has been polling on religious practices and attitudes since 1975 and has placed the numbers into context in several books beginning with Fragmented Gods in 1987. Bibby has just released another book called Beyond the Gods and Back, and he spoke about it recently at an Anglican cathedral in Ottawa.

Bibby says that for many years he accepted the secularization thesis commonly proposed by most sociologists and researchers. In its most simple terms, Bibby says, “secularization refers to the decline in the influence of organized religion.” There are a variety of ways to track this situation but the one most often used is the frequency of attendance at religious services. Using Gallup Poll results from 1957, and later his own survey data, Bibby found that weekly church attendance in Canada fell precipitously among the population from 53% in 1957 to 24% in 1990.

Continue reading Reginald Bibby, Beyond the Gods and Back

Blair, Hitchens and the Munk debate about religion

By Dennis Gruending

update_aa.jpgThe much-anticipated Munk Centre debate in Toronto between former Prime Minister Tony Blair and writer Christopher Hitchens has come and gone. A sell out crowd of about 2600 people paid up to $500 each to sit in plush seats at Roy Thomson Hall and hear the two debate whether religion is a force for good in the world. The adversaries were civil to one another inside the hall, while out in the streets about 60 protesters braved the cold to criticize Blair’s support, while he was prime minister, of an American led invasion of Iraq. “Don’t fete him, arrest him,” one woman was quoted as saying about Blair. The event was widely covered, especially by the British media, including the BBC and The New Statesman, which also provides a full video and print transcript on its website.

“Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well,” Hitchens began. “And over us, to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea … Salvation is offered at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties.” That got a laugh. Blair later responded, “I do not consider the leader of North Korea a religious icon.”

Blair began his presentation in a more qualified way than Hitchens. “It is undoubtedly true that people commit horrific acts of evil in the name of religion,” he said. “It is also undoubtedly true that people do acts of extraordinary common good inspired by religion. Almost half the healthcare in Africa is delivered by faith-based organisations, saving millions of lives. A quarter of worldwide HIV/AIDS care is provided by Catholic organisations. There is the fantastic work of Muslims and Jewish relief organisations . . . So the proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable. It can be destructive, it can also create a deep well of compassion, and frequently does.”

Blair, of course, shocked many by converting to Catholicism in 2007, shortly after he stepped down as prime minister in Great Britain. He has created a foundation that seeks to close rifts between the world’s dominant faiths. Hitchens, an atheist, wrote a book called, God Is Not Great, in which he elaborated on why he finds religion a superstitious and destructive force.

A post-debate vote showed either that Hitchens had won, or perhaps, in the words of a British reporter for The New Statesman that “Toronto is a rather secular place.” Sixty-eight per cent opposed the resolution that religion is a force for good in the world and 32 per cent supported it. Hitchens probably had the easier task because, as the same British reporter wrote: “It is just much easier to highlight all the bad things humans have done in the name of religion – and even get some laughs – than it is to explain the good faith can do, to individual souls as well as the world.”

Tony Blair: My Political Life

By Dennis Gruending

Former British Prime Minister Tony BlairFormer British Prime Minister Tony Blair is set to debate acerbic writer Christopher Hitchens at the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto on whether religion is a force for good or evil. Blair, of course, is the former three-term Labour prime minister who stunned most everyone by converting to Roman Catholicism just after he left office in 2007. He will argue that religious faith has a major part to play in shaping the values that guide the modern world, and can and should be a force for progress. Hitchens, also British, is a former leftist who now lives in the United States and is ill with cancer. He has become a fervent supporter of the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq and finds himself on the lecture circuits and at dinner tables of those on the political right. He is a harsh critic of what he calls “fascism with an Islamic face” — but his scorn embraces all world religions. He published a book in 2007 called, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Continue reading Tony Blair: My Political Life