If Canadians paid any attention to the media over the last
week — for instance, regarding whether the G8 “maternal and infant health
initiative” should include abortion, or The Current’s and The National’s
programs on CBC that focused on Marci McDonald’s new book, The Armageddon
Factor, that raises alarm about the rise in political power and influence of
the “Canadian religious right” — you’ll find this secularist truism
espoused both front, centre and behind the scenes: Religion and religious
voices and views have no valid role to play in the public square. Indeed, many
secularists are openly hostile to any such participation. But are they correct?
To respond, we need to examine the arguments for and
against their participation.
First, the nature of the issues being debated is relevant.
Recently they have included euthanasia, abortion, new reproductive
technologies, sex education of children, access to health care, being soft/hard
on crime and drugs, medical marijuana, safe injection sites, business ethics,
corruption, environmental ethics, aid to developing countries, and so on.
These issues involve some of our most important individual
and collective social-ethical-legal values. Many of them are connected with
respect for life, and with birth or death, the two events around which we have
always formed our most important values. These values, together with our
principles, attitudes, beliefs, myths and so on, make up the societal-cultural
paradigm on which our society is based — that is, the “shared story”
that we tell each other and buy into in order to form the glue that binds us as
So, in a “secular society” such as Canada, does
religion have any valid role to play in determining what these values should
be? That depends on what we mean by a secular society. Secularists argue it
means that religion has no valid role to play in forming our shared values and
has no place in the public square. I believe they’re wrong, but it’s true
religion cannot function in the public square in the same way as in the past.
We form society through a journey of the collective human
imagination. In the past, societies used a shared religion to find their
collective imagination and bind themselves together. That’s no longer possible,
but can a purely secular approach replace this function of religion?
Religious studies scholars Paul Nathanson and Katherine
Young have examined what they call “secular religions.” For instance,
humanism and atheism function as secular religions binding their adherents
through common belief and ideology. Science also functions as a secular
religion when it becomes scientism.
The same is true of ethics when it becomes moralism.
As well, sport can become sportism, especially when
combined with another powerful “ism,” nationalism — “Go Habs Go!”
And environmentalism is at least a secondary religion for more and more people
— but even that has its disbelievers and critics. In short, we are witnessing
the emergence of a very large number and range of secular religions.
None of these “isms” is harmful in itself, but
they are harmful to finding shared values and ethics when they are promoted —
as, for instance, scientist Richard Dawkins does with scientism — to deny any
space for spirituality and traditional religion in the public square and
replace those with secularism, the most encompassing secular religion that
functions as a basket holding all the others.
In other words, I’m arguing that it’s a mistake to accept
that secularism is neutral, as its advocates claim. Rather, it too is a belief
system used to bind people together. And if, despite being a belief system,
secularism is not excluded from the public square, then religious voices should
not be excluded on that basis. The mistake is in taking a disjunctive (either
secularism or religion) approach to a situation that requires a conjunctive
(both secularism and religion) approach.
We need all voices to be heard in the democratic public
square and they have a right to be heard.
The basic principles on which democracy is founded are
liberty and equality. To privilege secularism, as its advocates argue should be
done, is to contravene the liberty and equality principles of democracy and to
prevent democracy functioning as it should — in short, it’s profoundly
A frequent argument used by secularists to justify
excluding religious voices from the public square is that secular democratic
societies require a separation of church and state. That’s correct, but the
question is: What does respecting that separation require?
First, it means the state, and its laws and public and
social policy, are not based directly on religious beliefs and laws as, for
example, in Islamic societies such as Iran. There is no “religious litmus
test” that must be passed for a law or social policy to be valid.
The doctrine is meant to protect the state from being
controlled or wrongfully interfered with by a religion or religions, and to
protect religions, within their valid sphere of operation, from state
interference or control. For instance, the Chinese government’s interference in
the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops in that country contravenes the
doctrine of separation of church and state. The doctrine has division of powers
or demarcation of jurisdictions functions.
Those using “separation of church and state” to
justify excluding religion from the public square have created confusion among:
freedom of religion; freedom for religion; and freedom from religion.
Freedom of religion: The state does not impose a religion
on its citizens and there is no state religion. Freedom for religion: The state
does not restrict the free practice of religion by its citizens. Freedom from
religion: The state excludes religion and religious voices from the public
square, in particular, in relation to law and public policy making. The first
two freedoms are valid expressions of the doctrine. The third is not.
This mistaken interpretation of the doctrine of
“separation of church and state” has been used by secularists in
order to win a victory for their values in the culture wars by eliminating
consideration of the values of their opponents on the basis they’re religiously
based. But for many people, their moral reasoning is connected with their
religious beliefs. To exclude them and their moral views from the public
square, because of the source of their beliefs, would be to disenfranchise
In Chamberlain vs. Surrey School District No. 36, Justice
Kenneth Mackenzie, writing for a unanimous Court of Appeal for British Columbia
interpreting what “strictly secular” in the British Columbia School
Act meant, made a “distinction between religion and morality.” He
“religion and morality are
not synonymous terms. … (M)oral positions (whether secularly or religiously
based) taken as positions of conscience are entitled to full participation in
the dialogue in the public square where moral questions are answered as a
matter of law and social policy. … There is no bright line between a
religious and a non-religious conscience. … Moral positions must be accorded
equal access to the public square without regard to religious influence. A
religiously informed conscience should not be accorded any privilege, but
neither should it be placed under a disability. … The meaning of strictly
secular is thus pluralist or inclusive in its widest sense.”
Religion brings to bear important considerations that
secularism doesn’t, and vice versa. We need to hear both sides and give proper
weight to each, if we are to make wise decisions about the values that should
take priority, when values are in conflict.
I suggest that the most important task of the religious
voices in the public square is to help to place and keep social-ethical-values
issues in a moral context. Religion should be seen as an important holder of
our “collective moral memory,” a memory we lose or ignore at our
peril. We need to revalue religion, even if we are not people of faith, to see
it as a store of traditional knowledge and wisdom.
We need also to extend the scope of our analyses of
contemporary social-ethical-values issues beyond an intense present to consider
the needs and rights of future generations. And we must “hold on
trust” for them, not just our physical ecosystem, but also our
metaphysical one — the values, principles, beliefs, stories and so on that
create and represent the “human spirit,” that which makes us human.
Religious voices can help us to do that.
Values conflicts cannot be solved by excluding religious
voices from the public square. On the contrary, doing so is likely to
exacerbate those conflicts.
Margaret Somerville is
director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, and
author of The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit.