Blog 125: The Inappropriate Modesty of Quebec Secularists

David Rand


In the fall of 2016, the Liberal Party of Quebec government held parliamentary hearings in Quebec City to study Draft Bill 62 (Session 41) which ostensibly affirmed State religious neutrality but was extremely weak—although too much for antisecularists who rejected it for its occasional ban on face-coverings. Far more interesting than this insipid Bill itself were some of the briefs submitted to the hearings recommending that the Bill be withdrawn.

The brief of Maître François Côté, a doctoral student in law at the Université de Sherbrooke, included a noteworthy exposition of the distinction between (1) “secularism” in the British common law tradition, as found in Great-Britain, the United States, English Canada, etc.; and (2) “laïcité” in the civilist continental European culture, as practised in France, Germany, Belgium, etc. as well as in Quebec.

As Maître Côté explains, the “secularism” tradition assumes that an individual’s religious affiliation is an absolutely intrinsic characteristic, as essential as his/her physical characteristics. The individual is thus totally at the mercy of his/her religion, devoid of free will in both belief and practice, and it is therefore unthinkable to ask that individual to distinguish between deeply held religious beliefs and the practice of exercising these beliefs.

On the other hand, according to the culture of “laïcité” religious belief is a matter of conviction, adherence to a set of values and beliefs, of the same nature as political convictions, a matter of reason and choice. And just as with political convictions, the individual may renounce or adopt a religion, or change religions. Thus, religious belief is not an intrinsic defining characteristic of the individual. It is therefore eminently possible to distinguish religious beliefs from religious practices. Although it is considered illegitimate for the State to interfere in the domain of beliefs, it is nevertheless reasonable to ask an individual to exercise his/her free will in order to balance religious practices with respect for the rules of life in society.

These depictions by Maître Côté are remarkable in that he anticipated with great accuracy the 20th April 2021 decision of judge Marc-André Blanchard, in the court challenge to Quebec Bill 21, in which the judge’s approach is totally in line with the British “secularism” tradition as described by Côté, a tradition which essentializes religious affiliation and places religious belief far above political convictions in importance.

After setting forth and discussing these two visions, Maître Côté then remarks that it would be fallacious to claim that one approach is objectively better than the other and that these two intellectual conceptions of religious neutrality are equally valid.

At the same hearings, the brief of the feminist organization PDF-Québec (Pour les droits de femmes du Québec) also noted the distinction between the “secularism” which prevails in English Canada and the republican “laïcité” favoured in Quebec and France. Then, in a similar manner to Maître Côté, the PDF-Q brief declares that there is no intention to designate one of the two models as better than the other.

As much as I agree with both briefs’ criticisms of the legislation in question (Bill 62) and with their observation of the difference between the two models of religion-State relations, I beg to differ with the conclusion that neither model should be considered superior to the other. Even a cursory consideration of Maître Côté’s description of the British model of “secularism” is sufficient to see that it is untenable. If religious affiliation is essentialized, held to be an intimate and inviolable characteristic of the individual, then freedom of conscience has been jettisoned! Both freedom of and from religion are completely lost. No. This is unacceptable. Such a program does not merit the label “secularism.”

Although the term “secularism” tends to be given a weaker meaning than the French word “laïcité”—the principle of religion-State separation given lesser importance in the English word—this difference must however not be exaggerated. The English term nevertheless includes the separation principle. Those in the English-speaking world who call themselves “secular” but oppose religious symbol bans are acting hypocritically. Cultural differences may explain this situation, but they do not excuse the hypocrisy. The intellectual effort required to understand full secularism is not enormous. For example, if the State allows police to wear religious symbols while on duty, then clearly the separation principle is violated. This is not difficult to understand.

The declarations by Maître Côté and PDF-Q that the two models are of equal value are evidently a form of modesty. False modesty perhaps, although it is difficult to judge in the absence of telepathic powers. They are also motivated, in all probability, by a fear of being accused of the very ethnocentrism—but in the opposite direction—which English Canadians practise constantly. Indeed, the Anglo-Canadian refusal to accept Quebec Bill 21 is an obvious expression of cultural imperialism, trying to impose their own values on Quebec.

Obviously laïcité is superior to secularism à l’anglaise. The religious essentialism implicit in the latter is sufficient to justify that judgment. In fact, it could be argued that Maître Côté himself is lapsing into cultural relativism by refusing to rank the two models, and indulging in essentialism when he implies that laïcité is right for Québec but perhaps not for English Canada!

The national interests of Quebec are eminently valid, but can be transcended. The secularism project pursued by Quebec secularists and nationalists (two categories which overlap significantly) is universalist. It is available to be adopted by any and all societies as a means to protect the citizenry from religious obscurantism by keeping religions from interfering in governments and States. A constant appeal to Quebec nationalism as a motivator for secularization masks the universalist aspect of that project, an aspect which is of capital importance.

Bigotry of Low Expectations

When Quebec secularists adopt an excessively tolerant attitude toward Anglo-Canadian pseudosecularists (who claim to support secularism but reject Bill 21), as if the latter were congenitally incapable of truly understanding secularism—complete secularism, i.e. republican secularism, including the separation principle—, then they are not only selling themselves short. Worse, they are treating Anglo-Canadians as inescapably inferior in some way. Quebec secularists are thus behaving towards Anglo-Canadians with the same bigotry of low expectations as Anglo-Canadian pseudosecularists display towards religious minorities whom they assume are too backwards or subnormal to behave in a civilized manner.

When pseudosecularists show complacency towards malignant practices such as wearing the niqab, by allowing it during citizenship ceremonies for example, or towards female genital mutilation, by refusing to use the word “barbaric” to describe it, for fear of causing offense, then they are treating those who practise such abuses as incapable of adapting to modernity, as if prisoners of the anachronistic religion in which they were raised. In a similar manner, Quebec secularists treat Anglo-Canadian pseudosecularists as incapable of learning, as if prisoners of the heritage of John Locke.

Unfortunately, Anglo-Canadian pseudosecularists have displayed precisely that incapacity to evolve and advance. They have displayed stubborn intransigence in refusing to learn about republican secularism. But if we continue to assume that Anglo-Canadians cannot evolve, then they never will. It will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the contrary, we must allow that progress is possible and resolutely criticize those who stand in its way. Otherwise, Anglo-Canadians pseudosecularists will continue to stagnate and the advancement of secularism throughout the English-speaking world, and indirectly throughout the entire world, will continue to be compromised.

Quebec secularists must stop presenting Lockean pseudosecularism and laïcité as two competing visions, as if of equal value, without taking sides. Neither should they assign each model to a different ethnic group.

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