Law and religion frequently interact, sometimes as a matter of challenging religion’s reach into public spaces, sometimes as a matter of reentrenching majority religion. But what about nonreligion and the law? In this piece, Lori G. Beaman argues that subtle shifts in legal approaches can be revealing of the often mysterious contents of nonreligion. Specifically, she asks: what could a nonreligious approach to assisted dying law look like?
There are two challenges that are preoccupying me in my research on nonreligion: first, how to think about nonreligion without being pulled into the “like religion but…” vortex and second, how to study this emerging reality.[i]
The challenge of thinking about nonreligion without the “like religion” simile is a function of being immersed in a society that has been shaped by majoritarian religion. In many ways we do not know what a world looks like in which nonreligion is a significant worldview, or in which nonreligion is practiced. To find out, Peter Beyer and I have been working on a conceptual framework that draws on the notion of dark matter in physics as an analogy.[ii] My own approach has been to think about sites of cooperation and conflict as prisms through which to see how people live the “dark matter” of nonreligion.[iii]
One such site is in law. There have been legal challenges to such things as prayer in municipal council meetings and crucifixes on the walls of public institutions such as classrooms, houses of parliament and hospitals. But while these are interesting case studies, it is the more subtle shifts in legal approaches that are more revealing of the contents of nonreligion, which, as Linda Woodhead notes, is placeholder language for that which we cannot yet name.[iv] This is especially so on the issue of assisted death. [v]
The most recent Supreme Court of Canada decision makes a significant shift from a religious approach to a predominantly nonreligious one. The Carter case, involving two people who wished to receive assisted dying services in Canada, challenged the Criminal Code provision which made it an offence to aid and abet a person in committing suicide and which prohibited a person from consenting to death. The Court found those provisions unconstitutional and its discussion represents a major shift in tone from its last major decision (Rodriguez) in 1993. There, the Court had “emphasized that human life should not be depreciated by allowing life to be taken, a collectivist claim based on the construct ‘sanctity of life.’”[vi] The judgement was riddled with religious, specifically Christian, conceptualizations of life and death including the value of suffering and the badness of choosing to die.[vii] In Carter, the Court emphasizes respect and autonomy, stating that “an individual’s choice about the end of her life is entitled to respect.”[viii] The Carter judgement, in my view, makes a significant move toward capturing what a nonreligious approach might look like: “We do not agree that the existential formulation of the right to life requires an absolute prohibition on assistance in dying, or that individuals cannot ‘waive’ their right to life. This would create a ‘duty to live’, rather than a ‘right to life’.”[ix] The Court draws on science, particularly medical science, to understand the process of dying and the possibilities for assistance and intervention. It maintains the “sanctity of life” and the “right to life”, but reshapes those in ways that support assisted dying.
The Supreme Court of Canada permits interveners to make submissions when it is hearing a case of public importance. In Carter there were 26 interveners, 12 of them religious. One of those was in favour of the idea of establishing an assisted dying regime. The rest were opposed. They used language like “suicide” and used the word “death” rather than “dying”, while nonreligious interveners used terms such as “end-of-life decisions”; “assisted dying”; “medically assisted dying”; “self-chosen death”. Nonreligious interveners framed their understanding of dying as including the possibility of a “good death”, which respected the wishes of the individual and preserved dignity. The point here is that the facta reveal distinctly different approaches that illuminate what we might describe as a nonreligious approach to this issue, or, the dark matter of nonreligion, to return to that metaphor.
[i] Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in belonging: Belief and social identity in the modern world. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the non-religious: Reimagining the secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press; and Wallis, Simeon. 2014. “Ticking ‘no religion’: A case study amongst ‘young nones’.” DISKUS 16(2): 70–87.
[ii] Beaman, Lori G. 2017. “Living Well Together in a (non)Religious Future: Contributions from the Sociology of Religion.” Sociology of Religion 78(1): 9-32.
[iii] Beaman, Living Well Together, 9-32.
[iv] Woodhead, Linda. 2016. “The rise of ‘no religion’ in Britain: The emergence of a new cultural majority.” Journal of the British Academy 4: 245-261
[v] See Chambers, Stuart. 2011. “Of Stewardship, Suffering and the ‘Slippery Slope’: A Vattimian Analysis of the Sanctity of Life Ethos in Canada (1972–2005)” PhD diss. University of Ottawa, 2011, http://dx.doi.org/10.20381/ruor-4817.
[vi] Ibid., 233.
[vii] Ibid., 233.
[viii] Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5,  1 S.C.R. 331 (hereinafter Carter) at para. 63.
[ix] Ibid., at para. 63.
[x] Reference re Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5,  1 S.C.R. 331 (Factum of the Intervener, Canadian Unitarian Council, at para. 4)
Lori G. Beaman, Ph.D. is Canada Research Chair in Religious Diversity and Social Change and Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. She is Principal Investigator of the Religion and Diversity Project, a 37-member international research team whose focus is religion and diversity (religionanddiversity.ca). Publications include: Deep Equality in an Era of Religious Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2017) ; “Living Together v. Living Well Together: A Normative Examination of the SAS Case,” Social Inclusion, 4(2) 2016: 3-13; “Reframing Understandings of Religion: Lessons from India,” in S. Sikka, B. Puri, and L.G. Beaman (eds.) Living with Religious Diversity, 37-48 (Routledge India, 2015); “The Will to Religion: Obligatory Religious Citizenship,” Critical Research on Religion, 1(2) 2013: 141-157; “Battles over Symbols: The ‘Religion’ of the Minority Versus the ‘Culture’ of the Majority,” Journal of Law and Religion, 28(1) 2012/3: 101-138; Defining Harm: Religious Freedom and the Limits of the Law (UBC Press, 2008).
Lori G. Beaman, PhD. est la Chaire de recherche du Canada en diversité religieuse et changement social et Professeure titulaire au Département d’études anciennes et de sciences des religions. Elle est la chercheure principale du Projet religion et diversité, une équipe de recherche internationale rassemblant 37 membres, dont la recherche porte sur la religion et la diversité (religionanddiversity.ca). Ses publications incluent : Deep Equality in an Era of Religious Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2017); “Living Together v. Living Well Together: A Normative Examination of the SAS Case,” Social Inclusion, 4(2) 2016: 3-13; “Reframing Understandings of Religion: Lessons from India,” dans S. Sikka, B. Puri, et L.G. Beaman (eds.) Living with Religious Diversity, 37-48 (Routledge Inde, 2015); “The Will to Religion: Obligatory Religious Citizenship,” Critical Research on Religion, 1(2) 2013: 141-157; “Battles over Symbols: The ‘Religion’ of the Minority Versus the ‘Culture’ of the Majority,” Journal of Law and Religion, 28(1) 2012/3: 101-138; Defining Harm: Religious Freedom and the Limits of the Law (UBC Press, 2008).