Keep it at home and hidden in a closet

Margaret Somerville
27 August 2013
Reproduced with Permission

So, the Quebec government is throwing down the gauntlet, yet again, on freedom of religion, by proposing to ban religious symbols in public spaces and to prevent people working in the public sector wearing them. It's sometimes said that love and hate are not opposites; they are the same emotion, but with negative or positive content, respectively; indifference is the opposite of both.

The Parti Québécois certainly doesn't love religion, and it's obvious it's not indifferent.

Freedom of religion is a complex and multi-faceted fundamental freedom, which is threatened and becomes the focus of conflict when secularists object to religion or religious people playing any role or having any influence in the public square.

They only tolerate religion in that context, when the discussion criticizes or even maligns religion or religious people. Indeed, in many public arenas, there is overt hostility to input to public or social policy debates that is seen as in any way connected with religious belief.

The word "secularists" is important: we need to make a distinction between a secular society and one that espouses secularism. Canada is a democratic, secular society; it respects freedom of religion and religious people. Quebec secularists want to convert the province to one based on strict secularism, laïcité, which is not neutral regarding religion. It is a belief form and ideology, much like a religion, a principal edict of which is the active exclusion of religion, religious people or religious views and values from any public input, influence or role.

Examining different aspects of the concept of freedom of religion makes this distinction clear:

Freedom for religion: there is no state religion and the state does not interfere in religious matters. Freedom of religion: there is freedom to worship and practise one's religion according to one's beliefs. Freedom from religion: religion is barred from the public square.

Freedom for and of religion are protected rights and valid components of a secular society. Freedom from religion is neither; it's a manifestation of secularism and a breach of freedom of religion, as well as a form of breach of freedom of speech and of belief and, sometimes, of freedom of conscience.

The proposed ban on religious symbols in public spaces or public sector occupations would be a strong statement that religion should be evicted from the Quebec public square and debates on social and public policy.

That would be anti-democratic and amount to disenfranchising religious people. Calls to do that have been rejected by Canadian courts. For instance, the Supreme Court of Canada in the Chamberlain case upheld the right of all people in a democratic society to have a voice in the public square, no matter what the basis of their beliefs and values.

But this current proposal is not unique in Quebec's war on religion. The Report of the Committee of the National Assembly of Quebec on Dying with Dignity provides an interesting example in relation to the concept and value of "sanctity of life," of excluding people's stances when they are, or assumed to be, based on religious belief.

The problem for the committee was that the value of the "sanctity of life" could not be allowed to take priority if, as the committee recommended, euthanasia were to be legalized. The committee demoted it, by connecting it with religion.

The committee did this by basing its report on a purely utilitarian approach and adopting, as the overriding value, respect for individuals' rights to autonomy and self-determination. They wrote that "The value of the sanctity of life has undergone a significant transformation" relative to other values, and concluded this means that now it doesn't necessarily take priority. They justified this ordering of priorities on the basis, among other examples, of "the decline in adherence to religion" in Quebec.

It merits noting that the committee reached its conclusion that respect for individual autonomy should take priority over "sanctity of life" despite 64 percent of the submissions it received or witnesses it heard opposing the legalization of euthanasia. This statistic could cause us to ponder whether religious belief or just overt religious practice has declined in Quebec and, if belief has declined, whether it shows that "sanctity of life" is not just a religious belief. It should also cause us to ask what are the requirements for democratic process with respect to establishing public and social policy in a secular democracy, such as Canada.

Pro-euthanasia advocates often argue that seeing life as "sacred" is a religious value and, therefore, should not be taken into account in the public square.

The Quebec report endorses this view: "However, note that in a secular state like ours, the (religious) beliefs of some (regarding sanctity of life) cannot be the basis for the development of legislation applicable to all."

But "sanctity of life/respect for life" is not simply a religious precept. (I prefer the term "respect for life," rather than "sanctity of life," to avoid religious connotations and associations.) What German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls "the ethics of the (human) species" and I call "human ethics," which must guide secular societies such as Canada, also embrace this principle. It is a foundational value in all societies in which reasonable people would want to live, as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes in enshrining it.

Part of Quebec's "problem" with religion might be that it listens too closely to its secularist academic elite. An anecdote shows how at least some Quebec academics regard religion. I was asked by the Ottawa Citizen to write an article responding to the question: "What is currently the world's most dangerous idea?" I questioned some of my law school colleagues as to what they thought; without exception, they all answered "religion."

This is only anecdotal evidence, and they are law professors, but it's food for thought on how religion is viewed in Quebec society. A professor of the sociology of religion from California, with whom I discussed their response, said he was most surprised by the fact that they thought that religion was just an idea. For millennia, people have viewed Faith as integral to being human - of the essence of our humanness.