The Parti Québécois (PQ), which was reduced to a pale shadow of its previous importance in the election of October 1st 2018, has being attempting recently to make itself relevant in the current debate about secularism by proposing that the Ethics and religious culture (ERC) program be abolished. Following the defeat of its minority government in April 2014, the PQ found itself already in the opposition, but since the October election it has only some ten seats left in the National Assembly. Between the two elections, the PQ equivocated on the issue of secularism. Its new interim leader Pascal Bérubé is finally showing some decisiveness by proposing abolition of ERC.
Whatever the party’s motives may be for proposing it, the abolition of ERC remains an excellent idea. Secular activists have been demanding the program’s removal ever since its beginnings in 2008 because its faults are numerous and deep. ERC presents stereotypical images of believers, images which correspond only to the most pious, even fundamentalists, among the faithful. It almost completely ignores atheists and other non-believers. It trivializes sexist practices, ignoring the harm they do. It does nothing to promote a critical approach to beliefs and presents them without reference to their historical and anthropological contexts. Basically, ERC constitutes a form of religious indoctrination and political propaganda as it presents not only a sugar-coated view of religions, but it also denigrates criticism of religious practices, alleging that such criticism is just intolerance, and it even takes a clear political position against any ban on religious symbols.
But the main reason for getting rid of ERC is the observation that secular schools have no business teaching religious content. Thus, in the context of the secularization of the Quebec State, this reason is fundamental. During the electoral campaign last September, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) committed itself to reforming ERC. More recently, Premier François Legault reiterated his desire to revise the program, but his government does not plan to abolish it.
Furthermore, in the context of secularism, ERC is a much more important issue that the notorious crucifix which hangs on the wall in the Salon bleu of the National Assembly. That crucifix must be removed, of course, because its presence is a blatant violation of State secularism. In addition, one might hope that getting rid of it would succeed in shutting up all those anti-secularists and pseudo-secularists who accuse the CAQ of hypocrisy for leaving the crucifix where it is—whereas these same critics hypocritically endorse the wearing of religious symbols by everyone everywhere, including by MNAs in that same Assembly. But such hope is baseless: knowing the dishonesty of the enemies of secularism, we can be certain that they will find some other pretext to revile any Quebec government which attempts to secularize the State; any imperfection whatsoever will suffice as an excuse for them to reject all proposals.
The possibility that the ERC program might be abolished is therefore very good news. By proposing abolition, the PQ prides itself on being more consistently secular than the CAQ. However, the same PQ supports the adoption of a so-called grandfather clause which would allow public servants hired before a ban on religious symbols becomes effective to be exempted from that ban—thus creating serious inequalities among personnel—whereas the CAQ has already expressed its opposition to such a clause. Obviously both parties have some flaws in their approach to secularism.
Therefore, why not an alliance between these two parties in an effort to advance secularism together? A simple agreement between them could correct two flaws: the CAQ should abandon its refusal to abolish ERC, while the PQ should drop its grandfather clause. This would have significant benefits for the Quebec population. Furthermore, these advances in secularization would be accomplished with the participation of more than just one political party. The process would thus be less partisan and more a matter of consensus, enhancing its credence and reinforcing its historical importance.
In the current political context, where the opponents of secularism are so vocal and so virulent, the current government must do whatever it can to consolidate its position. A recent study has thrown important light on this situation: an analysis of questions and responses on the subject of accommodations, undertaken by researchers at three universities (Montreal, Laval and Columbia) found that anti-religious sentiment among Québécois, and not racism, explains their opposition to religious accommodations. This conclusion is in no way surprising, as we have known for years that anti-secularists will not hesitate to shower the Québécois with false accusations that they are “racist” when in reality they are simply expressing a healthy mistrust of religions. And we can predict that these same anti-secularists will simply ignore the results of this study, but instead pursue their dishonest campaign of denigration, wilfully conflating race and religion with the goal of helping religions to maintain their privileges.
Determination and vigilance in the face of such unfair opposition continue to be essential.
As for us Atheist Freethinkers, we advocate complete State secularism, thus going well beyond the proposals of the CAQ and the PQ. We support a ban on religious symbols throughout the public service (including the legislative chamber, public schools and child care centres), whether such symbols appear on the physical installations (such as the crucifix in the legislature) or be worn by the personnel, with no exemptions based on seniority. We advocate abolition of the ERC program, an end to public grants to private schools (many of which are religious), the repeal of all fiscal privileges which benefit churches and other religious institutions, the rejection of any and all religious accommodations (including in animal slaughter), as well as the prohibition of any religious event (such as collective prayers) in State buildings. Finally, we ask that the secular nature of the Quebec State be inscribed in the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in order to protect everyone’s freedom of conscience (which must explicitly include freedom of non-belief and freedom of apostasy).