Secularism and secularity

Today, Good Friday 2015, which is also the beginning of Passover, Premier of BC Christy Clark sent greetings on their high holiday weekends to the Christian and Jewish communities of the province. Both messages are accessible at http://www.newsroom.gov.bc.ca/ministries/office-of-the-premier/

I heard about her message to the Christians from Frank Stanford, host of “Starting the Conversation,” on Victoria radio station CFAX 1070, while he was interviewing me this morning about religion in Canada. My response was that it was likely that she would receive some flack about this from those secularists who believe that religion is an entirely private matter, and has no place in the public sphere. I hunched that because she herself is a Christian (which certainly doesn’t mean that I as a Christian agree with her on all points political) she would be criticized both for breaching the public-private divide and for favouring her own religious tradition. Talking about this with my sister, she wondered whether, given that today is the first day of Passover, she had also sent a message to the Jewish community: and indeed she had, as a quick web search informed me.

This is a perfect example of the subject of a conference I attended last week. Called “Our Whole Society: Bridging the Religious-Secular Divide,” it was co-sponsored by the Canadian Council of Churches and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (good to see that these two groups, long operating in their own orbits, are co-operating), together with the Laurier Institution, a Vancouver-based organization with a concern for diversity and social cohesion.

The conference dealt with such subjects as secularism, militant and otherwise; secularity; and “non-negotiable” Canadian values, especially in regard to immigration. No agreement was reached; but I will take this opportunity to offer my own views. The title of the conference—“Our Whole Society”—makes an important point. If the religious communities of the nation are preventing from sharing their views in the public sphere, we have only a partial society, not a whole society. No-one will agree with everything religion-identified spokespeople will say in public; but few of us agree with everything politicians say in public either.

Militant secularism believes that there is no place for religious discourse in the public sphere, that it will only lead to division and bad feeling—as if no other public utterances (I think here of one well-known and highly-placed politician, the one who has an elevator in the Houses of Parliament reserved for his sole use, which is why it was denied to Elizabeth May when she was using a cane after an operation) do not lead to divisiveness and bad feeling.

Of course I recognize where this feeling comes from: the dominating role in western society played by the Christian church in the days of its hegemonic (look it up!) social power. Many people, particularly in Québec, where until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s the Roman Catholic Church was immensely powerful, continue to resent Christianity in all its forms as a result, and this is entirely understandable.

But that was then, and this is now. The churches are now relatively marginal in our society, with the media much more ready to grant space and time to minority religious traditions, partly because of their intrinsic interest as relatively new communities and partly because they don’t carry the emotional baggage that Christianity does. (I am not including the Jews here, because they have been here since the 17th century.) The militant secularists are fighting a very old battle here, beating a very dead horse.

The exception here, of course, is Islam. Some Islamists are doing dreadful things in other places, much as Christianists (to coin a word) did in other periods of history, the Crusades, for example. But the vast majority of Canadian Muslims, as was made clear to us at the conference, want what all other Canadians want: peace, order and good government, to cite the BNA Act of 1867. Islamophobia, the demonization of Muslims simply because they are Muslims, is a knee-jerk response by the fearful among us to such phenomena as ISIS. The federal government has parlayed the very sad murders of two Canadians perpetrated by young misfit loners into an “anti-terror” bill, C-51, which will (I say “will” rather than “would” because the government has a parliamentary majority) set up a secret police force and seriously impact the civil liberties of Canadians. This is a time when Canadians of other traditions need to reach out to Muslims as a counterweight to Islamophobia, to say nothing of protesting bill C-51.

Secularity, then. In my view, this is the way we should go. By secularity I mean a social contract whereby no religion would be privileged in any way, and where any religious group would be permitted to state its case on any subject in the public sphere. The Premier’s messages of today are an excellent example of what I see as a desirable and even-handed norm. This is what Gandhi worked for in India. Some Hindu nationalists wanted him to declare that India was officially a Hindu country. But he insisted that no group, large or small, should have official privilege, and that a culture of respect between the religions, and between the religious and the non-religious, was what was needed to be promoted. This last point is important for us now as well, given that more than 30% of the population of BC (and large percentages elsewhere in the country), indeed, more than 50% in Victoria, declare themselves as having no religion.

And Canadian values? What are they? Is monogamy (serial or otherwise) a Canadian value? What then do we say—before they arrive—to polygamous applicants for immigration? We do affirm that equality of women with men is a Canadian value: do we make this clear to potential immigrants coming from patriarchal cultures? And is secularism a Canadian value? There are some who say it is, or ought to be if it isn’t. Manifestly I don’t agree with this, but I do affirm the concept of secularity as the basis for a renewed social contract, and would want applicants for immigration to know this before they come here.

One catch, in regard to privilege: Christmas and Easter are holidays of Christian origin, as is St-Jean-Baptiste in Québec. Is it time to let them go in the name of fairness and secularity? What? You think I’m crazy enough to want to eliminate the Most Sacred of Canadian values—the long weekend? Well, some flexibility needed here, manifestly. Clearly, further conversation needed.

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