To understand what it is, we can look to the opening chapter of Nancy Pearcey’s excellent book Love Thy Body, where she explains the “radically fragmented, fractured, dualistic view of the human being” that has developed in Western culture. She calls it personhood theory. Personhood theory says the true “you” – the actual person – is not the body you have but what you feel you are, your sense of self.
An ongoing concern for international religious freedom advocates is the existence of laws banning conversion from one religion to another. For example, it is illegal to convert a Muslim to Christianity in Pakistan, to convert a Buddhist to Christianity in Myanmar, and to convert a Hindu to Christianity in some states in India.
In Canada, with its Christian roots, we understand that while faith includes outward observance, Christianity is ultimately a matter of the heart, a matter of Whom we love and trust. From that springs the understanding that the civil government cannot compel belief by force or law, and it is fruitless to try. At least, that is how it used to be.
As Nationalism Rises, Religious Freedom Falls
Meghan Fischer, writing of this phenomenon in the Penn State Journal of Law & International Affairs, explains the international consensus that there is (or ought to be) a right to change one’s religious beliefs. There is also an internationally recognized right “to try to convert others by means of non-coercive persuasion.”1
But Fischer suggests that there are growing nationalist impulses in Southeast Asia such that “conversions away from the majority religion… are [seen as] a threat to the country.” Laws banning religious conversion are then selectively enforced only to ban conversion from the majority religion to a minority religion.
Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief from 2010 to 2016, notes that violations of the right to convert have “become a human rights problem of great concern.” He explains that religious freedom is abused
…in the interest of promoting national identity or protecting societal homogeneity, or under other pretexts such as maintaining political and national security… In addition, the rights of converts or those trying non-coercively to convert others are sometimes questioned in principle.2
Such bans on religious conversion result in stories such as this one,
Three Christians were arrested in the village of Vadi in [India] on December 16th after fellow villagers accused them of practising illegal medicine. They spent 11 days in jail before being released on bail. Pastor Mukam Kiraad, along with two members of his church… were shocked to learn they were charged with medical malpractice after praying for physical healing.
This story of Christian prayer resulting in criminal charges reminded me of the conversion therapy bans that have been proposed or passed in Canada at all three levels of civil government. And I wondered:
Are bans on conversion therapy a species of religious conversion bans?
In order to answer this question, we need to investigate and understand:
- what the majority religion in Canada is
- what true conversion is and how it is brought about in Christianity; and
- what conversion therapy bans in Canada are actually proposing to do.
When we put these three things together, we can answer our question.
1. Canada’s Established Religion
While Canadians follow many gods (theistic or material like money, sex, or sports), there is one dominant religion. And it isn’t Christianity or Islam.
To understand what it is, we can look to the opening chapter of Nancy Pearcey’s excellent book Love Thy Body, where she explains the “radically fragmented, fractured, dualistic view of the human being” that has developed in Western culture. She calls it personhood theory.
Personhood theory says the true “you” – the actual person – is not the body you have but what you feel you are, your sense of self. If you feel you are mostly female but have a male body, the important part of you is that inside sense of who you are. The body is secondary, and so it can be mutilated and chemically altered to conform to the “real” you. This type of thinking slips into Christianity too, where some well-meaning Christians have embraced the idea that your soul might be female while your body is male, for example.
This is a dualistic understanding of the human person that, instead of viewing our mind and our body as an integrated whole, sees them as two separable pieces. It declares: you are your mind; you are not your body.
It’s also a deeply religious view, isn’t it? You can’t prove in a science lab that the “soul” or your “internal sense of self” is actually female when the biological body is genetically and anatomically male. You have to accept it on faith.
And yet the idea that the human person – who you really are – is something wholly different from the human body is taken as an article of faith by the legal, political, academic, journalistic, and (increasingly) economic leaders of our Western culture.
Take, for example, the argument that the pre-born child is “human” but not “a person.” That’s a religious claim. It takes blind faith to agree (as most pro-choice advocates do) that the pre-born child is a complete and a unique living human being, but not a person deserving rights. A Christian would respond that the pre-born child is a person because they are human – an observable, provable, biological fact – and therefore should be afforded the same protection in law as any other human.
Or consider the British Columbia Court of Appeal in the A.B. v. C.D. case: the court assumed and adopted the language at the beginning of the hearing that a biological female was, in fact, a boy, despite this being contested by the father of the child.
Philosopher Robert P. George, in a long-form article titled “Gnostic Liberalism,” explains that this separation and elevation of the mind or the soul over the body is actually the outworking of the millennia-old heresy of Gnosticism, back in new clothes. It sees the soul as a “ghost in a machine.” George says that in this new version of the Gnostic religion, “the body serves at the pleasure of the conscious self, to which it is subject.”