AFT Blog # 09: Quebec’s ERC Programme

Seven Good Reasons to Oppose Quebec’s Ethics and Religious Culture Programme

Daniel Baril

Daniel Baril has been a major participant and frequent leader in the secularist and humanist movements for decades, and is a signatory of the Atheist Manifesto, statement of principles of Atheist Freethinkers.

According to the Supreme Court of Canada, Quebec’s Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) course does not threaten freedom of religion and the State has no obligation to implement a procedure which would allow exemptions from the course. But that does not mean that the debate is over. Even if the Catholic parents have lost their appeal, there remain several good reasons for questioning the legitimacy of ERC.

1. ERC was not a response to a request from any religious community – whether Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh or First Nations. The obvious question therefore is: Why was this programme conceived in the first place? The answer is simple: it is a compromise designed to keep religious instruction in schools. Since such instruction could not be limited to just Catholicism and Protestantism, other religious beliefs were added. ERC is thus a relic of the religious school system in an ostensibly secular system.

2. The so-called cultural approach to religions is a sham, even intellectually dishonest. The analysis put forward by the promoters of ERC is remarkably theoretical and impractical. They seem to think that the mere fact of declaring that the programme’s approach is cultural constitutes a description of what the pupil will in fact garner from it. But the teaching methodology is invisible to the pupil, who will be unable to distinguish between “Jesus was resurrected at Easter” as was taught in the previous religion course and “Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected at Easter” as in the new ERC course.

When teaching children aged 6 to 12 about religious beliefs such as the Wise Men, the Flood, Nanabojo, Glouskap, the “revelation” of Mohammed, the Annunciation, the birth of Buddha, David and Goliath, etc., how can one possibly do so “culturally”? All of these stories – completely mythical but told as if historical facts – are in the programme.

How is it possible, as the programme requires, to encourage the child to discuss “culturally” religious practices such as first communion, Mass, confirmation, Friday prayers, the Sabbath, contemplation, and other elements of faith included in the what is considered “religious culture”?

Some defenders of the previous religious curriculum told us then that it was not really religious but rather “anthropological.” If that were the case, and if this new curriculum is “cultural,” then what is the difference between the two? The difference is that the curriculum has become multi-faith.

3. The ERC programme does not promote critical examination of the allegations of religions. Although its authors have written in the programme that it must lead pupils to learn and think for themselves, and that it encourages the development of a critical sense, one can find no suggested activity compatible with such goals. The authors have furthermore added that, in order not to influence pupils unduly as they develop their personal point of view, the teacher must abstain from giving his or her opinion. How can it be possible to encourage critical thinking if it is forbidden for the teacher to influence the pupil? Such inconsistencies in the programme’s pedagogical foundations reveal the degree of confusion of those who conceived it. In any case, how can we expect to develop critical thought when confronted with beliefs which are based on faith rather than reason?

If it is a critical sense which must be encouraged, an appropriate means to that end would be a philosophy course adapted for children and not the presentation of a long list of mythologies from humanity’s history. The glorification of religious thought can only bring the child to think that religion is a necessity of life and that you had better go get one if you don’t have one already! ERC thus creates fertile ground for inciting children to believe that stones may have souls, that the spirits of the dead can cause a table to move or that intelligent design is a science.

4. Contrary to what was promised and to what some of ERC’s partisans led us to expect, atheism, humanism and the scientific worldview are completely absent from the programme. A wide variety of creationist accounts are covered: the Genesis story, the Amerindian turtle, the AUM, yin and yang, but not the scientific vision of the universe’s origin. Atheism is mentioned in only one sentence in secondary level 4 of the programme.

5. As the title Ethics and Religious Culture indicates, the “religious culture” aspect is nested within that of ethics, which is a philosophical aberration. The child thus learns to develop his or her ethical sense and moral judgement in the context of “religious culture,” as if morality were possible only through religion, as if religions in and of themselves led to ethical behaviour. Even the Proulx report (1999) which first proposed the cultural approach to religion did not promote such an unacceptable admixture.

Furthermore, supporters of ERC use ethical arguments to justify the programme’s religious culture aspect. If they really want to promote “the recognition of others” and “the pursuit of the common good” then it is through ethics that citizenship skills can be developed, and these skills can be much better promoted within a humanist framework than in the contradictory and conflict-ridden world of religions.

6. This course takes up too much time in a heavily loaded school curriculum. ERC is compulsory at all primary levels and at all secondary levels as well, except for secondary 3. If the purpose is to deliver information about religions, why repeat it every year? Such information could be very well integrated into courses in history, a discipline which is underrepresented in the current curriculum; or it could be made an optional course in secondary levels 4 or 5.

7. According to the proponents of the course and also according to the Supreme Court judgement, ERC does not promote relativism. That is unfortunate, because that would be its principal merit. Indeed, relativism permits the student to recognize that absolute religious truths are, in fact, rather relative.

In summary, the principal objectives of the ERC programme could be very well achieved without a course specifically dedicated to religious culture.

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