Publication Date: 2023-01-23
The following is the talk given by David Rand, author of the book Stillbirth, The Failure of Secularism in the English-Speaking World at the launch event held at Le Port de tête bookstore, in Montreal, on 18th January 2023.
Video: Jean-Paul Lahaie
Presenter: Michel Caron
Following the Quebec government’s adoption of Bill 21, officially entitled An Act respecting the laicity of the State, the controversy surrounding this bill raged on in Quebec media. But in Canada outside Quebec, there was little or no such controversy. The overwhelming majority of Canadian media agreed that Bill 21 was, in their view, a horrible attack on fundamental freedoms and proof of a serious aberration, an extreme xenophobia, affecting Quebec and those who support the law.
Meanwhile, among the various Anglo-Canadian humanist or atheist associations that declare themselves “secular,” there was none that supported Bill 21. Worse still, at least three of these associations explicitly oppose it and at least one has declared its intention to intervene before the Supreme Court of Canada against the bill if the court challenge reaches it, which is highly likely.
Yet Bill 21 is an important, albeit modest, step towards secularism. Anyone who opposes it is taking a position which is outright anti-secular. Indeed, let us define secularism by the four principles: (1) protection of freedom of conscience; (2) equality of citizens, both women and men; (3) State religious neutrality and (4) separation between religions and State. It is obvious that a State official in a position of authority who wears a religious symbol—as prohibited by the Bill 21—violates at least the separation principle. If, for example, a police officer or a judge wears a hijab or a visible crucifix while doing his or her job, there is obviously a lack of separation. Furthermore, allowing these symbols to be worn also violates the other three principles as well.
Some who tend to agree with what I have just said may still find that I am going too far if I apply this judgment to Anglophones who have learned a different definition of secularism—i.e. Lockean secularism instead of republican secularism. Such critics might protest that, for Anglophones, religion is part of the intimate identity of the person and, therefore, one cannot ask the believer who wears such an identity symbol to remove it to go to work. Are Anglophones congenitally incapable of understanding that a religious belief is not qualitatively different from a political opinion or a non-religious philosophical conviction?
Now, I am well aware of the distinction between the two models: Lockean secularism—which I would call pseudosecularism—in the English-speaking world and republican secularism in the French-speaking world. This pseudosecularism purports to protect freedom of religion, but often neglects the separation principle. Republican secularism, on the other hand, protects freedom of conscience which includes both freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
Despite the differences between the two models, the concept of religion-State separation is very well known in English, especially given that Thomas Jefferson famously promoted it, even if it is rarely fully respected in practice. Furthermore, freedom from religion is a well-known concept in English as well. One of the most important American secular organizations is called the “Freedom From Religion Foundation.”
Finally, if I am able to understand republican secularism, other Anglophones can also make a small effort in this direction. The difference between the two models may explain the enormous delay of English-speaking Canadians in terms of secularism, but it does not justify it. It is not enough to understand the difference between the two models. We must educate the public to understand the necessity and the advantages of republican secularism.
Here, I am using Bill 21 as a sort of litmus test of support for secularism. This law, despite its modesty, is so avant-garde in the North American context, and the reaction of anti-secularists to it is so dishonest, fanatical and hysterical, that a position for or against this Bill 21 constitutes a decisive criterion. However, it is not the only issue that matters, of course. Secularists (or pseudo-secularists) in Canada face other important challenges. Some examples:
- Parliamentary Motion M-103 condemns so-called “Islamophobia” and associates it with “racism.” The loaded term “Islamophobia” poses several problems: (1) a phobia is an irrational fear, but there is nothing irrational about fearing a religion; (2) the term conflates an ideology (Islam) and a set of people (Muslims); and finally (3) the term conflates religious affiliation and racial identity. Secular organizations have a duty to oppose Motion M-103.
- We must also recognize the constitutional weakness of secularism in the United States. The constitution of that country respects neither the separation principle nor the concept of freedom from religion. One only has to read the First Amendment to see that. It merely forbids the establishment of a State religion and protects only freedom of religion, not freedom from.
- In addition, we must recognize the highly political nature of religious symbols, especially the Islamic veil. To consider them mere clothing, or wearing them to be a purely personal choice, is wanton ignorance. A religious symbol has an objective ideological meaning, independent of the mentality of the person wearing it.
- It must be noted furthermore that Islamists exploit the so-called “antiracist” movement in order to fight against secularism. This is mostly done by promoting confusion between “race” and religion. We see this in the specious association of “Islamophobia” with “racism.”
- Finally, it must be recognized that anti-Quebecois prejudice is an important aspect of opposition to secularism in English Canada. This prejudice is exploited by the opponents of Bill 21 in order to demonize the law, while denigrating the majority of Quebecers who support it.
Now, on each of these crucial issues, to the best of my knowledge, so-called “secular” organizations in English Canada have either been silent or else they have rallied to an anti-secular position. They have failed miserably. Two examples: A so-called “secular” organization in Toronto, on its web page dealing with Bill 21, suggests in all seriousness that the law is “racist” and an expression of “cultural Christianity.” Another organization in British Columbia says Bill 21 would harm “people of colour.” Thus, these two organizations essentialize religious affiliation and neglect freedom of conscience, because if we conflate race and religion, then the latter becomes immutable.
And yet, less than a decade ago, when the Parti Québécois government proposed its Charter of Secularism in 2013 (and was defeated in 2014), three such organizations, including Humanist Canada, took a position sympathetic to the Charter. What has changed since? Why is there currently a total lack of support from Anglo-Canadian organizations?
