Secularism a target for conservative religious groups
Nothing is more threatening to the unchurched than the faith of others – and this drives the debate about what secularism means in Canada. As church attendees and members fall in number, secularism has become a weapon and a target.
For those who have abandoned religion, secularism is a slogan intended to limit religious expression of all kinds. In practice, certain religious groups – especially Muslims – are the intended object.
Meanwhile, for religious conservatives, secularism stands for a state policy bent on eradicating Christianity from public view. The end of school prayer and of official religion is a symptom of moral decline and a host of social ills.
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So what does secularism really mean? Essentially, it is the formal separation of church and state, the division of religious and political authority. How various countries put this into practice depends on local factors, so that the French model of secularism is very different from the American one – which in turn differs from that of Canada.
In How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, a book released this month, Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown University tracks the shifting role of religion south of the border. The terms secular and religious are increasingly seen as opposites, he notes, so being secular amounts to being nonreligious, even anti-religious. Berlinerblau points out that this is a very recent development, and that the separation of church and state in the U.S. (secularism) was intended to protect religious freedom, not stifle it.
By separating the state from affiliation with any one religious group, we protect not only the freedom to differ from the official version of religion, but also the freedom to have no religion at all.
The book is a call to moderation, and toleration of the beliefs of others. Discussion of religion and secularism seems increasingly polarised between the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and company) who see religion as a form of mental deficiency, and religious fundamentalists who are at war with science and everyone else.
This side of the border, the state’s neutrality on religious matters has been contested in a number of high profile cases. In February, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a mandatory Quebec elementary school course on ethics in world religions – which replaced one that focused solely on Christian teaching – did not violate the religious freedoms of Catholic parents. Indeed, the judge noted “The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom . . . is a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society.”
Likewise, the credibility of Parti Quebecois leader – now premier- Pauline Marois’ Secularism Charter has foundered on its suppression of all religious symbols except Christian ones. While it may play well in her pur laineconstituency, it is highly unlikely to survive a court challenge.
More broadly, with religious affiliation in steep decline among Canadian youth, the faith of others can trigger alarm bells. This seems to explain the intense use of secularism by atheists and religious conservatives alike in public debate.
According to Statistics Canada, the number of Canadians between 15 and 29 who say that religion is “very important” to them declined from 34 per cent in 2002 to 22 per cent in 2009. More than half have never attended a religious service. Meanwhile, Sikh turbans and Muslim headscarves are a colorful reminder than religion remains very important to some of us. The problem is that these are religious beliefs that many Canadians know little about.
Muslims are a particular target of suspicion, with authors like Mark Steynbroadcasting hysterical accusations of a conspiracy to Islamize western countries. Yet Muslim Canadians have as much reason to value secularism as the rest of us. The distortions of politically empowered religion are often why they choose to emigrate from countries like Iran and Pakistan. Sudanese-American scholar Abdullahi An-Na’im asserts that a secular state is essential so that Muslims can practice their faith out of conviction rather than coercion.
Canada differs sharply from its Britain and Europe at large in that, according to a 2010 Globe and Mail poll, 80 per cent of us continue to believe in God. The challenge of living in a pluralistic society is whether we can accommodate the different ways that people believe, and the freedom not to. Neither a militantly atheist state nor one which privileges one religion over others can meet the challenge of protecting religious freedom. Secularism is the best tool we have.
Troy Media columnist Eva Sajoo is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. She has a graduate degree in International Development and Education from the University of London. Her published academic writing focuses on the rights of women and minorities. She has contributed widely to publications on Islam and the Muslim world. Eva has taught at the University of British Columbia, and the Beijing University of Science and Technology. She currently teaches at SFU. Website:http://www.ccsmsc.sfu.ca/about_us/faculty/eva_sajoo. Follow Eva on Twitter@esajoo.