Blog 099: Using Turbans to Separate the Wheat from the Chaff

David Rand


Recently, the government of the province of Alberta allowed turban-wearing Sikhs to ride motorcycles without helmets, thus making a religious exception to the law requiring motorcyclists to wear protective headgear. After British Columbia and Manitoba, this is the third Canadian province to adopt such an exemption. Furthermore, in recent years Ontario also considered such a measure, proposed in fact by Jagmeet Singh who now leads the federal NDP, but fortunately it failed to pass. Unfortunately, the Ontario government is still under pressure to adopt the exception. Recall as well that the RCMP has a similar exemption for Sikh officers.

So why has the Alberta government granted this privilege to members of the Sikh religion? They claim that it is a matter of “freedom of religion,” which means that they give higher priority to religion—and in this case one particular religion—than to public safety. To this stated reason we can add the additional obvious reason: clientelism, i.e. scoring votes by adopting a measure which appeals to a particular community, in this case Sikhs who rigorously practise their religion. This is an explanation, not a justification. It means that, in addition to compromising public safety, the Alberta government is behaving in an opportunistic manner.

From a secular perspective, this measure is completely unacceptable. It is a religious privilege granted by the state and thus a violation of secularism. It is a no-brainer. Secularists must oppose this religious exemption in all three provinces and in the RCMP, and must support the Ontario government in resisting such a measure.

The definition of secularism is clear: there must be separation between religions and state. That means that the state grants no religious privileges to persons based on their religious affiliation. It treats all citizens equally. If a helmet is required when riding a motorcycle, then it is required of everyone, regardless of their religion. Only accommodations based on real, objective differences (e.g. head size and shape) are legitimate. Religious accommodations are not acceptable.

In a previous blog, where I discussed the anti-secular position recently adopted by one Canadian humanist organization, I asked whether other humanist organizations in Canada will follow suit, or will they do the right thing and support secularism. The issue of the Sikh turban offers us a very simple way of answering this question. All we have to do is watch how humanists react to the Alberta decision.

Let us consider four possible responses (by those who claim to be secularist) to the religious privilege recently granted by Alberta:

(1) If you oppose this religious privilege allowed by Alberta, then you are a secularist, at least with regard to this one issue. Congratulations.

(2) If you express no opinion, then you are probably a fairweather secularist, i.e. someone who is ambivalent and sometimes supports secular measures, but only when they are easy and non-controversial. This issue is apparently too hot for you.

(3) If you support this religious privilege, than you are anti-secular, at least with respect to this one issue. Given that you claim to be a secularist, this means either that you are a hypocrite, or you do not even know what secularism is. Perhaps you are among those many people who claim to be secular but in fact support only religious neutrality, a much weaker concept which implies a multi-religious state, not a secular one.

(4) If, in addition to supporting Alberta’s new religious privilege, you also denigrate those of us in category (1) who oppose it, calling us “xenophobic” or, even worse, “racist” then, in addition to being anti-secular, you are toxic, because such defamatory language is a form a censorship, making fair debate of this issue very difficult. Charges of “racism” are very serious. How many times must it be repeated that a religion is not a race?

Note that the result of the toxic language of category (4) tends to increase greatly the number of persons in category (2), i.e. persons who might take a secular position if they were not bullied into silence by the fear of being slandered.

Finally, if you fall into an anti-secular category among those described above and you are annoyed by this, I remind you that I have given a simple, clear and reasonable definition of secularism. Just as I will not abandon my atheism just because it may offend some religious believers, I will not abandon my support for secularism just because it might annoy some people who have adopted a different, less reasonable, definition which allows religious privileges.

So let us watch and wait to see how various organizations will react to the Alberta decision.

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