Secularism's two solitudes
The National Post, 29 August 2013
The National Post, 29 August 2013
The Parti Québécois’ secularist “Charter of Quebec values,” which was briefly featured during last summer’s provincial election campaign and has again become a subject of media furore his week, would prohibit the wearing of religious accouterments, such as turbans and Muslim headscarves, by Quebec’s public workers. The plan already has elicited resistance from the province’s religious minorities, and will doubtless inspire sustained opposition on grounds of religious freedom. Given that Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the liberties of religious practice and belief, a prospective statute might even elicit an opinion from the Supreme Court of Canada in the future.
A point that may be lost in the argument, however, is the proposed charter’s relationship to the ideals of secularism, in whose name it is supposedly being advanced by Quebec Premier Pauline Marois. Far from being a simple philosophical proposition about the relationship of state to church, the idea of secularism actually has a complex pedigree that is interwoven with the history of religious conflicts, especially in Europe and pre-revolutionary America. In Canada, in particular, there are two major secular traditions — the French and the Anglo-American. And the difference between the two helps explain why many Anglo commentators are expressing incredulity at Ms. Marois’ initiative.
While the French term laïcité is sometimes translated into English as secularism, there are many ways in which the two concepts differ in substance, to the point where identifying francophone political cultures as “secular” is practically a misnomer.
In 17th- and 18th-century England, political conflicts were closely related to religious divisions, not only between Protestants and Catholics, but also among Protestants groups. The principle of religious toleration, as espoused for instance in John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration,” became inseparable from questions about state involvement in religious disputes — the primary concern of secularism. When faced with religious diversity and competition in the revolting Thirteen Colonies, the American Founders established the separation of church and state as a constitutional principle, believing that by establishing a federal government without an official church, religious freedom for all could be preserved and the prospect of persecution would be reduced.
This historical experience has equipped Anglo-Saxon cultures with a set of political values that are partial to religious freedom, especially from encroachments on behalf of the state. Essentially, the project of secularism in America’s founding, which has reverberated to other English-speaking societies, involves the privatization of religion, or the insulation of faith institutions from government affiliation. This was sought not only, as some atheists believe, to protect the state from religion, but also to protect religion from the state. Far from being antireligious or antitheistic, secularism in the Anglo-American sense arises from a cultural respect for religion’s free exercise, and from the recognition of latent religious pluralism.
The French experience has entirely different roots, which understandably produced a different set of values vis-à-vis religion.
The development of laïcité was premised on neither a fundamental respect for religious freedom nor a recognition of religious pluralism; rather, it reflected the conflict between the clerical and anti-clerical factions in France, neither of which was interested in privatizing religion or establishing a state that would be ostensibly neutral on the subject. Instead, both sought to use the state to advance their conception of the good, whether it be revolutionary or conservative in character.
In other words, Laïcité resulted from much more of an internecine quarrel between the believing and non-believing members of a Catholic society, as opposed to a sectarian quarrel between the believers of various different sects.
Now, as then, the purpose of laïcité is to “progressively” move society in a particular direction away from religion, and especially away from the influence of institutional religion. In the days of the French Revolution, this was manifested in the confiscation of church property for the purpose of weakening Catholic institutions. Nothing so extreme happened during Quebec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, but that period did produce a process of secularization in which Catholic social institutions such as schools, hospitals, and welfare programs were replaced en masse by a hyper-expanded civil service. The state, in other words, took over from the church, all in the service of a particular trajectory.
Today, the societal circumstances are different, especially with regard to the presence of immigrant religions such as Sikhism and Islam in Quebec. Any prescription for religion-related policy should certainly account for the sizeable population of adherents to non-Christian faiths, as well as to those who subscribe to no religion at all. Yet Quebec’s cultural milieu remains imbued with a political tradition whose emphasis is not on the individual free exercise of religion, as understood by English speakers, but on the duty of the state to guide society away from faith itself.
Whether the charter of secularism is a positive or a negative development remains open to debate. But the motivations for Quebec’s proposed new law will not be understood, so long as Anglophones assume that their Québécois counterparts hold religious freedom in the same high regard. They don’t.
|Jackson Doughart||jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com|