The explanation is rather obvious: for several years, a movement commonly referred to as “wokism” has gained a lot of influence in the media, among politicians, as well as in a large number of activist organizations, including ostensible “secularists.” But we need a better definition of this phenomenon, the term “wokism” being far too vague. It is a movement whose theoretical foundations include several tendencies, but two stand out: (1) postmodernism applied to political activism and (2) a sort of orphaned and lobotomized post-Marxism, resulting from the definitive end of the Soviet era.
I call this movement the anti-Enlightenment pseudo-left or, more succinctly, the post-left, as its essential characteristic is the rejection of the values of the Enlightenment, values which are at the origin of the very definition of the political left. Today, these values are widely accepted (or at least were, before the advent of the post-left). Even the moderate right adheres to them. Thus, adherents of the post-left, despite their claim to be on the left, are to the right of the moderate right on some issues.
The post-left is fundamentally anti-secular, for several reasons. Firstly, secularism—like modernity, objectivity, reason, and science—is a key product of the Enlightenment which the post-left rejects. Secondly, because of its postmodernist leanings, the post-left veers into cultural relativism, as if every tradition, even religious, had its own “truth” that cannot be criticized. Excluding religions from the State therefore becomes unacceptable for, by what right can one choose one “truth” over another? Especially given that this religious “truth” constitutes the believer’s intimate identity, which must be protected in the name of minority rights.
The damage done by the post-left is extensive and well known. Consider, for example, the censorship of the title Nègres blancs d’Amérique of the book by Pierre Vallières. Or the exclusion, from certain university positions, of candidates with an insufficient number of intersectional points. Or the cancellation of the play SLĀV. Or government grants to a certain Islamic (or perhaps I should say Islamist) association to promote the wearing of the hijab and fight against “Islamophobia.” The list is long.
Let me explain to you another example of the post-left’s very harmful influence. In November and December of 2020, I attended almost all of the sessions where several individuals and organizations challenged Bill 21 before Quebec Superior Court. Day after day, a theme emerged from the strategy of these opponents: post-left ideology. The argumentation against Bill 21 was an orgy of post-leftist dogma, with repeated use of themes such as racism, obsession with personal and minority identities, rhetoric of inversion (i.e. re-branding privileges as “rights”), the denigration of people of European descent and anti-Quebecois prejudice.
Several lawyers claimed that the purpose of Bill 21 was to promote not only discrimination against women and certain religious minorities but, even worse, to foment genocide of those minorities. And yet, Bill 21 excludes no-one and targets no identifiable group. Rather, it simply excludes certain behaviour—wearing religious symbols—from specific contexts. The adversaries of the law denied any suggestion that religious symbols might have any negative effect whatsoever on anyone else, even on schoolchildren, as if such symbols were completely innocuous and innocent in all contexts. They totally rejected any attempt to determine the objective meaning of such symbols—including the obviously misogynistic Islamic full veil such as the niqab—and recognized only the subjective meaning expressed by the wearer of the symbol.
One lawyer compared Bill 21 to the oath of allegiance to the British monarch which, prior to 1774, forced candidates for State employment to renounce the Catholic faith. However, Bill 21 does nothing of the sort, as it affects only religious expression, not belief, and only in the workplace.
Lawyers against Bill 21 tried repeatedly to draw an equivalence between religious minorities on one hand, and minorities of other types, such as racial minorities, gays, the disabled, and so on. The testimonies of several expert witnesses opposing the law were almost entirely dedicated to this false parallel, this confusion between the changeable and the inalterable. One expert admitted during his testimony that he makes no distinction—and does not even understand the distinction—between religious identity and other types of identity. The testimony of one expert dealt only with racial minorities, especially Afro-Americans, in the United States. One lawyer declared that all conclusions based on race can be applied to religious affiliation, thus evacuating the concept of freedom of conscience.
The prize for maximum wokitude goes to Maître Azim Hussain who compared the law to racist rules in the USA which required all blacks to sit at the back of the bus, and to the internment of Japanese-Canadians in concentration camps during World War II. He even made the outrageous comparison of Bill 21 with the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, as if Bill 21 could be genocidal. In his determination to discredit two experts who testified in support of Bill 21, Hussain referred to one as “an older white male heterosexual” and the other as “a white man.” Surely, in a court of law, such ad hominem impertinence should not be tolerated. Yet, in both cases, the judge did not intervene. Note that this same Hussain was appointed to the bench of Quebec Superior Court a year later.
In summary, the opponents of Bill 21 systematically sowed confusion by essentializing religious affiliation and ignoring freedom of conscience, thus completely disregarding a major aspect of secularism.
So what can be done in the face of such excesses, such folly? In my opinion, there are two main lines of action. Firstly, we must engage in public education in secularism, both in Quebec and in English Canada. The Rassemblement pour la laïcité (RPL), a coalition of Quebec secular groups, plans to produce a series of educational video capsules about secularism. As for promoting secularism in the Rest of Canada (ROC), the book Stillbirth is my modest contribution to such a project.
And secondly, we must counter the ravages of the post-left by attacking its philosophical underpinnings. That is, we must defend and promote Enlightenment values such as universalism, objectivity, reason, science, and secularism, while exposing cultural relativism and post-leftist dogmatism. In my opinion, the post-left constitutes a parareligion, while other observers consider it to be a religion even in the literal sense of that word. Either way, I fear that post-leftism, an ally of political Islam, may be overtaking both Christianity and Islam as the obscurantist religious movement that poses the most serious threat to secularism.