Philosopher Charles Taylor believes it is important to grapple with the different ways in which religious or spiritual and unbelievers experience the world. In his book A Secular Age (2007), he traces the shift in Western society from a condition where belief in God was unchallenged to one where it is one option among others. In order to make sense of our present secular age, Taylor argues, we must appreciate “the different kinds of lived experience involved in understanding [one’s] life…as a believer or unbeliever.” The distinction between these lived experiences stems partly from each group’s identification of the conditions in which their lives are fuller or more worthwhile. Believers, according to Taylor, define their place of fullness by reference to God or an outside spiritual source. For modern unbelievers, by contrast, the “power to reach fullness is within.”
As a law professor, I believe that learning about religious traditions and worldviews can improve lawyers’ capacity to serve individuals from Canada’s diverse religious and cultural communities. A degree of religious knowledge can be especially helpful where a lawyer provides advice on legal rules that engage a client’s freedom of conscience and religion, or their freedom of association. For this reason, one of the aims of my Law and Religion seminar at the University of Victoria is to improve my students’ religious literacy. Religious literacy in this context can mean knowledge of the basic tenets of the world’s major religious and spiritual traditions, and some appreciation of the complexity of their practices and beliefs. However, it may be equally important for aspiring lawyers to grapple with the different ways in which believers and unbelievers experience the world.
Understanding others through stories
Stories are important tools in improving religious literacy. Academics who teach religious studies in diverse post-secondary contexts have documented the benefits of immersing students in a “storied experience” and then “deferring to the analytic mind” to unpack the ideologies and narratives contained within that experience. The reported decisions that make up Canada’s religious freedom jurisprudence are a rich source of stories about Canada’s religious communities. In my Law and Religion seminar, I use these stories as a lens through which students can explore religious traditions and practices that are unfamiliar to them.
A story about the lived experience of belief
The Supreme Court of Canada decision in A.C. v Manitoba tells a story that helps students grapple with the different lived experiences of believers and unbelievers. In April 2006, a 14-year-old teenager attended a hospital in Winnipeg to receive treatment for her Crohn’s disease. “A.C.” told hospital staff that she was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and would not consent to blood transfusions, based on her belief in the Biblical injunction to abstain from blood. The governing legislation, the Child and Family Services Act, established a rebuttable presumption of incapacity for patients under the age of 16. Despite finding that AC was a person with capacity to refuse medical treatment, however, the trial judge granted the Director of Child and Family Services a treatment order authorizing forced blood transfusions. AC appealed the order to the Supreme Court of Canada, unsuccessfully arguing that the Act was unconstitutional because it prevented her from refusing medical treatment that was contrary to her religious beliefs.
AC v Manitoba is a complicated decision, which raises issues about the capacity of mature minors and the constitutional protection of life, liberty and religious freedom. In my seminar class, however, I use the decision primarily as a lens through which to ask questions about rationality and its relationship to belief. Many of my students at the University of Victoria are religious “nones” – persons who say they have no religion – who were raised in nonreligious homes. For students coming from this vantage point, AC’s decision to refuse a potentially life-saving treatment can seem irrational on its face. As we work through the worldviews and beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, both the character of AC’s decision and the justification for the Court’s intervention become more contested and complex. For who would say it is irrational to forgo a finite period of earthly existence in exchange for eternal life?
This, then, is part of the work of religious literacy in law school – to challenge students to think through fundamental concepts of logic and rationality from the perspective of different worldviews. In a diverse society, improving religious literacy can help us all – lawyers and non-lawyers alike – to incorporate a recognition of different kinds of lived experiences into our decision-making and our work.