Setting the Record Straight
Jaque Parisien, 2013-10-25
Much ink has been spilled, many voices raised in anger or in mockery at those who support the proposed Charter of Quebec Values recently announced by Minister Bernard Drainville. Commentary and accusations have flooded national newspapers as well as radio talk shows and television shows. Squaring off against each other with daggers drawn, those for and against the proposed Charter appear unable to find common ground conducive to what I consider to be the logical culmination of a long process of secularization of Quebec society undertaken in the 60s. Meanwhile, the average Quebecer seems caught between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, the idea of putting an end to the presence of religion in public affairs seems to appeal to the majority; but on the other hand, the removal of religious symbols – and I do mean ALL religious symbols – seems incompatible with our naturally friendly and conciliatory temperament, our openness to the various communities which make up the Quebec of today. To complicate matters, the parties of the official opposition behave opportunistically, in an attempt to make political capital out of a controversial issue. Nevertheless, I would like to set the record straight concerning the alleged xenophobia of Quebecers, keeping in mind that the divide between the political left and right is not an appropriate way to describe opponents and proponents of the Charter, and that media coverage has been evidently biased since the beginning of this debate.
First, we must understand that “xenophobia” implies an all-out hostility against foreigners. In other words, it is a form of racism. Does that describe Quebecers? I am willing to concede that a minority, some educated and some not, but ignorant in either case, are of the opinion that white French-speaking Quebecers should constitute the kernel of modern Quebec and that all others, aliens from elsewhere, should think and act like them at all times and integrate completely with the model of Quebecois “de souche” even in the smallest details of private life. But racist idiots will always be around to pollute the atmosphere of political debate.
However I take great exception when such accusations are directed at most or even all Quebecers. On the contrary, I find Quebecers to be very welcoming and generous, so fundamentally kind that this kindness has become an object of ridicule in France for example. Having said that, how can we in all seriousness accuse Charter supporters of xenophobia when the fundamental goal is to defend the neutrality of the state against religious interference based on an outdated multiculturalism? It is an obvious and serious error, in the heat of the debate, to confuse the desire to eliminate religion from the public sphere with hatred of foreigners. The wearing of the veil or a choice of diet, hair style or headwear by religious believers in the private sphere are not at issue here. However in the public sphere, where such choices can impact others, it is a different story.
And what about atheists in all this? Those for whom all belief is an illusion, fairy tales. Those for whom religion’s claim to be the ultimate authority in all matters of morals and ethics is an insult to the intelligence, do they not have the right to be deeply offended and outraged when they are asked to tolerate numerous religious symbols and accessories displayed in inappropriate places? Should they too be accused of xenophobia? No matter how often we remind people that neutrality is necessary to guarantee both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, nothing seems to get through the thick skulls of the naïve and the useful idiots. I think that it is about time that nonbelievers denounced loudly and strongly the intolerance of believers and the servility of politicians when they stubbornly try to block the outcome of a process which appears to me to be eminently logical.
On another note, I have always sided with feminists and social justice, and I have always protested against the increasing poverty of part of the population, all in the name of zero-deficit or economic development. Economic growth at the expense of an effective system of universal health care, for example, or a fair and equitable social safety net, is an aberration. Am I left-wing or right-wing? I oppose the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols. I oppose the petty and destructive moralism which infects certain religious persons or politicians with saintly pretentions. I oppose the crucifix, the hijab or burqa, the turban or priestly robes in the public sphere. Am I left-wing or right-wing? The stereotype which certain media have attempted to impose on us, labelling those who support the Charter as conservatives and those opposing it as more to the left is unfathomably stupid and would be laughable were it not for the fact that such nonsense may distort public perceptions of the two camps. Whether you are an atheist, anti-theist, agnostic or, if you prefer, an unrepentant unbeliever who wants more than anything else to oust religion from the public sphere, does not imply that you are either on the left or the right. The same can be said of those who oppose the Charter or the ban on conspicuous religous symbols. Again, the inexcusable reductionism of some journalists is enough to make one shiver with spite when one realizes that many readers will be unknowingly mislead into believing such a simplistic dichotomy. To oppose monotheism and to wish for a world in which religion is confined to a place where it can be respected – in the private sphere – is neither a left-wing nor a right-wing idea. Rather, it is the goal of those who value reason and philosophy over faith and theology. If there is indeed a combat or a struggle or even a war here, it is not on an ideological plane, nor is it a conflict between good and evil; it is a struggle for emancipation against enslavement and submission.
Furthermore, how can we not notice, rightly or wrongly, an apparent censorship by the media in general? I can not stress enough the quantity and quality of various articles written by our association, articles which have been shunned, rejected or simply ignored by Quebec’s major media, with a few exceptions (for example L’aut’Journal). In talking to our members I have learned, for example, that many of us responded to an article by Mario Roy in La Presse, entitled “The Silence of Atheists.” We told him that, on the contrary, we were not so quiet, or at any rate that our alleged silence had nothing to do with any sort of reticence which might cause us to freeze up and fall silent, failing to express our unbelief on those occasions when the media did open their doors to us. On the other hand the same media roll out the red carpet for public figures whose views are considered by many to be the ultimate in media rhetoric. I confess a certain frustration and if I avoid launching into a diatribe against the media and journalists in general, it is because I must also confess to an incomplete knowledge of the editorial constraints of the mainstream media. Nevertheless, our association has every right to ask this sort of question, especially given that no explanation was forthcoming, no acknowledgement of receipt provided, not even a tiny mention of our efforts in a paragraph buried somewhere in the letters section or readers’ forum of mainstream media here.
At any rate, we will continue to support the Charter of Quebec Values, albeit with certain reservations, as expressed in a recent press release, and with several recommendations for improvement which we consider to be both logical and justifiable. We will continue to denounce the various monotheisms, beginning with Christianity whose harmful legacy remains a recent memory, although the final and definitive victory may not be within our grasp. We will similarly continue to denounce all fundamentalisms, whether Judaic or Islamic. We will continue working assiduously and with determination for the prohibition of conspicuous religious symbols in the public sphere just as we oppose prayer in municipal council meetings. We will remain vigilant in our efforts to weed out magical thinking, especially the religious variety, wherever it might attempt, sooner or later, to regain power using the false pretense of morality or benevolence. We are atheists and proud of it.