Blog 114: The Three Pillars of Antisecularism in Canada

David Rand


Antisecularism is the norm in Canada, especially outside Quebec. Currently the main rallying point of antisecularists is their monomaniacal opposition to Quebec’s secularism law, Bill 21. That opposition is founded on three basic pillars: (1) ignorance of secularism; (2) pro-religion prejudice; and (3) ethnic bigotry. Permit me to explain:

Ignorance of secularism

Opponents of Bill 21 do not even bother to learn what secularism is. Secularism is a programme for managing religion (and religious diversity if any), mainly in the civic sphere—that is, in civic institutions, State and government and the services they offer. Secularism has much less application to the public sphere (i.e. public spaces which are not civic) and even less to the private. Secularism is based on four main principles: (1) equality of citizens, including female/male equality; (2) freedom of conscience, including freedom of religion and freedom from religion; (3) State neutrality towards religions; and (4) separation between religions and State. These four principles are not independent of each other. In particular, if religion-State separation is missing, all are compromised.

There are a variety of implementations of secularism, but in Canada, there are two principal variants for the simple reason that English and French are Canada’s official languages. English-language countries have one model of secularism and French-language countries have a different one. In fact, these two variants are the most influential internationally, the English version because of the overwhelming dominance of the English language and Anglo-American culture globally, the French model because it is the most advanced.

The variant of secularism which dominates in English-language countries such as the UK, the USA and Canada outside Quebec is the Lockean model, i.e. following the ideas of John Locke, which essentially amounts to religious neutrality. The variant which dominates in France and in Quebec is the model known as laicité which I would translate into English as “republican secularism.”

The major difference between the two models is that the Lockean does not include the principle of separation between religion and State, whereas the republican model does include it explicitly. An iconic example of this discrepancy is the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which many people mistakenly assume declares separation between church and state, but in fact it does not. In reality, it merely delares religious neutrality, i.e. that there may be no State religion, but it does not disallow religious interference in State affairs as long as no one religion is favoured. (Another problem with the First Amendment is that it declares unfettered religious freedom, but not freedom from religion, thus favouring believers over non-believers.) The French republican model, on the other hand, does indeed explicitly include the concept of separation as can be seen from the preeminent French law of 1905 entitled “Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État.” (Furthermore, in the 1789 French declaration of rights, freedom of religious opinion is not absolute and may be limited by law.)

If, for example, police officers are allowed to wear obvious religious symbol while on duty, then there is obviously no separation between religion and State.

For a more complete discussion of the distinction between Lockean and republican secularism, consult the article “Religious Neutrality is Not Enough.”

Pro-religion prejudice

Opponents of Bill 21 claim repeatedly that the law violates the freedom of expression or religion of civil servants and teachers to whom the religious symbol ban applies. The use of the word “violates” is incorrect here. Opponents of Bill 21, just like the US Constitution’s First Amendment, take an abolutist view of freedom of religion and, even worse, they apply it only to the employee. Such an approach is a major error. Rights cannot be considered absolute in general, because one person’s rights end where another person’s rights begin. In reality, the Bill 21 only limits (not “violates”) that freedom in a reasonable way in order to protect the freedom of conscience of users of civil services and students in public schools.

Consider, for example, a classroom in which there are, say, twenty pupils and one teacher. If the teacher wants to wear a large crucifix or a hijab, then by all means they should have every right to do so while off the job. But when on the job teaching, such blatant religious advertising compromises their neutrality and constitutes passive proselytizing. Such advertising is an affront to the freedom of conscience of the pupil, regardless of the religion, if any, of their parents. The pupils have a right to an educational environment free of such partisan displays. The purpose of public schools is to teach children, not to provide employment for teachers. If their rights conflict, the pupils’ freedom of conscience should take precedence over the teacher’s, and furthermore the pupils are much more numerous. Nevertheless, the teacher maintains full freedom off the job.

Opponents of Bill 21 claim that only the walls need to be secular, not the employees, but they offer no justification for that claim. Religious symbols worn by an on-duty teacher or civil servant are just as influential as any symbol displayed on the building and, in fact, arguably more influential because the person wearing it interacts with others and is a centre of attention. This is especially true in schools, and especially when the ones paying attention are young children. One of our AFT members explains this situation very well:

It’s true that something displayed on a wall can “speak,” that is, send a “message.” But the same is true for any individual who decides to transform their person into a walking billboard advertisement for their ideology.

Viewing the State as the enemy is one-sided. It is not enough to protect the religious from interference by the State while neglecting the danger of interference in the other direction. The attitude of those who oppose any and all restrictions on religious symbols in public services is very similar to that of opponents of gun control, a radical aversion to any State control whatsoever, a sort of libertarianism on steroids. This mentality is rather similar to the paranoia of conspiracy theorists.

What if, instead, the State were viewed as a vehicle for promoting the public interest, with a duty to maximize simultaneously citizens’ freedom and security? If the State fails at that task, then it needs to be reformed by means of citizen participation. The principle of separation, so neglected in the English-speaking world (while paying lip service to it) is precisely a programme for protecting the State from religious interference. By emphasizing only freedom of religion for the few, opponents of Bill 21 undermine everyone’s freedom of conscience.

Ethnic bigotry

Finally, in the Canadian context, attitudes toward Quebec are a major factor in this debate. Anti-francophone prejudice has been a constant throughout the history of this country. Opposition to Quebec’s Bill 21 from the rest of Canada would be much less intense, less outrageous and less virulent were it not for that odious old prejudice. It is time to face the fact that opposition to Bill 21 is partially but strongly motivated by anti-Québécois racism. I have hesitated for a long time to use that term “racism” as it is so frequently and dishonestly misused by anti-secularists. But if the shoe fits…

In the final analysis, opponents of Bill 21 have no valid arguments to offer, nothing reasonable, nothing coherent. That is why they always fall back on slander, using gratuitous accusations of “xenophobia” and similar epithets. As for those ethnocentric Anglo-Canadians who make accusations of racism against Quebec and its secular legislation, they need to look in a mirror to see the true racists.


In conclusion, the three pillars of antisecularism in Canada can be summed up thusly:

  1. Ignorance of the main issue, secularism. In particular, ignorance of the crucial principle of separation between religions and State.
  2. Dishonesty about rights and freedoms, giving absolute freedom of religious expression to the few while undermining everyone’s freedom of conscience.
  3. Slander, vilifying Quebecers for choosing secularism, in particular the variant of secularism which is not only the model for the French-speaking world, but which furthermore is obviously superior to the Lockean model.

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