Blog 078: Draft Bill 62 grants privileges to religions, thus defying religious neutrality

The following is an English translation of the transcript of our verbal presentation, on November 8th 2016, before hearings of the Committee on Institutions at the National Assembly in Quebec City. The hearings were to study Draft Bill 62. You may also consult our brief (in French) concerning the Bill, as well as the text of the Bill itself, entitled An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for religious accommodation requests in certain bodies.

2016-11-08

If the video above does not display correctly, you may also view it on the web site of the National Assembly.
The video is in French. It consists of AFT’s presentation (10 minutes) transcribed on this page, followed by a question-and-answer period of about a half-hour.

Mister Chairman, Madame Minister and members of the National Assembly,

We thank you for the opportunity to present our views on Draft Bill 62.

Allow me to introduce myself: David Rand, president of Atheist Freethinkers, an organization which defends the rights of atheists and promotes philosophical materialism, critical thought and secularism. I am accompanied by my colleagues Pierre Thibault and Pierre-André Renaud, both members of the Board of Directors of our organization.

You have undoubtedly consulted our brief. We, Atheist Freethinkers, oppose adoption of Draft Bill 62 because it deals with religious neutrality of the state only in a very limited sense, i.e. in the sense of giving equal privileges to all religions. We, on the other hand, support state secularism (laïcité) which implies that the state must neither grant privileges to, nor favour, any religion. In fact, Draft Bill 62 does not even succeed in reaching its alleged goal of neutrality. We therefore ask that the government withdraw the Bill.

Before setting forth in more detail our objections to this proposed legislation, we would like to explain briefly how we approach religions, as well as the attitude which the state should, in our opinion, adopt towards the phenomenon of religion.

We are atheists. Our philosophy is materialist. We therefore reject any and all belief in supernatural agents or phenomena such as gods, godesses, demons and so forth. We consider such beliefs to be not only false, but indeed harmful, because they distract believers from reality. Even worse, the various monotheisms dangerously pervert human morality, that moral sense which is our common heritage, a product of our biological and cultural evolution as a social species, instead attributing that moral sense to a hypothetical and tyrannical parental authority in the heavens. Spokespersons for these monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity and Islam, naming them in historical order—claim to be experts in matters of morality, but they are charlatans, because their so-called expertise is completely null and baseless.

We are therefore opposed to any and all accommodations on religious grounds in public services, just as we would oppose such accommodations for, say, astrological reasons. If a request for accommodation is not based on real, objective grounds—such as physical handicap or considerations of hygiene or health—then the request must be refused.

It is our opinion that religion is a private affair. Ostentatious displays of religious affiliation may be tolerated in public, but only outside public institutions. We therefore oppose religious symbols in the public service, whether they be displayed on physical structures—such as the crucifix in the blue chamber of the National Assembly—or worn by public servants while on duty.

We support secularism as a means to protect everyone’s freedom of conscience, including both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Religions are at their most dangerous when they insinuate themselves into the affairs of state and thus acquire some political power. Adherents of a religion display and wear symbols of their religion for the same reason that commercial interests engage in advertising: to promote awareness of their product and to sell that product, i.e. to increase the number of customers or adherents. Such proselytism, that is to say, propaganda, is unacceptable for employees of the state.

Furthermore, we consider that religion is a matter for adults. We oppose the religious indoctrination of children.

Atheists constitute an important minority whose numbers are continually increasing. Those who have no religion, that is, atheists, other non-believers and those without religious affiliation, constitute an even larger minority, indeed the largest minority in terms of religion. And yet, we are discriminated against by all measures which grant privileges to religions, in particular by allowing the wearing of religious symbols and by granting religious accommodations. One rarely sees atheists ostentatiously displaying, by their choice of clothing for example, their opinion of religions when working as employees of the state. They consider their non-belief to be a private matter and willingly accept a duty of restraint and discretion. We demand that religious believers behave with similar restraint and we ask that the state adopt legislation to that end.

Moreover, atheists find themselves the target of a prejudice, atheophobia, which is thousands of years old, according to which atheists are devoid of morals, a superstition based on the pretension of the various theisms to hold a monopoly on morality. The “religious culture” part of the Ethics and Religious Culture program is an example of implicit atheophobia, because the program almost completely neglects non-believers and even non-practising believers, as if ethics were impossible without religion.

Of the three monotheistic religions, Islam merits particular attention because a highly politicized and extremely virulent variant of it, Islamism, is currently raging and wreaking havoc. The damages it inflicts are not only physical. Islamist ideology is also very destructive at the level of ideas and symbols, as it has a very negative influence on freedom of expression and on political debates. Islamism is currently conducting a campaign of proselytism and identity-promotion on a global scale; its goal is to impose its values and, in order to do so, one of its tools of choice is the Islamist veil in all its various forms. The full veil in particular constitutes a degradation of women, which is precisely one of the values thus propagated. Another of its favourite tools is the use of specious accusations of Islamophobia with the purpose of censoring any criticism of Islam or of its totalitarian cousin, Islamism.

Now, faced with these challenges, Draft Bill 62 is not only ineffectual, in fact it is even worse than useless because it opens the state to religious interference. It does not define “State religious neutrality.” It mentions neither separation between state and religion nor secularism. The view presented by the Bill is more akin to multiconfessionalism than to neutrality.

The religious symbols permitted by the Bill represent a manifestation of religious affiliation and a form of proselytism which are just as harmful as the display of partisan political opinions. In addition, Draft Bill 62 allows accommodations, that is, privileges based on religious affiliation, privileges granted to certain believers to the detriment of atheists, other non-believers and more modernist or non-practising believers. This situation runs directly counter to religious neutrality.

Draft Bill 62 institutionalizes religious privileges by explaining how to make exceptions to the rules it stipulates, rules which are already weak (and limited to little more than a ban on face-coverings). But such privileges and accommodations cannot be justified without drawing a false equivalence between religious practices and objective obligations. In fact, a religious practice, such as wearing an identity-promoting article of clothing at all times, is never a real obligation. On the contrary, if the believer adopts the practice voluntarily, then it is a choice freely made, while if the believer is forced to adopt it, then it is a violation of his or her freedom of conscience, a result of excessive pressure exerted by certain elements in the believer’s family or community, elements with a fundamentalist tendency.

Therefore, to permit the practice only validates the violation of the believer’s freedom. If, on the other hand, the practice is forbidden in the public service, the result is the creation of a free space, a secular space, a space where that undue pressure is inoperative. As for those believers who freely chose the practice, their liberty of religion is in no way compromised because they remain free to practice their religion outside the workplace.

Draft Bill 62 is situated well beneath the level of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission which at least recommended the banning of religious symbols worn by agents of the state in positions of authority. Even worse, it neglects the all-important environment of schools and childcare services. Given that children are particularly vulnerable to the messages which clothing and symbols may transmit, a failure to consider their implications in this milieu is nothing short of negligence.

In conclusion, Draft Bill 62 is completely inadequate. Such poorly conceived legislation is worse than no legislation at all, as this law would establish religious privileges and severely threaten the very religious neutrality which it falsely claims to promote.

In our brief, we identify various measures which we consider necessary in order to continue the process of secularization of Quebec, a process which has now been underway for half a century. However, the effect of Draft Bill 62 would be to impede that evolution brutally. The immediate priority, therefore, is to withdraw the Bill.

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