A new law in Quebec prohibits wearing religious symbols or vestments for some government employees. CNS photo/Philippe Vaillancourt, Presence

John Milloy: Secularism can be a positive force

By  John Milloy
  • September 7, 2019

Is secularism good or bad?  

Canadians of faith are struggling with that question these days.  Our increasingly secularized world seems intent on removing religion from public life.  

Case in point is the Quebec government’s recent ban on certain provincial government employees wearing religious symbols — Bill 21. In an effort to reinforce the notion of the separation of church and state, the new law forbids public officials in positions of authority, including teachers, police or judges, from wearing such apparel as hijabs, turbans or crucifixes.  

 According to recent public opinion polls, the move is popular in Quebec and over 40 per cent of Canadians outside of the province agree with the legislation. 

 What’s a person of faith to do?  Have the lines been drawn in a fight that we seem destined to lose? 

 First, the bad news.  Roman Catholics should be concerned about popular support for Bill 21. Not only is it an attack upon religious freedom but lurking behind it is an unacceptable anti-Muslim sentiment.  

 Now, the good news. There is nothing wrong with secularism. 

 The idea that the state should not favour a particular faith tradition is a good thing. Secularism recognizes the right of each of us to determine the meaning and purpose of our lives without interference from the government.   

But be careful, secularism can mean different things to different people.  

For some, secularism is about eradicating religion from the public square entirely. Some take it further, to the point of extreme secularism. They argue that religion is out of touch, misogynistic and homophobic, and believers need to be liberated from their backward ways. Although not the stated goal of Bill 21, many supporters have portrayed it as a way for people of faith to get with the times and throw off the shackles of their faith tradition. 

And let’s be honest. Quebec’s Muslims, particularly Muslim women who choose to wear hijabs, have been one of the targets of the bill. A poll conducted by the Quebec-based Association for Canadian Studies found that behind support for Bill 21 in Quebec was “a negative sentiment towards Islam, Muslims and hijabs.” 

It doesn’t have to be this way.   

Secularism can be positive. Yes, the state must be neutral and not favour one group over another. But in that spirit, it can be welcoming of all viewpoints and perspectives and see the value that people of faith bring to respectful dialogue.   

Remember, it is people of faith who are often the ones standing up for the poor and vulnerable, defending creation and even challenging what passes as conventional wisdom in a world that at times seems lost.  

This doesn’t mean that the faith perspective deserves special treatment because it claims a connection with God.  No, like everyone else, people of faith need to state their case in a persuasive manner.  

Roman Catholics should want to see this vision of secularism flourish in Canada.  Bill 21 represents an opposing vision that weakens our nation. Every voice deserves to be heard and we are only robbing ourselves when we relegate groups to the sidelines.  This is particularly true of Canada’s growing Muslim community which needs to be welcomed to the conversation.  

Let’s promote a positive view of secularism both within and outside of the Church. Let’s put our words into action by building bridges with other faith communities, including our Muslim neighbours.  

And with a federal election coming, let’s challenge our candidates to respond to Bill 21.  

I hope that Bill 21 is an aberration and there is a chance that it may be thrown out by the courts. But remember, governments are a reflection of the society they govern. We all need to work to build a Canada that sees the value of welcoming all voices to the table — including religious ones.  

(Milloy is the director of the Centre for Public Ethics and Assistant Professor of Public Ethics at Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, Ont.)  

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